Schriever Airman makes comeback to win bodybuilding title

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Staff Sgt. Luis Santa, who won the 2007 Mr. Puerto Rico Bodybuilding Competition, works out his triceps at the main fitness center here. Sergeant Santa is assigned to the 2nd Space Operations Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Daniel Martinez)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Staff Sgt. Luis Santa, who won the 2007 Mr. Puerto Rico Bodybuilding Competition, works out his triceps at the main fitness center here. Sergeant Santa is assigned to the 2nd Space Operations Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Daniel Martinez)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- The Airman's face strains and turns beet-red as he slowly lifts a heavy barbell toward his chest in continual arcs. Perspiration builds up on his brow while others work out alongside him in the musty-scented weight room. You might not guess that just eight months ago this champion of Puerto Rico was out of shape and entering the weight management program.

Staff Sgt. Luis Santa of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron here is no stranger to bodybuilding. He first started training in 1994 after a friend noticed he had the physique for it.  

Sergeant Santa won his first bodybuilding competition in 1997. He continued to compete, earning the Mr. Puerto Rico novice title in 1998.  He won the Mr. Puerto Rico Night of Championships in 1999 and represented Puerto Rico for the Caribbean championships, where he won third place in the middleweight division. That same year, he decided to quit bodybuilding but continued to work out. 

He joined the Air Force in 2001 and trained as an F-15 Eagle crew chief. He began training again with the intention to make a comeback as a bodybuilder and compete in 2003, but ended up deploying to Saudi Arabia. After returning, he remained inactive in the sport for the next two years. By early 2007, Sergeant Santa weighed more than he ever had and knew he needed to change. 

"I was heavy," Sergeant Santa said. "I'm only five-foot-six, and I weighed 234 pounds. Also, my self-confidence was way low -- I didn't believe in myself anymore." 

Sergeant Santa knew the choices he was making with diet and exercise ultimately led to his unhealthy weight gain. This landed him in the Air Force's weight management program. 

"The reason I got heavy and didn't stay fit was because I was making excuses," he said. "So I wanted to prove that if you don't make the excuses, and you just get to the gym and eat well, you can do it. You can look fit. 

"I was used to eating a lot of junk food, a lot of Puerto Rican food, too. You know, (my) wife cooks so good, it was almost impossible to say no. But she told me she would help me out with the cooking and everything," Sergeant Santa said. 

So he began the grueling process of turning his goals into reality. He cut down on his sodium and sugar and avoided juices and carbonated soft drinks. He also began to exercise regularly and consistently maintained his routine. 

By making healthier food choices and sticking to a regular exercise routine, Sergeant Santa dropped 62 pounds and trimmed nine inches from his waist, bringing him down fom 234 pounds to 172.  When he entered Puerto Rico's 2007 bodybuilding competition, he won it, once again earning the prestigious title of Mr. Puerto Rico. 

"I just said that I've got to set a goal to lose the weight and also to stay within the standards of the Air Force. I'm a 'lifer' and I want to stay in my whole 20 years --more if I can make chief," Sergeant Santa said. 

He will deploy in October to the Medical Element of Joint Task Force-Bravo in Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras. He said he plans to continue his daily regimen to prepare for the 2008 All-Armed Forces Bodybuilding Competition in Colorado Springs. 

He's inspiring others to set goals as well. Senior Airman Chris Johnson, a 2nd SOPS schedule engineer, started his workout routine with Sergeant Santa and has since been following the NCO's guidance on exercising and dieting. 

"He's taught me everything that I know about lifting, weight training and healthy eating," Airman Johnson said. 

He has also noticed how Sergeant Santa is always willing to help anyone wanting to improve themselves. 

"It makes him happy to help people and help them change like he did," Airman Johnson said. "I'm proud to see where he is today." 

Sergeant Santa said he's grateful for the support he received from his wingmen in 2nd SOPS and for the Schriever Clinic's Maj. Patrick Thompson, who monitored his health and ensured he had the right dietary supplements. He also attributes his successful transformation to the support of his wife, his trainer and Airman Johnson, who was with him from the beginning of his lifestyle change. 

As for anyone wanting to improve their health, Sergeant Santa says that getting to the gym is half the battle. 

"My advice is to get to the gym and don't make up any excuses -- just do it!"