Conquering Illness & Depression, How This 97-lb. Woman Became the IPF’s Strongest Lifter

She sets up, digging the right foot in and shimmying with the left, pulling tight on the bar several times as her hips wiggle up and down before settling in. It is time. All 97 pounds of Heather Connor are pushing, driving against the floor unrelenting as the 402-lb. bar finally breaks free of the ground. 

Almost there. 

The bright lights of the Arnold stage and the crowd noise —many of whom have whipped out their cell phone videos in anticipation of this lift—are muted in Connor’s mind. With legs shaking and every muscle fiber firing, Connor raises the bar inch by inch until there it is —the judge’s wave signaling she is through. 

Connor, already with a 314 lb. squat and 159 lb. bench, has become the first female to pull four times her bodyweight. Her Wilks —a formula used to compare the strength of powerlifters against each other from different weight classes—is a jaw-dropping 558. 

It is barely March and Connor is now pound for pound not just the strongest lifter in the United States, but in the entire International Powerlifting Federation (IPF). 

“You are what everyone is chasing now,” fellow elite powerlifter Kim Walford, told Connor that day. “Not just in your weight class, in the whole IPF.”

It took a few days for Connor to truly grasp that. 

A pint-sized powerhouse, Connor is undoubtedly at the pinnacle of her sport, with the highest Wilks ever in a drug-tested forum. She has taken the powerlifting world by storm. But mental illness does not discriminate. 

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It started roughly a decade ago, the often-crippling anxiety that started with an abusive relationship that put Connor in the hospital coinciding with her grandfather’s passing. She couldn’t sleep, barely ate and the normal day-to-day things she once enjoyed brought on a wave of fear and uncertainty. It was paralyzing.

Then one day in 2015, a guy approached her at the gym. Connor, the daughter of a coach, had always tried to remain active even when her mind was racing. 

Did she like lifting at all?, the guy wanted to know. 

They just had someone drop out and needed to fill a spot on his powerlifting team. The meet was in three weeks.  Connor figured why not and the then-23 year-old spent the next few weeks trying to test how much weight she could lift. 

Quite a bit as it turned out. Connor arrived at her first meet cocky, aiming to set some state records. Instead she bombed out, having never bothered to learn the proper commands for the bench press. She spent most of her post-meet meal at Outback Steakhouse in tears. 

“I’ll never forget one of the people who was working the table [at the meet] said to me, ‘You’d be a very strong lifter if you just learned to close your mouth,’”Connor said. “For me when I messed up, I wanted someone else to blame. I wanted to push off any excuse that there was.”

Those words, and the failure that went with them, had lit a fire. Powerlifting had crushed her this time, yes, but it had also given Connor —who went home and immediately searched for new competitions—focus.

“It’s something that’s not spoken about, but depression and mental illness is a real thing,” Connor said. “Cool there’s all these stories on proper nutrition , but lets talk about real life things. For me, that’s anxiety and depression. 

Conquering Illness & Anxiety, How This 97-lb. Woman Became the IPF's Strongest Lifter

Going to the gym [to powerlift] has helped me control it. I use the word control not cure because I found methods that have worked for me. Whatever I was feeling that day, the gym was the one place my mind could relax. I was focused on that one set thing and that was lifting. For once, I didn’t have all these weird thoughts going through my head.”

Years earlier, Connor had been prescribed an anti-depressant. It worked, but she never liked the feeling of being drug-induced. She wanted a natural remedy. That quickly became the barbell. 

“It became my escape,” she said. “After leaving the gym those [first few weeks] I felt good and I could just live my life normally. Anxiety is still a very, very big thing that I still battle with. I find all these different methods to control the situation.  I understand what is going through my head and I recognize what I can control and can’t control.”

 

You are what everyone is chasing now. Not just in your weight class, in the whole International Powerlifting Federation. — Kimberly Walford, 6-time IPF World Champion on Heather Connor

 

It seems odd at first blush, for a person who struggles with anxiety to thrive on being in the spotlight on an international platform. For Connor, it works. There are headphones in her ears until the moment she steps on the platform. From there, she’s locked in on one person — her father—barely registering the rest of the crowd as she approaches the barbell. 

“I have good and bad days, but I’ve gotten better. I’ve gotten so much better than how I used to be,” Connor said. “[The bad days are] something I can’t help and I tell myself, ‘You’re OK’. I give myself these pep talks and have good support with me to get me back off of this weird cloud that I’m on.”

Switching her phone onto do not disturb at 8 p.m. has helped. So has listening to brown noise to calm her brain at night. Connor also stays away from supplements minus a little coffee in the morning. 

The less she puts into her body, the better she feels. Still, it took a scary incident for Connor to really take her nutrition seriously.

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She couldn’t control a bowel movement, let alone a heavy barbell. When she was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease last fall, Connor had dropped to an alarming 93 lb. USA Powerlifting Raw Nationals, an easy win for her, was right around the corner.  But Connor couldn’t pull the trigger.  

“It’s not curable, but it’s controllable,” she said of Crohn’s, which is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the lining of the digestive tract. “It’s scary.” 

Connor still went to Nationals to coach some athletes, though she ended up in the hospital in Orlando, Fla. Even now, something as innocuous as an avocado can send her to the emergency room as it did over the Fourth of July. 

Connor, who enlisted the help of Renaissance Periodization (RP Strength) to get her nutrition in check, is still learning what works for her. She can occasionally enjoy a splurge of Dominos pizza and employs an 80-20 rule when it comes to food quality. It’s an adjustment for someone constantly testing her strength limits, to finding out what her body simply can’t handle. 

 

It’s something that’s not spoken about, but depression and mental illness is a real thing. Cool there’s all these stories on proper nutrition, but lets talk about real life things. For me, that’s anxiety and depression. — Heather Connor

 

And it makes that 402-lb. deadlift several months later all the more impressive. 

“When she made Crohn’s public it was a hard time for her realizing that she had to manage her symptoms and it wasn’t going to work [to compete at nationals],” Walford said. “But her ability to be able to persevere regardless of the conflict. This was something she had really no control over. It shows a lot about her.” 

So, too, does Connor’s ability to divulge the not-so-triumphant parts of her quick ascent. 

“There was a point where that egotistical person [from my first meet] came back,” Connor admitted. “That was eye-opening for me, when you can look back and say, ‘You know what? I probably wasn’t the nicest person.”

Conquering Illness & Anxiety, How This 97-lb. Woman Became the IPF's Strongest Lifter

So, at the end of last year —after missing nationals, changing her diet and getting a new coach—  Connor overhauled something even more important: her legacy. 

“I was doing these self reflections and I thought, “How are you as a person? How do you impact those around you?,’” Connor said.

“And I did have that ‘I’m better than you’ mentality. I talked to Kim about it and she agreed with me. That’s what really opened my eyes. I wanted her to say, ‘No, Heather, you’re allowing your anxiety to take over.’”

Responding to comments and fan questions on social media has helped.

So has the natural progression of no longer being a brazen 23-year-old who stepped on that scale fully clothed and with no idea what a competition-style bench press entailed. 

“She’s really grown up a lot,” said Walford, who had several heart-to-hearts with Connor about her attitude.  “Everyone sees the championships, the records but they don’t see the stories behind what it takes to be one of the best in the world, the importance of having a strong support system. She’s realized not to sweat the small stuff, to focus on the things she can control in her environment and the importance of having the right people around you.”

The delete button has also been a useful tool. As Walford warned her, the bigger she gets, the louder the haters will be. 

“[Dealing with that] has made me grow not only as an athlete but as a person,” Connor said. “I’m now being the person I should have been a long time ago. I love getting messages from people that say I’m an inspiration or they want their daughter to look up to me. I want to be able to help people.”

To that end, Connor’s social media isn’t a nonstop highlight reel. She’s unafraid to speak out about tough days, whether that’s with the barbell or between her ears.

“Heather has no problem showing both sides of it and I think that’s helped grow the sport, helps people relate,” said Collin Whitney, Connor’s coach since last fall. “There’s that perception that some of these top guys, everything is easy. A lot of them do make it look really easy, but there’s so much going on behind the scenes.”

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How strong can she get? No one is quite sure. Connor already has a world title. But she believes she’s far from finished.

“I can continue to test my limits, I can continue to inspire those who want to be inspired by me. That’s what gets me going,” said Connor, who also has scoliosis. “Those people who look up to at 4-10, 97-lb. female, who send me notes about me helping them with their anxiety.”

“The human body is crazy. It’s crazy to be able to push our limits and see how far they can go, that’s what I want to know. I want to know where my limit is. I will do what I can to reach it.”

She has added more accessory work under Whitney, an improved bench that saw him refuse to let her lower opening attempt at the Arnold. That confidence Connor believes helped fuel her deadlift that day, helped propel her forward into a scary-strong generation of women.

“When I first started there were a token few women at every meet and now sometimes it’s more than half,” Walford said. “It’s amazing to see not only increasing our numbers, but how strong we’ve gotten [as females]. The standard for what you thought was possible for a weight class has been blown out of the water, really every time.”

Connor is leading the charge.

“I think women lifters are really starting to emerge to the point where we are inspiring male athletes, too,” she said. “People always to try classify you by your size, but you look at all of these lifters in different shapes and sizes. Like Stefi Cohen. You just got to break it down and keep proving people wrong. I’ve always been really honest about my struggles and how I got here. I don’t know any other way. It’s how I’ve learned and how I got to where I’m at. But I don’t want people to settle for where I’m at. Who’s to say you can’t be better, be stronger than me?”

 

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Photos courtesy of Heather Connor