July 14, 2014

Finding the strength beneath the muscles

July 14, 2014 Stuart Taylor Associated Press

VALDOSTA — This is the story of Donna Hughes, a strong woman — a personal trainer, a bodybuilder — who had her strength taken from her and had to fight to get it back.

Hughes got into bodybuilding and the fitness industry when she was dating her future husband, Jay.

“I got into it doing small things, just getting my body into shape,” she said.

It led to a whole new career. In the late 1990s, she started working for Legends, a gym in Valdosta, doing personal training and running the gym.

“I got into doing different training for people: weight loss, lifestyle changes, competition.”

Eventually Legends closed and Donna transitioned to working with Jay in his dry-cleaning business, but her time as a trainer stuck with her.

“It was always something that I loved to do. No day would pass where I wouldn’t wish I was back at the gym again.”

Her wish came to life when she started working for the YMCA in 2010. She stayed with the Y for a year and a half before being sidelined with a stroke.

Donna’s stroke left her unable to walk. She had to leave her job at the YMCA, as well as a fitness class she was teaching at her church.

“It was very hard going from being able to do so much and waking up the next day with everything taken away, not being able to walk, not being able to communicate very well with my husband and children.”

Frustrations and doubt led Donna to question the purpose of physical therapy, of getting back into the gym at all.

“When you’re used to doing something and you can’t get it to work like you know it was supposed to work, you want to give up.”

And then, one day, that changed.

Donna awakened and decided to commit, to focus on efforts of gaining back the use of her body.

At the same time, Jay shared with her a verse from the Bible about being strong, about not letting anything defeat you.

“I told him, ‘Take me downstairs. This is the day it all starts.’ My goal was I wasn’t going to let the Devil beat me and take my passion away. I wanted to get where I can walk without a walker, go to the store without a wheelchair and get on the path of getting better. And it took me a year. It took me a very long year to get through.”

Back on her feet, she began personal training again, this time at Factor X Fitness. Though she’s now the manager, she still does personal training.

“This is my career. It’s my joy every day to see someone smile, changing their life. When you see them for the first time and you go through what their struggles are, you work those things out with them.”

Some of her clients are working through their physical recovery, whether it’s due to a stroke, cancer, diabetes or something else.

For them, Donna brings firsthand knowledge of the struggles, the mental stress, the emotional toil.

“Whatever struggles you may have, having a stroke or having cancer, we can work through it. It might not be 100 percent, but we’ll get you where you can be.”

Donna also started competing in bodybuilding competition after her stroke, as a way of proving to herself and others that “anyone with any kind of medical history can really go forward and get their dreams.”

She’s thankful to be back on her feet and doing what she loves, encouraging clients to remember how far they’ve come, the fears they’ve faced, the battles they’ve won.

She also encourages herself to remember, to remember where she was and where she is, to remember her family who pushed her to overcome her doubts and her dread, to remember how far she’s come.

“I still have some struggles today — some weakness, some trembles — but after I got back into it, those waived a bit. I’m pushing through those, knowing if I stop working out, those things are going to come back. I have to keep those muscles fired at all times.”

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