To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.
Rebecca Lorch was a champion strongwoman, winner of the America’s Strongest Woman competition in her weight class in 2020. She had a master’s degree in nutrition counseling, a roster of training clients and a romantic history with her coach, one of the top names in their sport. She had a rescue pit bull mix named Bella that had its own Instagram account.
“That dog was her life,” her mother said.
On Dec. 18, 2022, while her mother and stepfather were out celebrating the first night of Hanukkah, Ms. Lorch deleted her social media accounts, removed her face piercings and ended her life. She was 32.
In the close subculture of strongmen and strongwomen, her suicide came as a shock, even among those who knew her well. Just two days earlier, she had posted a video of herself triumphantly pressing a tremendous barbell over her head, announcing that she was in a “happy place.”
“Everything seemed to be going in the right direction for her,” said C.J. Krause, a friend and fellow competitor who said he talked with Ms. Lorch regularly about her mental health. “She had a lot of people around her who cared for her. But it only takes one bad day.”
The reasons for a suicide are rarely clear or simple. But Ms. Lorch’s friends pointed the finger at her coach and their romantic relationship. Many sports bodies prohibit intimate relationships between coaches and athletes because of the inherent power imbalance and potential for exploitation, though the main strongman organizations do not. Within days of Ms. Lorch’s death, a friend and fellow strongman started a #JusticeForRebecca campaign on social media.
Strongman competition, which often goes by that name even when the athletes are women, is commonly lumped together with powerlifting, but the two disciplines are different. Powerlifting looks like something you can see in any gym, only with exponentially heavier weights. Strongman is something else. Strongman athletes carry 200-pound stones over distances and heave sandbags over a bar; they pull trucks and dead-lift automobiles.
For many, the pain and discipline function as emotional therapy.
“We talk about being the misfits,” said Jackie Zagrans, a competitive strongwoman and friend of Ms. Lorch who works as a family therapist specializing in trauma. “We’re not the sleek, wealthy CrossFitters; we’re not the technique-savvy Olympic lifters. We’ve got tattoos head to toe. We’re a bunch of misfit toys. And the strongman community has always liked it that way.
“But what does that draw? That draws people who have troubles. That draws people who have experienced trauma. That draws people who have never felt like they fit in. They finally find this sport and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been looking for.’”
Rebecca Anne Lorch discovered the sport after a devastating injury during college, and it became her world.
Growing up in Mesquite, Tex., in the 1990s, she was the kind of child for whom things came easily, said her older brother, Jeremy. She was a girl scout and a straight-A student who once broke down in tears when she got a B on a test. “Everything she did, she was great at,” her brother said.
Even then, she was drawn to high-intensity experiences. She played full-contact football on a team that was almost all boys. The day she got her gear, she invited Jeremy to tackle her. He ran full-tilt across the yard and flattened her. “I thought that would be the end of it,” her mother, Susan Steiner, said. “But she got up laughing and said, ‘Do it again.’”
At Adelphi University on Long Island, Ms. Lorch majored in theater and joined the Tri Delta sorority. Lauren Callen, her best friend from the theater program, said Ms. Lorch enjoyed the stage because she could become someone else.
“She was sassy and strong,” Ms. Callen said. “Nothing brought her down. She was almost like a slab of concrete. You can throw it and throw it and throw it, but it’s never going to break.” Ms. Lorch gave that strength to her friends, Ms. Callen said. “When I was in really deep trouble, she would stop everything. Nothing else mattered except what I needed.”
But just before graduation, Ms. Lorch shattered her leg in a motorcycle accident. Doctors told her she might never walk normally again or even bend her knee. She worked intensely at her rehabilitation and became interested in nutrition, returning to school for her master’s degree from Montclair State University.
The gym was a place where she defied limitations. Instead of submitting to her doctors’ prognoses, she became a competitive powerlifter and, in 2015, competed in her first strongman event.
“Her coming back from her motorcycle accident was defiance, and it was her way of saying, ‘I refuse to be anything but strong,’” said Shelby Jones, a friend who works as a strength coach in California. But she added: “Sometimes we miss the nuance of how we’re making ourself vulnerable in other ways. Giving yourself permission to be fragile and to defend yourself as a whole person is a lot of work as a woman, and especially as an athlete.”
Ms. Lorch advanced quickly as a strongwoman, doubling as a nutrition coach for other athletes. She started training with a New York coach named Alec Pagan.
Working with her new coach, Ms. Lorch soon became one of the top amateurs in the country. His star, too, rose in the sport. Though Mr. Pagan had a girlfriend, he and Ms. Lorch began a sexual relationship.
Coaches, like teachers and psychotherapists, enjoy an unequal power relationship with the athletes in their care. They instill self-worth and motivation and grant approval. But they can also withhold these to serve their own ends. This imbalance “really makes any sort of romance between the two unacceptable,” said Lee H. Igel, a clinical professor in the N.Y.U. Tisch Institute for Global Sport and associate in medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Mr. Pagan did not respond to requests for an interview, but his lawyer, David D. Lin, said that Mr. Pagan’s personal relationship with Ms. Lorch began before he became her coach, “and he never received any payment to coach her, so she was not a traditional ‘client.’”
Abbie Deal, a strongwoman and Ms. Lorch’s friend, got to observe the relationship up close. She and her boyfriend shared an Airbnb rental with the couple at the America’s Strongest Man & Woman competition in Savannah, Ga., in 2020.
The two women bonded over “how we were both with men who we sometimes found difficult to deal with,” Ms. Deal said, adding that her partner was not abusive.
Even in front of Ms. Lorch, Mr. Pagan would “make comments disparaging the status of their relationship,” Ms. Deal said. She recalled his saying that Ms. Lorch was “just some girl he’s dating,” and that he didn’t have her in his “Top 10” of most attractive strongwomen.
Ms. Deal said Mr. Pagan also openly encouraged Ms. Lorch to use more performance-enhancing drugs, which are controlled substances requiring a prescription. “Alec said, ‘I can’t wait until we can get you on real drugs,’” Ms. Deal said. “Which kind of surprised everybody, because Bec was already on a ton of drugs. More than anybody else I knew at the time.”
Drugs are not prohibited in strongman competition, and they are widely used, often without medical supervision. But Mr. Pagan pushed them especially hard, said Tom Sroka, who trained briefly with Mr. Pagan. At one of their first conversations, Mr. Sroka said, Mr. Pagan asked him if he was willing to take enough drugs to grow a new penis.
“When you push back with him, his whole thing is, ‘Well, you don’t want to be as good as you say you do, because you’re not willing to do what is necessary,’” Mr. Sroka said.
Mr. Pagan’s lawyer responded, “Mr. Pagan never forced drug protocols.”
Like other athletes, Ms. Lorch used the drugs to build muscle and hasten recovery from injury or overwork. But anabolic steroids are also associated with anxiety and major mood disorders, including mania, hypomania and major depression.
Ms. Lorch told friends that Mr. Pagan was having sex with other athletes he coached, even while he was mostly living with her in her Brooklyn apartment, where she said she paid the rent and all the bills.
Mr. Pagan’s lawyer acknowledged that Mr. Pagan had a sexual relationship with one other athlete, but he maintained that Mr. Pagan and Ms. Lorch had an open relationship, and that she had consented to his sleeping with other women. He said Mr. Pagan shared in the household expenses.
Ms. Zagrans, the strongwoman and trauma specialist, saw a familiar pattern in Mr. Pagan’s conduct and Ms. Lorch’s susceptibility.
“The coaches say, ‘We believe in you,’” Ms. Zagrans said. “You start to believe that in order to be good enough, you have to do what they say.” In Ms. Lorch’s case, Ms. Zagrans said, this extended beyond the gym. “Who you hang out with, what you do socially, what you do sexually, what drugs you take. It expands, and you feel very powerless to stand up to someone like Alec, because there is so much fear.”
She added: “And women are so especially prone to it because so many of these women have finally found an outlet for their bodies that isn’t about what their bodies look like, but it is about what their bodies can do. The idea that ‘you’ll be nothing without me’ is a significant power play.”
In July 2021, as Ms. Lorch was preparing for the World’s Strongest Woman competition, she tore a biceps muscle during a workout, putting her out of competition for months. She blamed Mr. Pagan for overworking her on a day she needed a lighter load.
He blamed her.
Andrew Hanus, a strongman, was in a car with her when she got a series of messages from Mr. Pagan, one after another. “And she was bawling her eyes out,” Mr. Hanus said. “A switch flipped in Alec, and he was just degrading her.” After dropping Ms. Lorch at home, Mr. Hanus did not see her for a few hours. “When I did see her again,” he said, “unfortunately, she was high as a kite, just laughing at the whole situation.”
Posting on Instagram a year later, Ms. Lorch wrote, “It was in that moment that I decided it was time to leave.”
Breaking up, though, was hard. She could not compete because of her injury, so she did not have her accustomed outlet for frustration or depression.
“Even her best friends didn’t know she was struggling,” her mother said. “I did. She dealt with that just like she dealt with everything else in life: quietly, alone for a few days, and then she’d cycle out of it. That was just her mind-set.”
By December 2021, she was getting blackout drunk in her Brooklyn apartment and tried to kill herself with pills. She wrote later on Instagram: “My self-worth was so low I couldn’t find a slither of a reason to be alive or bear the pain of the massive shame and self-hate I felt from letting someone treat me so bad for so long.”
She moved with her dog to her mother’s house in Connecticut, where she seemed to be doing better, her mother said. She got a job managing trainers at an Equinox and ran her own nutrition and training business, working 75-hour weeks to pay off the debts she ran up when she was with Mr. Pagan. She was dating a new man and getting her strength back after another injury.
Then in July 2022, she decided to go public about her relationship with Mr. Pagan. In a series of Instagram posts, she accused him of cheating on her with other clients, using her financially and psychologically undermining her: “Stonewalling, gaslighting, communication tactics that would make me feel like my head was running circles in a hamster wheel,” she wrote.
Gabi Groszyk, who had dated Mr. Pagan before Ms. Lorch did, saw the Instagram posts and recognized the circumstances. “I went through the same things she did,” Ms. Groszyk said in an interview.
Mr. Pagan responded six weeks later, in September 2022, with a letter from his lawyer to Ms. Lorch, denying her charges and threatening to sue her for “the maximum amount of damages permitted by law.”
Nothing came of Mr. Pagan’s threatened suit. But Ms. Lorch’s mood started to darken around this time, her mother said. “She was more cloistered,” she said. “She wanted to be around people less. She seemed more stressed. But that could’ve been the job.”
Ms. Lorch became increasingly distraught. She told friends and her mother that she feared Mr. Pagan might come to Connecticut to confront her. “She couldn’t get away from him,” her mother said. Ms. Lorch took certification classes to buy a handgun and texted a friend, “I feel fine at my moms cause my step dad has guns but I def won’t move into my own place until I have my own.”
In her last week, she had dinner with her mother on Wednesday and worked out at the gym on Thursday, then cooked dinner for her mother and her stepfather. “She wasn’t great,” her mother said, “but she was talking, and we had fun.” On Friday, after completing a heavy lift at the gym, she posted: “Another few lbs back on the bar. Another happy place. Keep on keepin’ on.” It was her final post.
“Saturday, she went downhill,” Ms. Steiner said. She stayed in bed, saying she did not want to be around people.
Sunday, the first night of Hanukkah, Ms. Steiner went to her son’s house nearby, expecting her daughter to arrive later. Instead, Ms. Lorch texted to say she was not coming. Ms. Steiner tried calling and texting but got no answer. Finally, she checked Ms. Lorch’s Instagram page to see if she had posted anything. The page had been taken down.
She and her partner arrived home to find Ms. Lorch dead in her bathroom.
It is natural to seek a clean explanation after a suicide. Ms. Lorch was dealing with a relationship she considered abusive and the self-recrimination that came with staying in it for three years. But she also faced the fear of a lawsuit or physical confrontation, the effects of steroids, the double standard applied to female athletes, 75-hour work weeks, chronic pain from past injuries, plus whatever emotional turbulence or depression she carried with her to the gym.
Anthony Fuhrman, a strongman champion who also ran a tournament, said he bonded with Ms. Lorch over their respective traumas, and they became like brother and sister. After she died, he posted on Instagram about his own suicidal thoughts, saying, “Rebecca Lorch saved my life.” With her death, he sold his interest in the tournament and started the #JusticeForRebecca campaign. “She touched a lot of lives,” he said.
“A lot of times this sport does attract people who are already searching for something,” Mr. Fuhrman said. “It attracts people because it is a community, and it’s about empowering, it’s about getting strong. It attracts broken souls. When you throw drugs on top of those broken souls like myself, it compounds the issues.”
United States Strongman is now developing a formal policy regarding harassment and sexual conduct, said William Wessels, the president and owner. He said the organization has banned three male athletes since 2020.
Ms. Steiner searched her daughter’s phone and computer for answers but found nothing that might have set her off. Ms. Lorch’s final text was to a friend, making plans for the following week. “I never in a million years thought she — ” Ms. Steiner said, her voice trailing off.
“We think this was a very sudden thought process,” she said, finally. “She just suddenly said, ‘That’s it,’ and because of her personality, she just did it.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.