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I found myself a little leery about the opportunity interview Olympic weight-lifting hopeful Shelton Gilyard.

After all, wouldn't a weight lifter with nine national titles break the bank at the Olive Garden? Wouldn't someone who can clean and jerk 287 pounds order the whole right side of the menu?

And then this 5-foot-7, 123-pound man walked through the door with an easy smile and a light appetite. He actually got a take-home box.

Gilyard, 33, of Valrico explained that he competes in the sport's lowest weight class, 56 kilograms. He also shared some thoughts about his work as an autism consultant at the University of South Florida's Center for Autism.

Pull up a chair and join us.ERNEST: How did you get started in weight lifting?

SHELTON: I've been competing in the sport of Olympic weight lifting since 1992. I started in high school (Palatka High) and was identified as a talent then. I won state titles at the high school level, was invited to compete at the national level out of high school. I won the bronze medal in my first national competition and just kept at it.But you're a pretty small guy. Did people used to kick sand in your face?

It was challenging. I was bullied, but I always wanted to play football. I actually started lifting weights trying to play football. I was told the weight lifting would make me less susceptible to injury, make me a little more explosive, because I could run and I could catch, but the coaches were always concerned (about injury) if I ever caught.If you make the Olympic trials, you have to compete with weight lifters from every weight class for a spot in the Beijing games. Don't the bigger guys have an advantage?

I'm biased because I'm in the lightest weight class, but it does favor the heavier weight classes. When you start talking about body weight to mass, I'm actually lifting 2-1/2 times my body weight in competition. The heavyweight guy is only lifting about the same as his body weight. Physics starts to play a major role in the outcome (laughs).You've been out of competition with a shoulder injury for a year. What keeps you going?

The challenge of it. I love the competition. It's not like other sports because it's just you on the platform. You get to show off how much work you've put in. The lifting serves as a coping mechanism for me because you leave the stress of the job at the job. It kept me out of trouble when I was in high school and now it still serves a purpose in my professional life.Women got involved in Olympic weight lifting in the '90s. What do you think about their involvement?

They have the same competitiveness. They recognize that this is a sport they can be successful in. They approach it with the same tenacity of a male athlete. They make good training partners because they're so sound. They train hard but they still maintain their femininity.They don't look masculine.What drew you to your job at the Center for Autism?

I've always enjoyed working with kids. I studied clinical social work. I've always had a strong interest in working with kids with developmental disabilities or those who were impacted by medical conditions that result in them really not having that opportunity to go and play and just be a kid.In your job, you help families deal with autism. Tell me about it.

I see families from every walk of life. The diagnosis has the same impact. Wealthy families find themselves in that same situation with the families that are getting by. They tend to be so resilient in that determination to help the kid be successful that the outcomes tend to look just alike.DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

When he isn't working or training, Shelton enjoys reading, writing and spending time with his son, Trey, and his wife, Michelle, who also works in social services with the Child Abuse Council. At the end of this month, he will compete in the USA Weightlifting National Championships in Columbus, Ohio, where his combined total will have to be nearly 500 pounds to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in May. Given that no other American in his weight class has lifted more since the 1990s, he's got a chance.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at or 226-3406.