The NPC Armed Forces Nationals is a competition that recognizes and supports members of the United States military and their families. Many of the athletes who compete on this stage each year simply want to improve and perhaps try a new sporting endeavor. They also want to feel part of a community. That's why they train and eat so hard to face the judges on this stage.
One of those judges is Luis Santa, a man familiar with both the responsibilities of athletes - as a competitor and as a service member. That's because, in addition to being a former IFBB Pro League competitor, Santa is also an active member of the United States Air Force. Santa Claus works at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Its job is to analyze data and artificial intelligence.
"In a way, I'm your bodybuilding nerd," Santa joked. Both his passion for service and bodybuilding originated in Puerto Rico, where Santa Claus spent part of his childhood and early adult life. After working at a fast food restaurant and being robbed at gunpoint, Santa felt he needed to be part of the solution. So he joined the local police force.
“By joining the police, I went into a tactical unit. Almost every single cop in that unit was a member of the Army National Guard," Santa said. "When we were trained with new guns, these guys already knew how to use them and I had never seen one of these guns."
Courtesy of Luis Santa
After finding out that his fellow officers were also in the military, and because he was working multiple jobs to make ends meet at the time, Santa decided he needed to join too. After going to a recruiter with his team members, he decided to join the United States Air Force. After he took the ASVAB test, the recruiter told him he could qualify for any job he wanted.
“I told him that I was a car mechanic and could also work on motorcycles. I find it quite interesting to work on airplanes. He said, "Oh man, I have a guaranteed job. You go straight to technical school for basic training and for this job, which is a tactical aircraft mechanic.'”
Courtesy of Luis Santa
On December 6, 2001, Santa jumped at the opportunity, and that decision launched a career he's still involved in over two decades later. Originally serving to improve his career as a police officer, Santa transitioned to full-time military service. This career would include three deployments. One of these would serve during Operation Iraqi Freedom and he considered this the most significant moment of his military career to date.
"It was quite a shocking thing to do that I thought I was going to do, and I also felt that my call to duty was fully effective."
Another profession he was pursuing at the time was bodybuilding. This side of Santa's life can also be traced back to his childhood. His father made sure he exercised as much as possible to stay active. Sports were a part of his childhood through his time in Puerto Rico as well as in New York and Connecticutt. As he grew up, he did push-ups and sit-ups every day, which helped him maintain a good physique. His figure caught the eye of a local bodybuilder who convinced young Luis to take part in a show. His first show was in 1997 and he recalled the experience as if he had just walked off the stage.
“The good news was that I came second on my show. The bad news was there were only two guys on my show."
netheless, Santa Claus got bodybuilding fever and decided to start competing again. He would win the Mr. Puerto Rico's novice welterweight division in 1998, which was attended by 24 competitors. Over a decade later, Santa had earned his IFBB Pro League card by winning the 2011 NPC USA middleweight title. He had actually won his class in previous years, but due to the few Pro cards issued at the time, he wasn't able to advance. Once he achieved pro status, he made up for lost time by attending a show right before an assignment.
“I was already 37 years old, so I had to get on a professional stage as soon as possible. So I jumped right into the New York Pro. Part of the reason was because I had to go back to the Middle East and want to make sure I had a show because I didn't know if I was going to come back."
Luckily Santa came back and competed a few more times. He would eventually win one show, the 2017 Baltimore Classic Masters Pro. He also placed seventh at the Tampa Pro 212 that year. Derek Lunsford would win that competition. Santa called it his best season as a pro, but he was actually more proud of his performance in Tampa despite winning in Maryland.
"I was very happy with what we achieved with my body," he said. The "we" referred to both himself and his then-coach AJ Sims, who worked with Santa for the rest of his career. What makes Santa most proud of his career is that, like fellow athletes Charjo Grant and Olympia 202 winner David Henry, he has successfully prepared for competitions while still fulfilling his obligations to his country.
"It's difficult to prepare while doing shifts in the military and having a family. The day of the show I always felt the most rewarded for making it to the show.”
Santa's career on stage would end at the 2021 Toronto Pro where he placed sixth in the 212 division. Even though he no longer competes, he still trains hard and is still involved in the sport, both as a judge and as a promoter. He sees it as a way of giving back to the community and sport that have been a strong part of his life.
"I'm passionate about the sport, just as I'm passionate about my (military) career."
Aside from serving his country at the Pentagon, Master Sergeant (E7) Santa still sees himself as a champion of fitness and service. He added three more years of service this year, and he's open to encouraging young people to consider a future in the United States Armed Forces because it would mean something much bigger than just a paycheck.
"It's a different feeling. I really can't explain the feeling of love for some people. It is a very special feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction. I can feel that inside. There is a very strong sense of satisfaction in being able to serve.”
Follow Luis on Instagram @luissanta1.