Colten Harper’s legs shook as he stepped to the mats.

He squared his stance, bent his knees, clenched his jaw, tightened his grip.

One hundred and eighty-six pounds went over his head for a fraction of a second. And that was the smallest amount the 17-year-old has lifted since turning competitive in March.

Harper has played football and wrestled since he was in first grade. He played basketball, baseball and soccer for awhile, too.

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The sport that’s taking him to a national competition isn’t any of those; it’s the one he just started training in about a year ago.

Harper is competing in the USA Weightlifting National Youth Championships in Atlanta this week.

His coach, Wil Fleming of Force Fitness in Bloomington, thinks this is just the first big stage Harper could reach. He believes he could qualify for the national junior championships for under-20 lifters this winter and maybe move on to the world championships.

“Colten has the talent where he could compete for medals at the national championship in the next couple years,” Fleming said.

“If he qualifies as a 17-year-old for the under-20 championships, that would be, like, a really big accomplishment.”

It hadn’t been Harper’s goal to become a competitive weightlifter. He wanted to be a better football player. He started going to Fleming’s gym to supplement his weight training with the Brown County High School football team.

“I always want to be the greatest,” Harper said after a workout last week.

“I want to be able to, whenever I graduate from Brown County, be known as, like, the best football player to come from here,” he said. “And then this weightlifting thing, I want to be one of Force Fitness’ best.”

That drive is what made Harper stand out as a leader early on in his football career, and it’s having an effect on the rest of the team, Head Coach Randy Minniear said. Harper was one of the few freshmen who were starters their first year. He was elected captain as a sophomore.

“He has a phenomenal work ethic with everything he does, and it rubs off on the other guys. It really does,” the coach said. “We’ve got a lot of younger guys now that are in here that are really working hard and I hear nothing but encouragement.”

The football team spent their first hour or so of practice May 12 in the weight room, with guest coach Fleming and their regular coaches running them through a circuit of strength challenges.

Harper circled the room in the last 20 seconds of the last set, rallying his team to finish strong.

That “winning attitude” is something he appreciates in his weightlifting gym, and he’s been working to develop it in his football gym, too.

“As captain as a sophomore, I wanted to start a tradition that will go through, and an attitude — and maybe get more guys interested in this Olympic lifting thing. It’s just like, competitive nature,” Harper said.

“He’s always been very focused, but now I see even greater focus on what he needs to do to develop himself and trying to impart that to the other guys, and get them to say, ‘We can all do this, you know. We’re all one family; let’s all work hard and get this,’” Minnear said.

At 5-foot-8 and 168 pounds, Harper has always considered himself to be on the small side. That can make it hard to get noticed by schools looking for football players that don’t fit a certain mold, said Fleming, who was in sort of the same situation when he was Harper’s age.

That’s when Fleming started competing in weightlifting.

What you might not have in size, you can make up in desire, dedication and discipline — the “three Ds” Fleming lectured the football team on last week.

Desire: Setting a goal. Dedication: Doing what needs to be done to achieve your desire, no matter the circumstances. Discipline: Not just going through the motions, but really working.

“My parents have kind of bred me to be the best — never back down,” Harper said. “I’ve always been smaller than everybody, so it’s like, don’t back down from the big dogs; just go out there and just give it your all and come out on top.”

“We never told them they couldn’t do something they wanted to try,” said his mother, Brandi Harper, about Colten and his older sister. Brianna is now playing college softball.

“When things seemed tough or unfair in sports and/or school, we would always tell Colten to work harder than everyone else and prove to his coaches that he wants to be there and that he is an asset to the team,” Brandi Harper said.

Harper won state titles in wrestling when he was still in grade school. In eighth grade, he traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, with two fellow Brown County Wrestling Club members and trained under two Turkish national champions. He made it to the semistate tournament as a freshman.

But last year, he gave up wrestling to focus on weightlifting, and Fleming seized that opportunity to get him into competitive shape. He joined the gym’s weightlifting club in January.

“I said, ‘I think you can qualify for this national championship. Let’s try for that,’” Fleming said. “You did that in your second meet ever.”

“I just had to go out there and not get nervous and just perform, like I do in practice — just not let it get into my head,” Harper said.

For his first meet, he admitted he was nervous. “I was like, trembling.”

That can be an especially scary thing when you’re lifting more than your own body weight on a steel bar over your head.

USA Weightlifting uses the events done at the Olympic Games, the snatch and the clean and jerk. One difference between the two is the type and number of movements used to hoist that weight overhead.

Competitors are divided by age, sex and body weight category. Each athlete gets three attempts in each type of lift, and the athlete with the highest total weight is the one who wins.

At the Force Weightlifting Midwest Open Championships in March, Harper’s best snatch was 80 kilograms (186 pounds) and his best clean and jerk was 100 kg (220 pounds).

At the Indiana State Weightlifting Championships in May, he tallied 193 kg — 83 kg (176 pounds) in the snatch and 110 kg (242.5 pounds) in the clean and jerk.

He won Best Lifter in the junior division, his mom said. That’s decided through a calculation using his body weight in relation to weight lifted.

Based on competitions through May, USA Weightlifting has Harper ranked middle-of-the-pack in the state and in the nation in his weight division.

“Colten, unfortunately, is in the same weight class as, like, the best weightlifter in the history of the United States,” Fleming said, referring to Harrison Maurus, who set a new youth world record in the 2017 Youth Championships in Bangkok, Thailand. It was 192 kg (422 lbs) in the clean and jerk.

Maurus, 17, will likely make the 2020 Olympic weightlifting team, he said.

“What we’re not trying to do is go win, because that would be nearly impossible,” Fleming said about the national meet.

Weightlifting is as much a mental battle as it is a physical battle, he said. “You’re competing with yourself, and kind of like picking out competition,” he said. If he does that enough, Fleming thinks Harper could be a serious contender down the road.

Harper’s plan is to keep pushing himself with work, school, football and weightlifting his senior year.

If he were able to find a college that offered weightlifting and football, that would be an “A-plus” pick for him. For now, he’s keeping his options open and his focus sharp.

“I just want to improve every day. I’d rather go to Bloomington and work out, or come here and work out, go to the Y and work out, than sit at home and be lazy and have other people pass me by,” he said.

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Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.