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Riverview grad a rising star in weightlifting

Riverview graduate Phil Sabatini has competed at an elite level of weightlifting for two years, making him a relative newcomer to the higher reaches of the sport.

Sabatini's coach, Leo Totten, said he's "still a baby" in weightlifting circles.

But in the past month, Sabatini has taken big strides and had a few adventures that matured him as a national and international competitor.

Sabatini, 27, won the USA Weightlifting Senior Nationals in the 94-kilogram class last weekend in Peoria, Ill.

Two weeks before, Sabatini finished fourth at the Pan American Championships in Guatemala, which was ravaged by a volcanic eruption and tropical storm during the competition.

Because Guatemala City's airport was closed, Sabatini and some teammates received a military escort to the neighboring country of El Salvador, where they boarded a return flight from Central America.

Sabatini's national title and strong showing in Guatemala are confirmation that his weightlifting career is on the rise.

"It helps to know all the hard work is starting to pay off," said Sabatini, who graduated from Riverview in 2001 and is strength coach for the football team at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.

"I have a feeling like I've arrived. This has been a big year for me. All the hard work, being mentally and emotionally and physically tired, pays off once you get through it."

At the national championships, Sabatini set a personal record for total kilograms lifted (snatch and clean-and-jerk lifts combined) with 331. He finished ahead of Justin Thacker of St. Louis, who totaled 308.

Sabatini represents East Coast Gold gym and receives guidance from Totten, a former Olympic Games team leader.

"He's really peaking not only from a physical standpoint but a mental standpoint," Totten said. "Two weeks before the Pan Am Championships, he hit a personal record for his clean-and-jerk total. Then, at the Pan Am championships, he set a personal record for total kilograms. Then, he wins his first national title with even more kilograms. That's very impressive."

Sabatini said he will remember his trip to Guatemala City for a long time.

While he was there, the Pacaya volcano erupted and rained ash on the capital city.

"The sky was dark," Sabatini said. "And I looked up at the street lights, and you could see the ash coming down like rain."

A few days later, Tropical Storm Agatha ripped through the region and left many areas without electricity and water.

Because Guatemala's international airport was closed, Sabatini had to stay in the country for several extra days. It was arranged for the Guatemala military to escort the U.S. team to the border, where it was met by the El Salvador military and taken to the capital city of San Salvador.

The 110-mile trip was made in an old, yellow school bus over rural dirt roads, and it took about seven hours, according to Sabatini.

"It makes you realize how fortunate we are," Sabatini said. "I can't imagine how the people who live there do it. No running water or electricity. We're really fortunate. We have luxuries like the Internet."

Sabatini hopes to qualify for the International Weightlifting Federation's world championships in September in Antalya, Turkey.

However, because of the qualifying system and Sabatini's relative newness to the sport, Totten believes he has a better chance to make the cut for the 2011 world championships in Paris.

Sabatini's long-range goal is to qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London.

"Making the Olympics is the ultimate goal of any athlete involved in any sport involved in the Olympics," Sabatini said. "It's always in the back of your mind."

Additional Information:

The Phil Sabatini file

High School: 2001 Riverview graduate

Hometown: Lexington, Va.

Sport: Weightlifting

Age: 27

Notable: Won a championship in the 94-kilogram weight class at the USA Weightlifting Senior National Championships last weekend in Peoria, Ill. ... Served as strength coach for the Virginia Military Institute football team since 2007. ... Played catcher and outfielder for the Ohio University baseball team and worked for two seasons in the Cubs organization.

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