It takes a minute for Geri Athenas to mentally calculate the number of powerlifting medals her daughter, Angel Athenas, has earned in just the past three years.
First, there were the ones from the local Special Olympics competitions. Then, the 2018 New York State Special Olympics Games, where she earned four golds, plus the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, from which she brought home another four golds. Add that to the four golds she earned at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games, of course, and the additional four golds at the 2019 New York State Games.
All told, Angel has about 49 medals to her name, her mother finally determines. And that number is only expected to grow as Huntington, New York-based Athenas, 34, continues to train nearly 20 hours a week with the goal of smashing her personal bests.
“I feel like I’m Hercules,” Athenas tells SELF, of how powerlifting makes her feel. Her accomplishments certainly are Herculean: At the 2019 World Games, hosted in Abu Dhabi in March, the five-foot-tall athlete deadlifted a seriously impressive 254 pounds, bench pressed 138, and squatted 182. She’s also broken female powerlifting records for New York State.
As this powerlifting powerhouse sets her sights on the next Special Olympics World Games, scheduled for 2023 in Germany, we spoke with her, Geri, and her trainer to learn more about her unlikely ascent to become one of the strongest female Special Olympians in the world, how she trains for high-level competitions, her future goals, and more.
An extremely difficult start
Athenas’ rapid rise to world-class Special Olympics powerlifter is even more remarkable when you consider where she started. Athenas faced an exceedingly challenging childhood. Her mother shares that she was born a drug-addicted baby, abused as a child, and in the foster care system for the first eight years of her life. Then, in the early ‘90s, Geri and her late husband saw a video from an adoption agency of a hyper little girl who was missing her two front teeth and felt compelled to help. “Gee, how could we not lead her and do something?” Geri tells SELF. “Because what’s her destiny?”
They adopted Athenas, who Geri explains has autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and learning disabilities, welcoming her into their family of four. Though she struggled with basic verbal skills, her natural coordination and athleticism became readily apparent. Geri’s older sons, Jason and Jeff, both teenagers at the time, taught Athenas how to play hockey and ice skate. In high school, she expanded her repertoire to include track and gymnastics.
After graduating high school, Athenas enrolled in a day program with Family Residences and Essential Enterprises (FREE), a New York-based nonprofit agency that supports adults with disabilities, says Geri. Through FREE, she sang with a group of adults with autism for nearly 10 years, and also tap danced and traveled with a troupe. That’s all before she discovered an unparalleled passion—and talent—for powerlifting.
How she got into powerlifting
In 2015, as Athenas struggled with behavioral challenges, John Ponce, the residential supervisor at Athenas’ group home in Huntington, proposed a solution: Why not take her to the gym and see if she could direct her anger elsewhere? (Ponce is not a certified trainer but had some prior experience with weightlifting and thought it might help her.)
They began tackling workouts together, focusing on weightlifting, and Athenas developed a strong interest in the sport. The next year, she met an all-male team, the Iron Men Special Olympics powerlifters, at the gym. They welcomed her into their group, and she began lifting with them once a week. Then, she started joining them at local Special Olympics meets, and from there, “it just took off,” Ponce, who is still Athenas’ coach, tells SELF.
At many of those local competitions, Athenas was the only female powerlifter, explains Geri. But that didn’t seem to intimidate her. “Because of her personality, she was out there, yelling, ‘You’re doing great,’” says Geri. “And she was smiling, and talking to everybody.”
After earning gold and breaking records at the 2018 New York State Games, Athenas joined the New York State Special Olympics Team in Seattle for the 2018 Special Olympics Games USA. The national competition marked the first time she’d traveled alone without Geri and her stepfather, and “she really had a terrific time,” says Geri. In addition to greeting essentially everyone in the competition venue (her coaches, says Geri, remarked “My god, there’s 5,000 athletes here, and she’s met 5,000 athletes“), Athenas won her weight class, adding four gold medals to her growing collection.
The overall experience, adds Geri, “helped her so much to mature, to be independent that the helicopter mom didn’t have to be so much of a helicopter mom.” Then came the epic ask from USA Special Olympics. Would Athenas represent America in the 2019 Special Olympic World Games Abu Dhabi? Given her success at the USA Games, Geri and Bob elected “yes.”
Athenas says she arrived at the global competition with full confidence. “When I went to Abu Dhabi, I said, You know what? I feel like I got this, because I know I’m the strongest woman in the world.”
There, she won her weight class yet again, earning four more gold medals, and in true Athenas style, met seemingly everyone at the competition, including pro wrestler Stephanie McMahon, plus an Emirati prince who asked for a photo, says Geri. The newly crowned World Champion returned home to a flurry of attention, celebrations, and event invites.
First there was the welcome home party at her group home complete with elected officials and news cameras. Then, McMahon invited her to attend WWE’s WrestleMania in April, where Athenas walked the red carpet and received one of Ronda Rousey’s original belts, says Geri. In May, the New York State Senate honored her, and in June, she visited the United Nations headquarters in New York City and played bocci ball as part of a UN Conference of State Parties to the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Yet despite the near-constant stream of attention, Athenas didn’t want to spend much time reveling in her accomplishments—she simply wanted to get back to the gym, says Ponce. “I was actually taken aback and impressed, because most athletes would get to that finish line and want to enjoy the moment a little more,” he says.
The intense training
“The most empowering thing I do is powerlifting,” says Athenas, whose favorite event is the deadlift. Her goals for the 2023 Special Olympics World Games are no joke: deadlift 315 pounds, squat 285, and bench press 205.
With those benchmarks in mind, she currently trains one day a week for about an hour with the Iron Men team, and five days a week, for about three hours a day, with Ponce at the local Retro Fitness gym. A typical workout begins with about an hour of intense cardio (think treadmill, bike, StairMaster, elliptical, and/or jumping rope), before shifting focus to weight lifting, and finishing with core work.
Through powerlifting, Athenas has developed “tremendous” focus, says Ponce, and “a drive to want to do better and be better.” Case-in-point: her extremely strong work ethic. “I’ve never met anybody that is so into it,” says Ponce. On Sundays, the day she lifts with the men’s team, she’ll often go back to the gym that evening for a separate cardio workout, he explains. But as serious as she is about her workouts, she’s also serious about her recovery, aware of the safety risks inherent to powerlifting. “I have to be careful,” she says. “I don’t overdo it.”
When asked to describe her natural abilities as an athlete, Ponce says, “a lot of heart, a lot of determination, a lot of can-do attitude.” And as a person? Athenas is “very giving, very loving, extremely overprotective,” he says. “If she feels that somebody is not speaking to me, let’s say, or her mother, in a specific way, she won’t hesitate to flex her guns.”
When she’s not at the gym, Athenas spends three days a week at a local barn learning how to take care of horses with the aim of one day getting a job in the field, says Geri. She also enjoys dancing and DJ’ing.
As for all of those medals, she stores the most prestigious ones—the four from the 2018 USA Games and four from the 2019 World Games—in two shadow box display cases that hang in the apartment she shares with her Pomeranian, Jack. She’s also made a habit of giving away medals to young girls she meets “to tell them that they can be strong,” explains Geri.
So what advice would Athenas give to other athletes seeking success? “If you have a goal that you want to go for, do not [let anybody] stop you,” she says. “Go forward and just do the best you can. And don’t let nobody tell you that you can’t do this.”