When Ana Perez was just two weeks old, her mother sold her to fuel her cocaine addiction. As an adult, Perez learned that she was born into the world addicted to the drug. She cried more than most as a baby due to the withdrawal symptoms, and in her teenage years, found herself struggling to stay clean. She dropped out of school at age sixteen. In her twenties, she was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Ana Perez’s story is one of strength and perseverance. Despite her circumstances, it’s clear she does not view herself as a victim. There’s no evidence of self pity in her voice. She comes across as confident, a personal attribute she longed for most of her life, and attempted to create with drug use.
“Drugs made me somebody that I wanted to be, but I didn’t know how. Powerlifting has become an outlet to discover who I really am. I’m a fighter. I’m a warrior. I’m a survivor.”
Six years ago Perez decided to take control of her life. It began with Bikram Yoga. Unlike other styles of yoga, Bikram classes always practice the same sequence of twenty-six postures, in temperatures over 100 degrees. Like powerlifting, it requires repetition of the same movement over and over again, in order to see small amounts of progress over the period of years.
“It was the discipline of being in the hot room, with all of those distractions. My first class, I thought I was going to die.” Yet, she says, the discipline of the practice helped fulfill something in her. “I realized, “Wow, I’ve been chasing this feeling, but on the opposite side of the spectrum through drug use. I can keep coming back to this feeling and use it to get clean.”
After several years of serious practice, Perez turned to strength training to aid her advancement into the more challenging postures. In the gym, she discovered that she was making rapid progress. “It was yet another realization for me. "Wow. I can be strong." There was something about that that made me want to chase it more.” She transitioned from yoga to pure strength training at the beginning of 2015.
Life in recovery became more manageable once Perez learned other tactics to process emotions and the recurring drive to relapse, common with those with a history of drug abuse. “When you’re an addict, you don’t really have any other way to deal with your feelings.” Since she began powerlifting, she found she could channel those feelings into her lifts.
“I remember plenty of moments in my life that I wanted to relapse. I’m very familiar with all of my triggers and signs that I am going to have a relapse. I started taking that, and just going to the gym, and training and training and training. I’d do things that I didn’t even know I was capable of doing, because I learned how to channel those feelings. That was when I realized that powerlifting was saving my life. Now, when I feel that way, I just go and train.”
She hopes that by sharing her story, other addicts will realize they have options. “It’s unfortunate that there are still so many people out there struggling, that don’t know any other way out, except to use drugs.”
Perez has taken control of her life. She draws parallels to powerlifting in many areas that seem, at first glance, unrelated. To her, and to many who love the sport, it all comes back to mindset and powerlifting’s ability to instill fortitude and grit in people. That grit, coupled with her drive for personal freedom, led her to start her own business three years ago.
“I remember having a 9 to 5 job. I was going to work, and I was doing all of the “right” things. I bought a house. I did everything I was supposed to. Then, I got laid off from my job. I realized that my destiny was in the hands of somebody else.” Although it was risky, and Perez and her business partner had no startup money, they broke off on their own. Sometimes they’d go months without generating any revenue for the business.
“It became very hard to get by. Now, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It made me stronger. It made me realize that as long as you stay positive and work towards the end result, and keep going, it can pay off. I have freedom in exchange for not putting my happiness and destiny in someone else’s hands. There’s always a way I can relate things back to powerlifting, whether that’s in competition or in building my business. Honestly, it’s helped me overcome so much. Now I don’t need all that other stuff to give me confidence. You have to be that way if you’re going to compete, or go for a PR. You have to be in a certain type of mindset to do that. If you can learn to apply that in life, it really does work.”
In life and on the platform, Perez uses visualization as a way to manifest the realities she wants to experience. “If you can envision it, it’s yours. Regardless of whether or not it’s making a lift, or getting that job that you want. You have to see it in your mind first and run with it. Never let that go. You’re going to have obstacles. Know that you’re going to get through your obstacles, and believe that you’re going to be ok when you come out the other side.”
On meet day, Perez says everything is “already done.” It all happens in her mind, in the days, weeks, and months, leading up to competition. By the time she steps on stage, her job is just to execute. “I start envisioning everything about my competition well in advance. Sometimes it will consume my thoughts. I’ll think about every little detail. What my singlet looks like, the chalk on my hands, walking up to the platform and looking at the bar. I envision locking the lift out. Every little step, I play it in my mind over and over again. It’s like muscle memory. Your body just remembers. If you’ve already done it in your mind, you can do it in real life.”
Still, Perez recalls what it was like to first start lifting. She remembers feeling unsure of herself, and intimidated by all of the strong women in the gym and on social media. She spent a lot of time comparing herself to other people, a pitfall many new lifters face when entering the sport. She echoes the criticism of Instagram that is gaining cultural relevance: “People only post the successful moments of their lives on social media. They don’t always talk about the struggles.”
“The reality of powerlifting,” Perez says, “is that we succeed because of our failures.” Again, it’s easy to draw parallels to life when you consider the ways in which she has used adversity to triumph and overcome. “There are so many things that happen, that people don’t discuss. I think it’s important to talk about the failures. That’s what makes you the winner in the end. You have to go through all of those failures first.”
“A lot of people like to say that the past doesn’t define you. I say the opposite. The past does define me. The reason that I know what I want and I have my clear goals is because I experienced all of the things that didn’t work for me. I wouldn’t have known that they didn’t work if I didn’t experience them, as terrible as some of those experiences were.”
One such experience was training under an inexperienced powerlifting coach for the first part of her lifting career. Like many novice lifters, Perez didn’t have the confidence to leave a coach who clearly didn’t care about her mental and physical performance, or her longevity as an athlete.
“When I first started powerlifting, I had a coach who had the mentality of, “no pain, no gain.” I trained five days a week, for three hours at a time. I was definitely overtrained.” Perez recalls being in near constant pain while lifting, due to strained hip flexors. She'd found her coach through a google search, and he was the only powerlifting coach in the area. “He had a monopoly,” she says, “He wanted me to train through it, and this was before I was strong enough and had the courage to say no. At the time, I wasn’t really able to speak up for myself. So, I listened to him and trained through the pain, hoping it would go away.”
But the pain didn’t go away. “Some days I was on the floor dead, or deadlifting with tears running down my face.” While deadlifting during competition prep, Perez remembers that her “back felt really off. It was a pain I’d never felt before, so I decided to go rest. I ended up not being able to put my shoes on. I couldn’t move or get out of bed, I was basically paralyzed. I ended up getting an MRI.” She learned that her L4 and L5 are borderline herniated discs, and that the injury was due to her legs being able to produce the force needed during that deadlift session. “We found out that both of my quadriceps were strained from compensation patterns relating to my hip pain. Because of that, my legs had no power.”
An orthopedic surgeon told Perez that if she competed in her upcoming meet, she may never compete again. She needed time to heal, but was terrified of telling her coach and teammates. “The idea of dropping out of a competition scared me. I thought it meant I was a quitter. I was so concerned with what other people thought.” Her coach still wanted her to compete. “It was at that moment that I realized this was not powerlifting, no matter what this coach was saying,” she says. “The doctor wrote me a note to show to the coach, telling me not to do the competition. I dropped out, and I focused on recovery. I still have issues from it. Everybody that I know that trained on that team now has injuries.”
“Just because somebody says they’re a powerlifting coach, that doesn’t make them a good coach.” Perez knows now. “I was paying him almost $400 a month to sit on his phone and not pay attention to me.”
Many people that get into lifting credit it with building their self-worth over time. This means that early on, they are especially susceptible to being preyed upon by bad coaches or Instagram celebrities. It’s easy to be taken advantage of if you don’t have the confidence to stand up for yourself. Perez believes that “You have to keep in mind that powerlifting is about you. If you had a job, and your boss was really shitty, and you weren’t getting paid on time, would you sit there and work that job? Or would you decide that you were worth getting treated with respect? Any relationship that you have in your life, it’s the same. Your coach should know what makes you tick, and should understand you. They should know what you respond to in training, and most importantly ,when you’re in a competition. You need a coach that’s paying attention to you and can read you, so that they can help you plan successfully and execute your lifts. If you have a coach and you’re not happy, you don’t owe it to your coach, or to your teammates, or to anybody but you. You have to make the right decision for yourself.”
Perez has learned how to take her power back, and to embrace areas of her life that she previously believed were “negatives”. She used to feel like she was living a double life by pretending like she was never an addict. For years, she hid a large part of herself in fear she would be rejected or unloved by her peers if they learned the truth. Using her voice to discuss her past has allowed her to become her authentic self, and to realize there is no benefit in hiding for the sake of other’s imagined opinions. “What sucked about that was that I was only harming myself, and isolating myself. I was putting up a barrier from allowing anybody to ever really know me.”
Talking about her struggles has taken the power away from those fearful thoughts. It’s also helped other people. After her Washington Post feature came out, Perez says she had many people reach out to discuss their own struggles with addiction. It gave them hope to see someone come out on top, and triumph.
“Being open about everything was nerve wracking, but extremely liberating at the same time. I’m telling strangers things that have been trapped inside of my mind for who knows how many years. Once the story was out there, I just felt free. It’s awesome to have the opportunity to know what that freedom and honesty feels like. You’re doing yourself a disservice to keep that trapped inside of you. I really like the saying that, with powerlifting, it’s so much more than weights. I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through the things I went through, but I was able to come out on the other side and persevere. It’s incredible to know that I got through all of that just because of my mind. Keeping my mindset strong is what got me through, and what has made me a better powerlifter. That was all me. I had to make up my mind, make a decision, and stick with it.”
“Powerlifting is what worked for me, but anything that gives you an outlet, or makes you feel complete inside, whatever that passion is, you just have to find it and run with it. It’s important to talk about everything, because it’s not really negative. I used to think that if I ever talked about my past, people would look at me and go, “oh she’s just a drug addict,” but it’s been the exact opposite. It’s been really therapeutic.
It makes me feel like I have broken some kind of chains. I feel free.”
Ana Perez strolled through the warehouse doors at The Shop Gym, black gym bag in one hand, red leather lifting belt in the other. On a humid Saturday afternoon in late July, heavy metal music blared through the speakers as Perez headed to the dead-lifting corner of the Manassas gym.