Student competitor: ‘Cute doesn’t matter at the gym.’

First seen in The Montana Kaimin

Darryan Gonzales’s life started slipping over a year ago — missed classes, dropped assignments, stuck in bed, loss of appetite, inability to sleep. Her mental health deteriorated. She was in limbo. She needed to take time off from school to establish a healthy life sequence again.

Darryan Gonzales in Fuel Fitness on Feb. 20, 2019.

Always an athlete before college, Gonzales never lost her competitive streak. She walked back into the gym, picked up free weights and started her body-building journey with the help of a friend. It was a change of lifestyle she didn’t even know she needed.

At the same time, she chose to take a semester off college.

“I took the time to make the decision that I needed a break from school, and I was going to come back stronger,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales left her family in New Mexico for cold Montana four years ago. She chose UM so she could pursue a degree in music and play in the marching band. She retired from the band this fall.

She said the transition to Missoula was isolating as a gay and brown woman over a thousand miles away from her family.

She knew it was going to be different. She just didn’t know how different. Her energy was funneling into negative places that increased the severity of her depression and anxiety.

She’s found an inclusive, diverse and motivating community of women body builders and trainers at the gym. Sometimes she just hangs out in Fuel Fitness, a gym on Brooks Street with motivational quotes covering the walls, just to return later to train.

When Gonzales was growing up, her dad was a big Arnold Schwarzenegger fan. As a revolutionary icon in bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger inspired her as she dove into the history of the sport and the posing techniques for competitions.

On the days when her mental health feels the worst, the gym is what pulls Gonzales out of bed. She says bodybuilding and training with free weights gives her shots of adrenaline and motivation to push herself. Pushing herself through weight training is how she stays in touch with her body.

Gonzales is not ashamed to talk about her mental health because, as she says, “it’s just as important as my physical health.”

She learned with the help of trainers and experienced bodybuilders and built up muscle quickly while learning to balance rest days and her competitive mind with her body’s need to recover.

Five months later, Gonzales competed in the NPC Big Sky Championships, winning best posing routine and fourth place in women’s physique. She did not walk out with just two trophies in April, but the best tool she has in her arsenal to approach her mental health.

After weathering a back injury this past fall that landed her in the hospital, Gonzales overcame the mental blocks of building back up from an injury.

“I just needed to believe in my body,” she said.

She was terrified she would lose all her hard work the past months as she sat out for recovery, but she learned to hold space for her body to heal. And it did.

Gonzales is back to training, this time for the Portland Classic Bodybuilding show in August. She will graduate from UM next spring.

Gonzales encourages females intimidated by weights and the gym to ask questions and drop the concerns over their appearance while working out.

Though at first, she too felt the pressure to wear makeup to work out and the intimidating assumption that everyone was scrutinizing her at the gym, Gonzales laughs that she now will walk into Fuel in her pajamas.

“Cute doesn’t matter in the gym,” Gonzales said.

She’s found a community and team of body builders, both female and male. The 3 a.m. wakeups for competitions with 4:30 a.m. makeup and tanning sessions without food and liquids form a bond between competitors.

Body Builders Mikal Chancy, left, Darryan Gonzales, and Tessa Pearson debate which pose to strike for the photo in the crossfit room at Fuel Fitness on Feb. 20, 2019. Gonzales says that her friends and the encouraging environment at the gym are part of what helped her stick with her training.

“The gym has made anxiety and depression so much more manageable,” Gonzales said. She says the routine and discipline are another tool alongside medication and counseling.

“It’s probably the best tool I have in my toolbox right now,” she said.

She likes being in the skin she’s wearing now. But more than the muscles she’s built, it is the mental strength that grew with the hours she devoted to herself in the gym.

The kindness she showed her body in committing to herself helped rebuild a healthy happy life that makes mental health more approachable.