NICEVILLE — With the Class 2A state weightlifting meet winding down, Melaina Bryant navigated through the crowded back hallways of Arnold High School, searching for Anniel Buchanan.


A Flagler sophomore, Buchanan had been the only girl in the state to best Bryant, a Niceville junior, on the bench this past February. Her 225-pound total had almost cost Bryant a second straight state title in the 199-pound division.


The presumptive state champion, Bryant said she was both impressed and a little intimidated.


“In all honesty, I was so scared,” she said. “I was terrified. For the past couple months, it had just been set in my mind that, ‘You have to win again, Melaina.’ It’s all anyone has been telling me, and since I was already losing in numbers, I was also worried that she would turn around and clean more than me.”


Buchanan didn’t, scratching out after posting 175 pounds in the clean and jerk, and Bryant waited to start at 195 pounds, eventually cleaning 200 pounds to post a 415-pound total and claim another gold. She was the only lifter in the Daily News’ coverage area to do so, making her the clear choice for Weightlifter of the Year honors.


Filled with joy, Bryant wanted to make sure Buchanan, who finished third, felt some sense of accomplishment, too. She had gone toe-to-toe with one of the state’s best weightlifters.


“I just remember telling her, ‘Listen, you have two more years, and I have one,’” Bryant said. “‘I never want to lift against you ever again because you scare the crap out of me.’


“I told her I would drop a weight class specifically so we would both have a chance to win.”


A nice gesture to be sure, and one Bryant finds indicative of the weightlifting community that welcomed her with open arms in middle school.


A softball player since she was 7, Bryant said she took up lifting only to avoid taking P.E. when she arrived at Ruckel Middle School. The decision paired her with coach David Hedges, then a new teacher at the school and one who would help her unlock her potential.


She said she struggled from the start.


“I tried it, and you would think as soon as I started I would just automatically be good, but I was the worst student in the class because I didn’t want to be in there at all,” Bryant said.


Her lack of effort frustrated Hedges, and the two got into a heated shouting match ahead of the county meet in November.


“I’ve been getting yelled at my whole life and not paying attention or trying at anything,” Bryant said. “I don’t know what it was about hearing it from coach Hedges, but he made it different.”


And Bryant didn’t look back, winning the county meet and discovering her niche.


In the years that have followed, Bryant said the friends she has made have made the journey worth it.


“Whether it be the girls from my school or girls from other schools who are in my weight class, I never go to a weight meet and have a bad day,” Bryant said. “Even if I lift bad, the girls I’m surrounded by always make laugh or make me feel better.


“It’s like having the largest group of friends ever.”