How weightlifting and a brush with death motivated a Utah teacher to help her students never give up

Theresea Daniel’s life was nearly cut short after a medical emergency, but she says her students kept her going.

All around Theresea Daniel’s classroom at Viewmont Elementary School are reminders to “be strong.”

She’s pasted the phrase in block letters to a bulletin board. A life-size cardboard cutout of the athletic, big sister Luisa from the Disney film “Encanto” towers in the back of the class. And Wonder Woman bobbleheads and posters fill the wall behind her desk.

Among it all, too, is Daniel’s own hefty stack of shiny medals won at powerlifting competitions.

She is a record-setter in the sport, and it shapes how she teaches her 6th graders.

Daniel first turned to lifting just a few years ago, after a harrowing battle with bacterial meningitis nearly took her life. Next to the medals she’s earned in deadlift and bench press, Daniel has hung the cane she used to learn to walk again, after the infection sent her world spinning.

Her classroom is about resilience and grit and overcoming challenges.

“I put my cane up there for the kiddos so they see that, sometimes, in life we choose our medals,” Daniel said.

(Courtesy of Theresea Daniel) Theresea Daniel's collection of medals and the cane she used to relearn to walk.

She still hasn’t fully recovered physically, she said, and struggles with her hearing, balance and the mobility of her right leg.

But at her last meet in South Jordan a few weeks ago, Daniel, 56, set five records for her competitive group. She’s lifted more weight at once than any other woman her age in Utah’s history.

Daniel takes pride in her strength, but also in teaching, she said, which she’s always seen as “more of an identity than just a job.” She loves the community in Murray and at Viewmont, where she’s taught for 29 years. If it wasn’t for her principal, she adds, Daniel might not be alive.

‘I barely survived’

Daniel consulted with doctors about a nagging pain in her lower back around October 2014. After a while, the pain grew to be so much that she called then-Principal Margaret Young to ask for a sick day.

The voicemail she left played a role in saving her life.

“It was just gibberish,” Daniel said. “And [Young] was like, ‘Oh, something’s wrong with Theresea.’”

Young immediately contacted the secretary where Daniel’s niece attended school, so she could ultimately get Daniel’s sister, Sue Kennedy, on the phone. Kennedy rushed Daniel to an emergency room, where Daniel eventually heard the garbled audio message she had left for Young.

An infection was rampaging through Daniel’s body and into her brain, she said. Doctors told her it was affecting her cognition and would permanently damage the hearing in her right ear, Daniel said.

She was put on a ventilator and said she “barely survived.” The damage to her right ear — and to a critical stabilizing mechanism within it for the brain — proved so severe that after doctors fought the infection back, simply moving was disorienting for Daniel. Her vocal cords were weakened because of the ventilator so, at first, she couldn’t speak.

Throughout Daniel’s stay in the hospital, she felt a “drive” to return to the classroom as soon as she could, she said. However, her doctors told her she probably wouldn’t return at all — let alone during the school year, she said.

Movement was her main obstacle. For weeks, she practiced how to walk in physical therapy — a grueling process that was sometimes dangerous when she lost her balance and fell.

“The right side of my body was ... I mean, I couldn’t lift my leg on my own,” Daniel said. “I had to rebuild those connections in the brain.”

After she was released from the hospital, Daniel moved in with her sister and asked for an “obstacle course” to be installed in the backyard. Complete with chairs, pool noodles and other lawn furniture, it was a place for her to practice leaning on her cane to take small steps.

(Courtesy of Theresea Daniel) Theresea Daniel shows off dumbbells during her class at Viewmont Elementary School in Murray at the start of the new school year.

The backyard made for the perfect test track because Daniel knew when she inevitably wobbled and fell, she said, at least it would be a soft landing on the grass. What she hadn’t anticipated was how much effort it took to get back up.

That’s when her mantra started. She would chant it over and over and in her head until she got up: “Be strong. Be strong. Be strong.”


Daniel soldiered on, soon going for walks around the neighborhood, where nearby families always seemed eager to join her.

The community wasn’t full of walking enthusiasts, Daniel later realized; her neighbors wanted her to know that there was always someone nearby to help when she faltered.

After a few months of leaving the ER and working hard to get back up, Daniel rushed to get back to the classroom. She targeted a return around Christmas break in 2014.

But upon returning to the classroom, Daniel found everything to be exhausting. She worried most about falling at school, she said.

She took another break to regroup after Christmas. She asked her sister for advice — and Kennedy, who had lifted some in the past, recommended that Daniel join a nearby gym. Daniel started with pushups and other basic exercises and before long, found herself going every day.

Daniel not only walked back into her classroom in the spring of 2015, before the end of the school year, but she started running again, too, completing a few 5Ks and a marathon.

What resonated with her most, though, was lifting free weights in the gym. She hired a trainer to start competing in 2019 and traveled around the United States, racking up medal after medal.

The awards didn’t matter, she said. Daniel was just happy to be back in class and “trying to be [her] best.”

(Courtesy of Theresea Daniel) Theresea Daniel celebrates wins at a recent lifting competition in South Jordan

Powerlifting is a sport built on consistency, she said, just like a teacher who has to show up every day for students. After three decades at Viewmont, Daniel said she’ll be ready to say goodbye to her classroom and retire in the next few years.

But the drive that got her back on her feet and back in the classroom isn’t going anywhere, she said. Daniel wants to use it to lift as much as she can, for as long as she can.

She often reminds her students “to never give up on their hardest lifts,” even if, in retrospect, they hadn’t seen them coming.

Each year, Daniel asks her students to meditate on what their greatest strength is — or their superpower — and write it on cards cut out to look like comic strip speech boxes to post in the hallway.

“I help others,” one sixth grader wrote as this school year began. Another wrote, “I am very creative.”

On Daniel’s card, she wrote, “I never give up.”

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