The NPC Armed Forces Nationals is a contest that recognizes and supports members of the United States military and their families. Many of the athletes that compete on that stage every year are simply looking to improve themselves and perhaps explore a new athletic endeavor. They also want to feel like they belong in a community. That’s why they train and diet so hard to face the judges on that stage.
One of those judges is Luis Santa, a man who is familiar with both commitments the athletes make – as competitors and servicemembers. That’s because Santa is not only a retired IFBB Pro League competitor, he’s also an active member of the United States Air Force. Santa works in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. His job is to analyze data and artificial intelligence.
“In a sense, I’m your bodybuilding nerd,” Santa joked. Both his passion for service and bodybuilding originated in Puerto Rico, where Santa spent part of his childhood as well as the early years of his adult life. After working at a fast-food restaurant and being robbed at gunpoint, Santa felt he needed to be a part of the solution. So, he joined the local police force.
“By joining the police department, I went into a tactical unit. Almost every single cop in that unit was a member of the Army National Guard,” said Santa. “When we were being trained with new weapons, these guys knew how to use them already, and I had never seen any of these weapons.”
After finding out that his fellow officers were also in the military, and because at the time he was working multiple job to make ends’ meet, Santa decided that he had to join as well. After going to a recruiter’s office with his team members, he decided to join the United States Air Force. After taking the ASVAB test, the recruiter told him that he could qualify for any job he wanted.
“I told him that I was a car mechanic, and I could work on motorcycles as well. I think it’s pretty interesting to work on aircrafts. He said ‘oh, man, I have a guaranteed job. You will go to basic training, and you’ll go straight to tech school for that job, which is tactical aircraft mechanic.’”
On December 6, 2001, Santa accepted the opportunity, and that decision started a career that he is still involved with over two decades later. After initially wanting to serve as a way to improve his career as a cop, Santa would transition to working in the military full-time. That career would include three deployments. One of those was to serve during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and he considered that the most significant moment of his military career thus far.
“It was a pretty shocking thing that I felt I was going to do, and I also felt like my call for duty was in full effect.”
Another call that he was pursuing at the time was bodybuilding. That side of Santa’s life can be traced back to his childhood as well. His father made sure he played as many sports as possible to stay active. Sports were a part of his childhood through his time in Puerto Rico as well as New York and Connecticutt. Once he grew up, he kept up a regimen of doing pushups and situps every day, which helped him maintain a good physique. His shape caught the eye of a local bodybuilder, who convinced young Luis to compete in a show. His first show was in 1997, and he recalled the experience as if he just walked offstage.
“The good news was that I finished second in my show. The bad news was there were only two guys in my show.”
Nonetheless, Santa was bit by the bodybuilding bug, and he decided to compete again. He would win the welterweight novice class of the Mr. Puerto Rico in 1998, which featured 24 competitors. Fast forward over a decade later, and Santa had earned his IFBB Pro League card by winning the 2011 NPC USA’s Middleweight title. He had actually won his class in years’ past, but due to the few pro cards that were issued at the time, he didn’t get to move up. Once he did attain pro status, he made up for lost time by competing in a show right before a deployment.
“I was already 37 years old, so I needed to get on a pro stage asap. So, I jumped right into the New York Pro. One reason I did that was because I had to go back to the Middle East, and I wanted to make sure I had a show in because I didn’t know if I was coming back.”
Fortunately, Santa did come back and competed several more times. He would eventually win a show, the 2017 Baltimore Classic Masters Pro. He also placed seventh at the Tampa Pro 212 that year. Derek Lunsford would win that contest. Santa called that his most successful season as a pro, but he was actually prouder of his showing in Tampa, even though he won in Maryland.
“I was very happy with what we managed to do with my physique,” he stated. The “we” referred to himself as well as his coach at the time, A.J. Sims, who worked with Santa for the rest of his career. What makes Santa most proud of his career is that like fellow pros Charjo Grant and Olympia 202 champion David Henry, he successfully prepped for contests while maintaining his commitments to his country.
“To prepare while doing shifts in the military and have a family, it’s tough to get it done. I always felt the most rewarded on the day of the show that I made it to the show.”
Santa’s career onstage would conclude in the 2021 Toronto Pro, where he placed sixth in the 212 division. Even though he doesn’t compete anymore, he still trains hard and is still connected to the sport, both as a judge and promoter. In his eyes, it’s a way to give back to the community and sport that has been a strong part of his life.
“I am passionate about the sport just like I’m passionate for my (military) career.”
Besides serving his country in the Pentagon, Master Sergeant (E7) Santa still sees himself as an advocate for both fitness and service. He re-upped this year to add three more years of service, and he’s open about encouraging young people to consider a future in the United States Armed Forces because it would mean something far greater than a paycheck alone.
“It’s a different feeling. I really can’t explain the feeling of the love for some people to serve. It’s a very special feeling of accomplishment and gratification. I feel that on the inside. It’s a very strong feeling of satisfaction to be able to serve.”
Follow Luis on Instagram @luissanta1.