It was a homecoming fit for a goddess.
Dripping in a quartet of gold medals, Michelle “Angel” Athenas of Huntington lifted her arms in triumph, soaking in the adulation as the cameras snapped images of her powerful frame.
Athenas, 34, who has autism, ADHD and is bipolar, returned home Sunday from Abu Dhabi where she won four gold medals at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games, shattering female records in powerlifting.
On Monday, elected officials, friends and family provided the gold medalist with a hero’s welcome at Family Residence and Essential Enterprises (FREE), an Old Bethpage facility that supports 4,000 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“It’s dedication. It’s hard work,” Athenas said of her accomplishments. “You can’t give up … You have to eat, sleep and lift.”
Her journey was as difficult as it was unlikely.
Abandoned at birth by a drug-addicted mother, she bounced around the foster system in the Bronx, where family members said she suffered sexual and physical abuse and lived in squalid conditions.
By 1994, when she was taken in by Geri Athenas of West Islip, Angel was largely nonvocal. She had never stepped foot in a school, been vaccinated for a single disease or celebrated a single Christmas.
“It was a cup half full; not half empty,” Geri Athenas said. “We didn’t know how she would turn out.”
Through a focus on athletics, and with the help of FREE, Athenas said her daughter soon came out of her shell, graduating from high school and coining herself “Angel.”
A visit to a Deer Park gym in 2014 turned Angel Athenas on to powerlifting. Family members said she never looked back, training six days a week, up to three hours a day.
Nicknamed by her teammates as ‘Secret Weapon’ and ‘Angel Dust,’ Angel Athenas first broke the women’s deadlifting record at the 2018 New York Special Olympics in Albany. In July, she won four gold medals in powerlifting at the 2018 U.S. Special Olympics in Seattle.
And last week, Angel Athenas, who weighs 164 pounds, conquered the globe at the Special Olympics World Games in the United Arab Emirates, competing with 7,500 other athletes from 195 countries, including 72 female powerlifters.
She won gold for bench press (134 pounds); squat (181 pounds); dead lift (254 pounds although she went up to 292 pounds) and for the cumulative weight total.
Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino noted the comparisons between Angel and Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage and inspiration.
“You have the strength of Hercules and the kindness of Athena,” Saladino said. “You are a great example for women of all abilities.”
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the “perseverance and strength that it took for you to get to this place is truly remarkable and truly inspirational.”
Supporters noted that Angel Athenas is also a well-rounded citizen, volunteering at a local horse stable, helping to clean an area church and aiding at an assisted-living home.
“You represent the core and heart of who we are,” said Robert Budd, chief executive of FREE, adding that the powerlifter had “truly made the world make notice.”
Angel Athenas, who resumed her training only hours after returning home Sunday, urged young weightlifting hopefuls not to be defined by their challenges or their disabilities.
“Keep moving forward,” she said. “Don’t be distracted. Conquer your game. Just keep going.”