Before she decided to become a soldier, before she began dreaming of becoming a champion bodybuilder, Ana Garcia Cowan used to run along the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

It was just something to do, a time-filler between the criminal-justice classes she was taking and the casino jobs she was working — first as a waitress, then as a blackjack and roulette dealer. She had run track at Atlantic City High School, but she stopped after her freshman year. Her mother worked a night shift in the stewarding department of Trump Plaza, and Ana needed to be home to take care of her little brother, Daniel. “I felt cheated out of my high school years,” she said.

On the Boardwalk, she’d push herself to run a mile. She enjoyed the scenery — the Technicolor buildings, the Ferris wheel and other amusement rides, the breeze off the ocean — and a mile seemed so far. She might go to the gym once in a while, too, just to curl a couple of 10-pound dumbbells, just to feel a soft burn in her arms. It was nothing that anyone else couldn’t do. That was the problem. She was 22 years old, then 23. She had been living with her boyfriend, but the relationship was falling apart, and she wasn’t doing anything in her life that anyone else couldn’t do, and she couldn’t see a time she ever would.

One night, she drove up to North Jersey to attend a bodybuilding show; one of her coworkers was in it. Wow, Ana thought. Not everyone can do that, but I could … someday. When she arrived home, she took out a black pen, a red pen, and a bound, lined notebook. In black, she wrote: “Goal: To gain 10 lbs of lean muscle & have a fat percentage of 15. Would like to be a fitness expert & a competitor.” Below that, in red, she wrote: “There’s NO jumping on the scale. There’s NO flexing abs or muscles in front of the mirror, naked or in thongs. On Oct. 1st — check myself out.”

A page from the long-ago diary of Ana Garcia Cowan.
Ana Garcia Cowan
A page from the long-ago diary of Ana Garcia Cowan.

She put the notebook away and didn’t pick it up again for a long time. Soon, the boyfriend was gone, and with him, the income necessary for Ana to live on her own. She had to move back in with her mother, and Ana hated that idea. She called her best friend for advice. The friend’s mother answered the phone. “She joined the Army," she told Ana.

This is my ticket, Ana thought.

She drove to the nearest military entrance processing station, in Philadelphia, and enlisted. She wasn’t in the greatest shape, but she passed the physical, and before she knew it she was gone, too, just like her ex and her friend and her life in Atlantic City, off to basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C. She became a 71L, an administrative specialist, and her first duty station was at Fort Bliss, in El Paso. She spent six years there, started a family, and was then assigned to Fort Bragg, N.C., where she spent another six years. It was 2004 now. War was raging in Iraq, and as a second lieutenant and a platoon leader, she was deployed for 11 months to Taji, a city less than 20 miles north of Baghdad, to help run an Army post office.

Ana Garcia Cowan in a military portrait in 2000.
VERNON OGRODNEK
Ana Garcia Cowan in a military portrait in 2000.

She returned home a first lieutenant and went into the captain’s career course. Her life was peripatetic, as life can be in the armed forces: South Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, North Carolina, Kansas, then back to Texas at Fort Hood. She completed her bachelor’s in criminal justice. Days, weeks, years zipped by. By 2017, Ana was nearing retirement and feeling, she said, “at a crossroads.” The demands of the military had thrown everything in her life out of balance, especially her diet. “As a Hispanic family, we love fried foods, a lot of rice and beans,” she said. “We eat a lot of carbs with carbs and some more carbs.”

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Her father, Jose, had died of heart disease four years earlier, when he was 54. At Ford Hood’s wellness center, ahead of another deployment to Iraq, Ana underwent a detailed health assessment. The results terrified her. She was 5-foot-3 and 142 pounds, and her body-fat percentage was 40.8.

“In females, we consider that risky,” said Russell Abaray, an educator at the wellness center, who worked with Ana. “That was a wake-up call.”

For eight months in Kuwait, while managing the departures and arrivals of soldiers, sailors, and airmen, Ana spent all her available downtime in the gym of the forward operating base. “I would see other people train,” she said, “and say, ‘I can do that, too.’ ” During every workout, she wore a gray sweatshirt with NEW JERSEY across the front. She changed her diet, drinking a gallon of water and consuming no more than 1,100 calories worth of food — lots of brown rice and sweet potatoes — each day. She ran one 5K a month in Iraq’s 105-degree heat. Her muscles grew. The pounds fell off. By the end of her deployment, she had lost 27 pounds, and her body fat had dropped to 19 percent.

Ana Garcia Cowan (left) before she became a bodybuilder (right).
Ana Garcia Cowan
Ana Garcia Cowan (left) before she became a bodybuilder (right).

She wanted to challenge herself further. She found a personal trainer, Angela Chrisman, who was a competitor and judge in the Global Bodybuilding Organization, a circuit founded in 2015. Chrisman suggested that Ana, if she were willing to push herself, could participate in a GBO event herself. They targeted a bikini competition six months out, in early November in Fort Worth. She lost 12 more pounds and 7 additional body-fat percentage points. “She is military,” Chrisman said, “in every sense of the word.”

As an amateur, Ana had to pay a registration fee to enter the competition, $300 for three “beachbody” events: novice, masters (to competitors over age 40), and open. At the Fort Worth Texas Convention Center, she wore a spangled silver bikini onstage, the lights blinding her, her insides quivering. She finished first among the novices, second among the masters, third in the open category. Her daughter, Carlana, who is 17, watched in the theater and marveled at her mother.

Ana Garcia Cowan with her mother, Ana Garcia, left, and daughter, Carlana Cowan.
VERNON OGRODNEK
Ana Garcia Cowan with her mother, Ana Garcia, left, and daughter, Carlana Cowan.

“It inspires me,” Carlana said. “When I think of bodybuilders, I think of, like, swole, weird … ugh, people who take pills and shots. That’s what I think of, but she’s a hundred percent. That’s real. Now that she did her competition, I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m really proud of you.’ ”

Maj. Ana Cowan, 45 years old, competed again on May 11, in an event called the South Padre Island Showdown. Against a bigger, more experienced field than the one in Fort Worth, she placed fourth in masters and fifth in open. She celebrated by indulging in a cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake (with whipped cream and jimmies). “I will continue to train,” she said, “and do it again.”

Last winter, rummaging through old boxes, she found her old journal — the notebook, the fitness goals. It had taken her 22 years, but she had reached them. She took a photo of those pages, another way to preserve her achievement. Maybe someday someone else, maybe her daughter, will look at it and say, I can do that, too.

THE UPSIDE FLAG
STAFF
THE UPSIDE FLAG