MILLSBORO — Back home in Delaware after an adventure in California, Garrett Rogers is at it again, training for his next competition.
With national and world powerlifting records in hand, the 15-year-old Millsboro resident — who suffered a brain injury in 2016 — is not about to stop now. There are other mountains to climb.
“He’s got eyes on winning nationals, at 16-17, next year,” said Jim Palermo, Garrett’s stepfather and training partner. “There are some big events out there.”
On July 14, at the U.S. Powerlifting Association National Championships in Palm Springs, Garrett raised eyebrows, evoked emotion from family and friends, and drew congratulatory texts and tweets from powerlifting colleagues — including some of the most notable names in the sport.
On stage at the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel, Garrett became USPA’s national champion for the 13-15 age group in the 67.5-kg weight class. He also set a national-record squat at 364 pounds, a national record on bench of 205 pounds and a world-record dead lift with 475.1 pounds.
The national records are for 13-15 years old, while the world record is for ages 15-19 in the International Powerlifting League, the worldwide federation USPA feeds into.
“So he barely even makes the cut (for age), and he broke the record,” said Mr. Palermo. “The dead lift Garrett did is the eighth all-time in any federation in the world. It’s the best in 2021.”
Garrett has vivid memories of earning his world record.
After chalking up and going through his prep, he approached the bar.
“As soon as I walked onto the platform, all the nerves died down,” he said. “You’ve got a minute — one minute to get the bar moving off the ground. I’ve been in high-pressure situations before, so it was like, ‘Don’t overcomplicate it. Just do it.’”
Using a mighty mixed grip and the Valsalva breathing technique, he lifted 475.1 pounds to the satisfaction of the judging panel — two side judges and one in front. White lights from judges mean the lift is accepted; red means it is denied.
“I saw those three white lights, and I just lost it,” Garrett said.
“You need at least two white lights for the lift to be considered good. They all accept it or deny it,” said Mr. Palermo. “With the dead lift, what you are looking for is that you start from a standstill, a dead stop on the ground, and the bar has to come up in one continuous motion — no up-and-down motion — and you have to come to a full controlled position, with the knees locked, shoulders locked and the bar in a stationary position standing. … The side judges are looking for any movement, if you are not fully locked. You can’t bend your knees and rest the bar on (your) legs; that would be an illegal lift.
“Once you are at a standstill, the head judge gives you a ‘down’ command, and once they give you that down command, you have to control the bar to the ground,” he added. “When that bar cleared his knees and it was still moving, I realized, ‘My gosh, he is going to get it!’ I broke down. When he got the lift and put the bar (down), we saw the three white lights. … I collapsed on the floor. We’re still just stunned that this happened, and he had this chance to do it and perform the way he did.”
Garrett, who will be a sophomore at Delmarva Christian High School in Georgetown this fall, qualified for nationals through an event held in Dover.
“He had to get a qualifying total to go to the national event,” Mr. Palermo said. “It was something very attainable for him, for what he does. But you have to do it. You have to get a qualifying total at a sanctioned USPA drug-tested event.”
Additionally, Garrett earned a silver medal as a competitor in the open division at the California championships.
“We also enrolled him in the open category, which has no age limit. So that is against all ages in classic raw 67.5 kg,” Mr. Palermo said. “He placed second nationally for the 67.5-kg open division, against adults. The guy that won it was, I think, like 25 years old.”
The Garrett Rogers story is one that has been shared all around the globe.
Struck by a van while crossing the road to fetch baseballs in May 2016, Garrett suffered numerous broken bones and serious injuries, from head to toe. Brain trauma was of major concern.
Garrett faced extensive rehabilitation and had to relearn how to walk and eat on his own.
That chapter occurred about six months after Garrett’s father, former Army Ranger Kirk Rogers, passed away suddenly.
Recovery was nothing short of a miracle.
“I think any parent would agree that seeing your child be able to pursue and excel in things they’re passionate about is the ultimate dream — just seeing them happy and healthy is everything,” said Garrett’s mom, Wendy Rogers Palermo. “Adding in our past does change that perspective. I find myself just thankful for the fact that he can even have the chance to do these things, regardless of the outcome. I am grateful every time I get to wash baseball pants. But to try to describe the feeling of watching the child who almost died in front of you break records is indescribable.
“I feel the same way about Aubrey (Garrett’s sister), as she pursues her own dreams after going through so much. It’s a thankfulness that I can’t put into words. He has worked so hard for this. I couldn’t be prouder,” said Ms. Rogers Palermo, noting the role her husband, Jim, has had. “Certainly, that is all Jim.”
And so, rigorous training continues. Sometimes, it’s in the “gym” they carved out in the family garage during COVID-19. Other times, it’s at the Bear Cave, a facility in Salisbury, Maryland, owned by Travis Rogers, a nationally renowned powerlifter also known as Papa Bear.
“We’re trying to get more and more work down there with Travis under the experienced eye of a national-level lifter. There is a lot of knowledge we can lean on there,” said Mr. Palermo.
A final check by judges on Garrett’s equipment confirmed his successful world record lift back in Palm Springs.
As Garrett’s tears flowed, he was initially embraced by Anne Escobedo, coordinator of the USPA Powerlifting Foundation, which has taken Garrett and two other young athletes under its wing.
“Once we saw Garrett’s story, … this is the kind of athlete that we want to sponsor — someone who is going to give it their all despite what life has thrown at them,” said Ms. Escobedo. “It was quite an emotional moment. I think it was just overall one of those testaments to just his journey, coming from learning how to walk, talk and eat and be able to have those types of accomplishments to now pulling an insane amount of weight for his bodyweight and age and just holding that world record. Garrett is an extraordinary young man.”
The foundation, founded in the last year through a donation from a female lifter diagnosed with cancer, is structured to give back and get more kids and underprivileged people involved in the sport.
“They had enlisted Travis, who has been doing the foundation for kids through Papa Bear Strong for years, to be on that board. They were looking for nominations for kids to represent them,” Mr. Palermo said. “Travis put Garrett’s name in the pool. Travis and I, without Garrett’s knowledge, this spring, put together an application for Garrett to be an ambassador for the powerlifting foundation.
“They jumped on the opportunity. They heard his story and what he has been through and where he came from,” he added. “They said he embodies everything that we want to represent the foundation. They pay his meet fees, his equipment fees, and once he made his qualifying total at the meet in Dover, they reached out to us and said they were going to fund Garrett coming out to California to compete in that national event. They paid airfare for Garrett and me, meet fees, hotel for us for the week — just to give him the chance to perform on that national stage.”
The success in California was a payback of sorts.
“It’s really just your love for the sport of powerlifting and giving back to the USPA Foundation,” Garrett said. “It’s just giving back to them what they gave to me.”
Sneak peek at peaking
Technically, Garrett had been working toward his peak about a month or so before the national event.
“The peaking, you start that when you are five weeks out — five weeks out from the competition,” said Garrett. “That is the way the peaking works.”
Mr. Palermo explained: “It’s a kind of a combination, the idea being that you’re trying to do a high amount of volume and intensity as you are working through this peaking program. And then, you dial it back in the last week or so leading into competition, so your body has time to catch up and recover, so you carry your strength into that actual meet.
“You taper the last week or so leading into a competition. So the last actual heavy lift he did was about eight days prior to the actual meet. Then, we just do light work in the week leading up to it, so he has time for the muscles to recover, the central nervous system to recover, so that all that work you’ve done for five weeks builds up, and you … have your strength when you need that.”
Garrett adheres religiously to a high-calorie diet, spiced with amino energy and protein shakes. “He was having about 4,000 calories a day for the two months leading up,” Mr. Palermo said. “You can’t put fat on this boy.”
The teen added, “There were times during this, the peak of the training and leading up to the competition, I would eat too fast. My mouth would get watery, and I would just puke. You’re not bulking until you throw up.”
The USPA Nationals marked Garrett’s debut at a heavier weight class.
“That was the first time he has competed at that weight. He had done two or three meets at 60 kg, which is 132 pounds,” said Mr. Palermo. “After Dover, he (wanted) to cut his weight. We said, ‘We’re not doing this.’ We’ve got to encourage you to be growing right now. We bumped him into the 67.5 kg.”
Powerlifting, they have found, is a family affair.
“The thing that has really struck me in powerlifting right from the start, and we saw this for sure, is the sense of community you get out of it. Even some of the biggest names in powerlifting, everyone just treats each other like family,” said Mr. Palermo.
The day after Garrett set his record, the video was posted on King of the Lifts, the premier Instagram hub for powerlifting.
“And all of the top people in the sport started reaching out to Garrett and congratulating him. Some of the people that we will sit here and watch on TV while we are working out will message him,” said Mr. Palermo.
Congrats rolled in from the likes of Russel Orhii, Sean Noriega, John Haack, Andy Huang and Chad Penson.
“People would say like, ‘I wish I had started lifting when I was your age,’” Garrett said.
Mr. Palermo continued, “Nobody was training and doing it as seriously as he is at that age. So the sky is the limit. That’s what everyone will tell you: Watch out for this kid. Who knows where he is going?”
What the future might hold
For starters, there are plans for a big meet this October.
And the game plan is for Garrett to shift into another powerlifting category, which will offer more challenge and competition.
“What we have found is there (is) more competition in what’s known as ‘raw’ powerlifting. What he was doing was considered ‘classic raw,’ where you are allowed to use the knee wraps, which give you more of a mechanical advantage,” said Mr. Palermo. “So we’re going to put those aside, and we’re going raw. That is where the competition lies. We’re chasing down competition for him. So far, he has been in classes where, a lot of times, he is by himself or so far ahead of the pack.
“And now, as he ages into the 16-17 — called sub-junior — that is where you start to pick up more kids getting involved. We’re going to get to see what he is made of,” Mr. Palermo said.
And if the cards stack up in his favor, don’t be surprised if Garrett Rogers stalks Olympian status.
“A lot of things have to happen. The (International Olympic Committee) has to come on-board with powerlifting to get it involved in the Olympics, but that is the push right now,” said Mr. Palermo. “The IPF is really working to try to get that IOC sanctioning. I am hoping that by the time Garrett is 17-18, that they finally get their act together, and he’ll have a chance to be an Olympian.
“That is that goal you’ve always got in the back of your mind.”