PORT RICHEY — Sometimes all it takes for someone to turn her life around is a trip to the gym and a chance encounter.
Ann Vanderbush is evidence of that. The record-holding powerlifter decided to change her life after years of drinking and partying finally caught up with her. To this day, she still feels the effects of that time. She juggles life as a full-time student at St. Petersburg College, employee at a Verizon Wireless retail center, trainer and powerlifter — all without a car, due to multiple DUI infractions when she was younger.
"I used to party a lot and I got into a lot of trouble," said Vanderbush, 24. "I decided I wanted to get my life together and I figured where better to start than in the gym? I started competing as a powerlifter two years ago, and now I've broken some records. Now I go talk to kids at schools and try to be a positive role model for them.
"So the sport has changed my life, to say the least."
In the beginning, all it took was a chance encounter with a group of local powerlifters for Vanderbush to go from wanting to "lose a little weight" to becoming the powerful presence she is in the gym.
"I just happened to meet some local powerlifters at the gym one night," Vanderbush said. "They asked if I wanted to start powerlifting and I got addicted to it once they showed me some things. It kind of solidified me into the community and gave me a feeling of home. It's a very humbling sport, and there is always another step to take with it. I know that it has made me mature and helped me become the person that I am today."
Along the way to powerlifting success, Vanderbush has received support from sponsors, such as equipment from West Cary Barbell and South Florida Strongman. She has been fortunate to receive traveling funds from people around her primary gym, Cor Fitness on U.S. 19.
In February, the 180-pound lifter tore her ACL, one of the four main ligaments in the knee, and was forced to rehabilitate it herself.
By the end of April, she was back in competition at the American Powerlifting Federation Raw Nationals in Orlando. She lifted a total of 1,085 pounds: squatting 369.2 pounds, benching 253.5 pounds and deadlifting 462.9 pounds. She ranked second on the Powerlifting Watch Lifter Rankings.
Still, the traveling involved with competing is a challenge. It's costly and affects her work schedule.
"I've been really lucky to receive the support that I have, but things are hard for local athletes right now," Vanderbush said. "The next big thing on my agenda is the final series in the Ultimate Powerlifting Championship on Nov. 12. I want to bench 300 pounds at this event. There's no feeling like lifting that much in a competition. So much of it is mental and that's what I love about this sport."
Bruno Buonsanto is the coach of Gulf High School's girls weightlifting team. He sees girls getting into the sport for a multitude of reasons, but finds it difficult sometimes to convince them of their ability. He uses Vanderbush to show them what they can do.
"She talked to my girls weightlifting team and they took to her right away," Buonsanto said. "I think hearing from a girl meant a lot more to them than hearing it from me because they see her results.
"Ann has an intimidating presence in the gym. I'm hesitant to lift with her because she might make me look bad in front of my friends."
These days Vanderbush has added personal training to her repertoire. She trains Mike Diaz, a colleague at Verizon.
"Compared to some of the guys I've worked out with, Ann has a lot more to offer as a trainer," said Diaz, 25. "A lot of people just worry about the numbers they're lifting, but she gets you to focus more on form. She's like a professional trainer. Powerlifting is what makes her tick and because of her, I'm really starting to get into this."