WATCH: Sonora Powerlifter Muscles Past Life's Challenges to Capture State Title
SONORA, TX -- For Sonora senior Juan Baez, powerlifting has been an outlet for him almost since he began the sport, looking to bulk up because he was the smallest offensive lineman on the Bronco’s football team. That meant Baez had to put in more effort to get on the varsity squad.
One thing athletic director Jeff Cordell preaches to his athletes is fighting through adversity.
“He would always talk about facing adversity,” Baez said. “When things weren’t going our way, he’d be talking to us and he’d say, ‘What are you gonna do in the face of adversity? Are you gonna just back down?’”
So, it should be no surprise Baez used his outlet in the face of adversity to bring his first state powerlifting title back to Sutton County back in March. Baez had not won a gold medal until this year.
To start Juan’s story, you have to go back to February 2018 when his grandmother passed away. Baez was competing at the Lake View meet when he got the news.
“I got done with squat and I got a call from my sister,” Baez recalled. “She was crying. Those phone calls you get like that are just the worst. I’m scared to pick up my phone now just because of stuff like that.”
Juan left the meet after getting the news and his family went to Mexico for the funeral.
But his grandmother wasn’t the last family member Juan would lose in 2018. His cousin, Freddy, died in a car crash on May 28.
“He was traveling home on an overpass -- I wanna say 60-feet above the highway underneath it,” Baez said. “He lost control for whatever reason. He didn’t make it home that night.”
Freddy was almost like a brother to Juan. The two shared a lot of similar interests.
“He was just like me,” Baez said. “He liked football, he liked lifting. He was pretty much me, but in a different body.”
In June, his other cousin and uncle were stabbed to death.
Baez knows he can’t do anything to bring his loved ones back, even though vengeance crossed his mind after June. He said, “you just have to cope with it.”
That’s when he turned to powerlifting.
“I think powerlifting really helped me deal with these deaths,” Baez continued. “You can’t do anything about it. Hurting somebody is not gonna bring them back.”
That year of funerals weighed on the senior with broad shoulders and the ability to squat 590 pounds.
“It hurt going to funerals and seeing your family cry,” Baez said. “It never gets easier. Like I said, you just have to live with the pain. Nothing you do is ever gonna bring them back.”
Then, in September, catastrophic flooding of the Dry Devil’s River hit the small town. It forced the game between Sonora and Wall to be moved up a day to Sept. 20.
More than 250 homes were affected by the flooding. Juan’s home was one of them.
“I was sitting in my eight period class … and there was an announcement,” Baez recalled. The announcement was that Baez and Aldo Deluna wouldn’t be able to go home.
“That’s a little weird. It can’t be that bad,” Juan thought. “What’s the worst thing possible? Sonora’s known for its arid climate. So, nothing like that would happen. At least in my mind, nothing like that would happen.”
Instead, 16 inches of rain fell in a few hours and the normally dry river roared to life in a bad way.
Juan and his girlfriend drove around the town to see how bad the damage really was. He thought he should probably check out his house.
“What I saw wasn’t what I expect,” Baez said.
When Juan called his mom, she was in tears. “We don’t have anything left. It’s all underwater,” she told him.
Baez drove to Glasscock Ave. by his house and found his mother by the street. She told him his dad was still in the house.
“True terror came over me. I immediately thought the worst,” Baez said. “I didn’t know how bad it could be. I tried going in the house. Nobody tried to stop me.”
Juan estimated the water was roughly three-feet deep and he waded through the strong current.
“That was the very first time I’ve had to swim at my house. Hopefully, it’s the last,” Juan joked.
When he got inside, Juan found out his dad was ok, but the current was too strong for his dad to get out on his own. Juan’s dad told him to avoid the front door, so he entered through the bathroom window.
“I walked through my house and nothing was left,” Baez said. “The rooms, the bathrooms -- it wasn’t like I remembered it. There was water everywhere, everything was floating.”
It was almost too much for Juan.
“I broke down. I already wasn’t in the best mindset, just losing all my family members,” Juan said. “I broke down. I’m not ashamed to say I cried.”
He couldn’t understand why so many negative things were happening to his family.
“I was pissed off,” he said. “I started crying. I told my dad, ‘Dad, we have nothing left.’”
His dad responded, “The only thing we can do is rebuild. I mean, at least nobody’s dead.”
He was right.
“I didn’t lose another family member, so I don’t know what I have to complain,” Baez thought.
So, Juan, his family and the Sonora community set out to rebuild. But Juan saw he wasn’t the only one going through hell.
“What hurt me the most was going through my neighborhood and seeing all the people that were in pain,” Baez said. “Up to that point, I thought only my family was in pain. Nobody else could feel my pain. But I saw families just homeless and that was something I was experiencing.”
After four days of cleaning his house, Juan went back to school. The outpouring of love and support from the community was something new for Baez. The school rallied troops to help the cleanup effort, the football team set out to do the same and people across the Concho Valley did what they could to support their neighbors in their time of need.
“I was starting to lose my faith in humanity,” he said. “I thought there was so much evil and that’s no way to think.”
The flood was ALMOST too much for Baez. With a “revived” sense of optimism, Juan set out to find a way to repay his coaches, his girlfriend’s family and the community for their help during the fall.
“I wanted to give them something to be proud of,” Juan said. “Powerlifting was already something I was good at. It was an outlet. This is how I channel my emotions. I thought that by winning the state championship, my community, my family, everybody could be proud of me. We’ve gotta celebrate something, am I right?”
The cavalcade of events in 2018 sparked a drive in Baez and he began to work toward that 2019 state title.
“All the stuff I had been through only made me stronger,” Juan said. “I don’t think people understand how mentally strong powerlifters are just as they are physically strong. It’s a brutal sport. I would channel mostly anger into my lifts. … So much anger, so much pain.”
He opened with 590 pounds on squat before trying 625 on his second and third lifts. His opener was still good enough to win, but he felt he needed to make up for it in his other two lifts.
“I ended up PRing on bench by 10 pounds, I wanna say,” Baez said. “Then I was ahead of this one kid by 15 pounds. So, I had to beat him in deadlift.”
Juan then lifted 550 pounds on deadlift, a personal record of 30 pounds. The second place lifter tried 565, but couldn’t successfully lift it, giving Juan the title.
“That was a lot to handle, at the time,” Baez said. “But it was that love, that confidence that I was gonna win. That made me confident, rather than feeling under pressure.”
Baez said the state title was the “best feeling” in his life and he will remember how hard he fought for the gold.
Video by Manny Diaz. Article by Sam Fowler.
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