Warning: This story includes description of thoughts and behaviors related to depression and eating disorders.
Laura Gonzalez struggled with depression and an eating disorder for years. But at the age of 19, she began her journey into the high-intensity exercise world of CrossFit. Eventually she became the sport’s top female athlete in Venezuela.
Gonzalez, now 27, is one of the 4 million people who do CrossFit every year around the globe. She is also one of thousands who have suffered from depression and eating disorders. But her ability to defeat hardship and then super-achieve is unique.
“It’s crazy to look back at when I first started, because never in a million years did I imagine that [CrossFit] would be my life,” she said.
Though exercise is not the only solution to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, it has been proven an effective way to ease them. Regular workouts can trigger the release of endorphins to positively affect one’s sense of well-being and facilitate healthy coping. Despite her battle with depression and anorexia, Gonzalez was able to achieve what those around her believed was impossible.
Gonzalez recalls that her eating problems arose during preadolescence when she was a victim of bullying as the only girl on a soccer team in Caracas, Venezuela. Her teammates called her “sausage legs” and verbally harassed her. During that stage, she says, it was easy to ignore those hurtful comments.
However, as she reached adolescence, anorexia and other eating disorders took control of her life. By age 18, she weighed 90 pounds and stood 5 feet 7 inches tall.
“I remember the fear I had of being fat, but that is something that happens to almost all women,” she said. “I started to lose weight quickly because I only ate tuna and cucumber, but I always looked fat in the mirror, even when I was so thin I couldn’t sit down because I felt pain in my bones.”
During this challenging time, life presented one of the most painful blows she’d ever been dealt.
In 2013, when she was 19, Gonzalez lost her older brother, Alejandro, in an accident. At that moment, her life seemed to split in two. She experienced a terrible depression, and the anorexia worsened.
“Losing my brother has been one of the hardest things I have ever endured,” said Gonzalez. “From then on, things got worse. I started to deal with depression, and my anorexia reached a critical point because I trained a lot, but I didn’t eat anything.”
The road to recovery was long, difficult and bumpy.
“In 2013, I moved to the United States, and I was already dealing with my depression and eating disorder,” said Gonzalez. “By then, CrossFit was in fashion, so I decided to attend a class. It kicked my butt and I loved it.”
Little by little, this sport became the center of her life.
“I began to train harder and harder, but this time not to lose weight, but to feel strong,” she said. “And I began to feel that my mental health was improving.”
It took her three years to totally recover from her eating disorders. She gave herself completely to this sport and spent most of every day in the gym.
Gonzalez dreamed of reaching the biggest CrossFit competitions as her results in the gym improved. However, there were many who doubted her because she remained extremely slender.
“When I had been doing CrossFit for a short time, a coach told me that it was unrealistic for me to try to compete,” Gonzalez said. “[But] I actually competed — I did the qualifiers and ended up placing in the elite category.”
Soon, Gonzalez was mounting podiums around the CrossFit world.
“When someone tells Laura not to do something, Laura is sure to do it,” said Carolina Marin, her mom. “She is competitive, and she is willing to show that she is the best.”
Though she has been based in the United States for eight years, Gonzalez mostly competes representing Venezuela. In the 2019 CrossFit world games, she finished first in the world among Venezuelan women. And the year before, representing the United States, she finished 78th in the world– her best showing. Gonzalez credits her success on not only her physical condition, but her mental wellbeing as well.
At present, Gonzalez not only competes, but also coaches at Caution CrossFit and Fitness Facility in Miami Lakes, where she inspires others to be better daily.
“When I started CrossFit, I never thought I was going to get to where I am today,” Gonzalez said. “It saved my life after I decided to stop being afraid, so if I had to give someone advice, it would be to live without fear and never underestimate yourself or let others do it.”