Powering past expectations


photo by Emily Hawkins

Senior Devon Hawkins on the podium after placing first in the state weightlifting competition.

In his final deadlift, senior Devon Hawkins raised 265 pounds, held the bar for a second, and dropped it. Silence surrounded the arena as the final decision of the referees was reached. All three referees signaled the lift was good, and a few feet away, Hawkins’ dad started dancing.

With a total of seven lifts over three categories, Hawkins maxed 155 pounds in his bench press, 170 pounds for his squats and 265 pounds for his deadlift. The 690-pound total earned him first place in the state, a gold medal and a bid to qualify for the Special Olympics representing the United States.

“I danced. It was embarrassing for him, but I danced,” Hawkins’ father John said.

Devon was adopted with his younger brother at age seven by Emily and John Sr. Hawkins. He already had a diagnosis of  Fragile X syndrome, the leading cause of autism in boys. Doctors told them that Devon would not be able to play any sports since he did not have the muscle needed. Proving them wrong, Hawkins became an active child, participating in as many sports as he was able to. 

Hawkins spends most of his time at school in AnGell Hicks’ ESE class, where Cheryl Orlando is currently substituting. She describes Hawkins as helpful, kind, funny and sweet. Like his weightlifting, Hawkins has been excelling in his class through perseverance and hard work. For a while, he was struggling with addition and needed extra help to solve the problems, but he is now able to complete worksheets on his own.

“The only thing these kids want is to fit in and feel normal, they persevere and work hard to exceed the expectations of everyone around them,” Orlando said.

Hawkins signed up with the Special Olympics organization at age eight when he started training and competing in track. During his first county competition, Devon’s mom was hospitalized, and due to the stress, he struggled to focus on the race. Despite the distractions, he still placed first in almost every event he competed in. 

Hawkins has earned various medals for swimming, gold medals for cycling, softball and now weightlifting. In his 10 years of competition, Hawkins has found that his true passion is powerlifting.

“It’s amazing watching him work so hard. We always remind him that he is in control of what he can or can’t do. If he wants it badly enough and works for it, he can do anything,” Emily said.

Hawkins took interest in weightlifting his freshman year of high school after joining the boys weightlifting team. He got a lot of help from assistant coach Curvan Williams during the spring.

During his first season of weightlifting, Hawkins was at a basketball game when one of his opponents grabbed his arm and dislocated his shoulder. It took him about a year to recover and even now struggles with pain from the injury. Even after this event, Hawkins told the coach about his shoulder only after the game had ended.

“I was surprised because Devon didn’t say anything until the game was over,” Emily said. “He said his arm was sore so when we went to get a good look, it was very obvious that his shoulder was dislocated as his arm was hanging.”

He has seen major improvement throughout his powerlifting career. Once barely able to lift the bar, Hawkins has figured out his strength and pacing to lift more weight progressively. As his coach, his father has seen immense improvement.

“Working with Devon is fun because he doesn’t realize he can do something and then when he does it, all he can do is smile and be proud of himself,” John said.

In order for Hawkins to qualify for the state competition,  he had to start in county games, competing against Seminole County athletes and winning first place overall. Afterwards, he had to compete in an area game which was held at his home gym at D1 in Lake Mary. He placed second in order to move to states, competing against lifters from six other counties.

 Once he qualified, Hawkins went against athletes from all over the state. Competitions were held in Disney ESPN, where he won first place and qualified to play with the USA and represent team Florida for the June 2022 Special Olympics in Orlando. 

“I was excited, I put in a lot of effort,” Hawkins said.

Devon and his parents are waiting for the list of athletes who will be competing for the USA team this summer, a wait which could take weeks, or even months.

“We are just extremely proud of him. He’s worked so hard to overcome all his obstacles and he’s excelling which is incredible to see,” John said.  

Emily Hawkins and Nadia Knoblauch