It wasn’t that long ago that USA Weightlifting senior international coach Danny Camargo was putting fliers on cars in mall parking lots, doing free demonstrations at middle school assemblies or paying $500 for a booth at a 5K charity race to try to convince people to come to his CrossFit gym.
Perhaps that is why, even now as athletes stream into the seven-week old facility — the new, stand-alone Camargo’s Oly Concepts space— Camargo won’t turn people away.
“The more the merrier,” says Camargo, as he steps out into his gym —housed in the back of a CrossFit— with all platforms full and several being shared. “And if it gets really slammed, it gets really slammed.”
For seventeen years, Camargo has done this. Shared a sport he loved and hated and quit and re-fell in love with to people in and around Almonte Springs, Fla.
It started as a hobby, a release from his day job as a police officer, and something that actually cost Camargo money. Now, he’s become one of the most sought-after weightlifting coaches in the United States, training the likes of phenom Mattie Rogers (who just missed the Olympic team) — and thousands of others through USA Weightlifting certifications.
It is now, finally, Camargo’s full-time profession. After years of persuading people to join his gym, cramming days with daily WODs, running a business and —early on— nights with cleaning floors, he is where he dreamed.
Coaching weightlifting is his full-time profession and it is standing alone.
“I have no clue how I pulled it off, I really don’t. I didn’t apply for it, I didn’t interview for it, I just wrote my own ticket. Used my own ideas. I failed many times,” Camargo said.
“I’m very lucky. Every morning I wake up and I count these blessings. Because I don’t know if it’s going to last forever. I know what weightlifting looks like when it’s not popular. I know how it feels to live in the dark ages of weightlifting. It’s so fresh in my mind that when I coach every day, I worry that maybe it goes away. Or I’ll go back to flipping burgers or chasing bad guys in a shitty uniform.”
Camargo doesn’t really think the explosion of U.S. weightlifting will fade, but lifters are a superstitious breed. And he’s no exception. To this day, when he coaches an athlete in a competition if they fail an attempt, Camargo will change his stance.
He’s animated by nature —jumping on boxes to get a better vantage on a lift several platforms down— and, despite the size of his coaching sessions, still manages to give individualized attention.
“Watching Danny interact with his team, he’s so positive. He’s kind of like a little chihuahua,” said weightlifter Kristin Pope, who was one of Camargo’s ‘satellite clients’. “He’s so energetic and fun to watch.”
‘There was a time I was feeling burnt out and he’s like, ‘You need to take two weeks off, and go on a vacation and eat what you want and do what you want to do’. A lot of other coaches would be like, ‘You need to stay doing what you’re doing’. I like how he motivates based on what the athletes want. He doesn’t focus on winning medals or team competitions.”
Burnout is a particularly sensitive subject for Camargo.
After learning the Olympic lifts at 12 years old, he became an elite teenage lifter and a full-time resident at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. It was a very regimented type of living —training for five hours a day, strict rules to not leave the center — and, by 21, Camargo was tired of it.
He woke up one morning and decided that was enough.
“I poured my heart out,” he said. “They said, ‘Either you suck it up or you quit and we put someone in your spot’. So, I quit. I retired. I don’t blame anybody, but I really wish they had given me a vacation [or] an extra day off a week. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear.”
Camargo came home to Orlando and wasn’t sure what to do. He spent a year doing whatever he wanted, eating whatever he wanted until, one day, he stopped by the local high school to see his old coach. There were a couple kids there and Camargo gave a quick tip to one of the boys, Leigh Francis before leaving.
He got a phone call from Francis later that night, asking if Camargo would come back to help him. Camargo said no. Francis wouldn’t back down, finally wearing out Camargo enough to have another training session. Camargo showed up and there was Francis, giddy, with four other boys.
“It was a high. Everything I said worked,” Camargo said of that fateful day. “The dependency [of the boys] grew on me immediately. It lit me back up. When it was all done, ‘I said OK- 4 p.m. be here. Practice. That’s how it started.”
Camargo, who still keeps in touch with Francis, coached a group at Lake Brantley High school for nine years.
He coached for free, with the school letting him use the gym for the program because he was a police officer. Any competitions and travel were out of Camargo’s pocket.
In 2007, Camargo found CrossFit, got certified and opened the doors to CrossFit Almonte in ’09. He figured he had found a way to pay the bills and teach weightlifting. But, the popularity of CrossFit —and the hours spent running a business— wasn’t conducive to the growing Oly Concepts weightlifting team. So, Camargo sold his gym and Oly Concepts became a full-fledged company earlier this year.
“I don’t want to say I resent the comment, ‘Coach you’ve blown up recently,’ indicating my popularity has grown,” Camargo said. “No, people are just paying attention more. I have not done anything different this whole time. There is nothing that has changed in 17 years in my philosophy or approach.
Of course, I’ve gotten better at programming and identifying cues and corrections. I’ve developed as a coach. But there’s been no change on who I am, how I do it, how hard I work. Nothing has changed except that it is full-time now.”
Camargo plans on coaching until the day he dies.
He was 22 when he started and hit the international level before 30. The newly-minted 40-year-old is decades younger than most coaches with his level of experience, a perk of Camargo’s early athletic retirement.
He is grateful he got his mistakes out of the way early, before the days of social media.
“It scares me this trend. Years ago, someone would automatically enter this sport and know it takes time. A coach getting into the sport would know, it takes time. And they accepted that. You do not become a champion overnight. You do not become a credible coach overnight,” he said.
“Now, athletes show up and they are unhappy they are not hitting PR’s every week. Coaches are getting a thousand certifications and they are putting themselves out there in such a way it’s clear they are not doing it for the right reasons. They are not doing it because they love what they do. They want to show off.”
Camargo has been approached about doing remote coaching, but he doesn’t feel right about it. He could also make a boatload of money doing weekend Oly Concept certifications, but that doesn’t interest him either.
Instead, Camargo is planning to roll out an apprenticeship for 2017 that will require 400 hours of shadowing, including at national and local meets.
“My biggest advice for anyone trying to get into CrossFit or weightlifting coaching is be patient,” he said. “The struggles that coaches have when they first start are the same struggles that you are supposed to have. It’s supposed to happen. You invest time in people. Those people quit or leave your gym. You weren’t the right fit. Being patient I think comes along with checking their egos, not taking it to personal, and always putting the athlete first…This is a selfless profession, this is a selfless thing that you do.
You are going to have people that are coming to you, that are loyal to you. You are going to find that athletes want to excel -sometimes even just to make you, the coach, happy. I know this from experience, and I didn’t know that would happen. Then I go home and think, ‘I’m important to these people, I don’t want to screw that up’. That makes me work even harder.”
Camargo, who has 99 athletes at Oly Concepts, jokes that with the way things are growing he will hit 100 by the time I drive to Tampa. It is mid-July and he is eager to watch the Rio Olympics, hopeful that perhaps in four years he will be there coaching Rogers.
But for now, as Camargo sits in his office adjacent to the platforms, it’s more than enough just to have a space —a job— that is home.
“I am excited for the future. This hobby that I fell in love with as a young boy, Im making a living off of,” he said. “I am somebody now. Everybody grows up wanting to be somebody. And I am somebody now.
I am helping people. People rely on me, people depend on me. I am changing lives of young people, adults getting into it. There’s still opportunities for them to get into it. And I did it off off this hobby. I am excited. I welcome all the CrossFit community and non-traditionalists coming into it. I’m OK with it. Because you can teach them.”
All photos courtesy of Danny Camargo.