There is nothing better than a great story—one that inspires, teaches and motivates us to achieve our dreams.

Well, maybe there is something better.

After all, the IDEA World Fitness Award recipients and finalists each have a tale to tell. That’s nine times the inspiration! Recognizing the achievements of the top three fitness superstars was a highlight of IDEA® World Virtual in August. Here, all the honorees share their journeys, strategies and triumphs from their ongoing efforts to Inspire the World to Fitness®.

Heartwarming and soul-quenching, these are the stories that nourish our industry.

IDEA Fitness Leader of the Year

Tricia Murphy Madden: 2020 Fitness Leader of the Year

Seattle

Tricia Murphy Madden

How does Tricia Murphy Madden approach the challenges of leadership? “With humility, self-awareness, collaboration and genuine excitement for the success of her peers,” says colleague Laura Bordeaux, a personal trainer and sport conditioning coach.

You can add skill, experience and a history of excellence to the list of attributes. A 28-year veteran of the fitness industry as a group fitness instructor and program director, Murphy Madden is currently national education director for Savvier Fitness and a co-creator of Barre Above® group fitness programming. In that role, she recruits, educates and manages nearly 100 master trainers while creating monthly workout programs for more than 11,000 Barre Above instructors around the world.

While what she does is impressive—especially when you add in her dedication to charitable organizations and events—it’s how she approaches leadership that truly sets her apart.

“She is a ‘leader of leaders,’” says Jeff Tuller, president and CEO of Savvier Fitness. “Tricia recognizes the team members’ need to enjoy what they do and who they work with. She has a unique ability to both provide feedback and simultaneously motivate her team. Tricia knows how to bring out the best in all those she manages. . . . She attracts the best of the best because she sets the example of how people are meant to work together by building each other up (as opposed to competing).”

Besides excelling as an instructor, manager, program creator and national director, Murphy Madden serves on the IDEA Group Fitness Committee; is a co-author of The ABC’s of Exercise, a children’s book; and has appeared as an instructor on Exercise TV. Even with all this on her plate, she still practices a family-first philosophy that prioritizes quality time together and community involvement.

Her commitment to the industry is further demonstrated by her creation of an online instructor platform called Homeroom Fit. She launched it in response to COVID-19 “with the goal of keeping instructors fiscally sound during crisis and helping them upskill quickly to the changing needs of live-stream instruction.”

“I believe this award is more for the hundreds of other people that Tricia has employed, mentored and befriended [while] serving the fitness industry,” says Bordeaux. “There is no better way for all of us to honor and thank her for this legacy. She has been there for each one of us, championing us along the way with every small or big success.”

Pete Holman, MSPT: Finalist, Fitness Leader of the Year

Aspen, Colorado

Pete Holman

“My mission is simple,” says Pete Holman. “I want to positively impact the world population to have improved health, wellness and vitality.” Simple to say, perhaps, but it’s a tall order, one that Holman fulfills through innovation and a commitment to quality. “My favorite quote of all time is from Henry Ward Beecher,” he explains. “‘Hold yourself to a higher standard than anyone else expects of you.”

Holman has set himself that high standard through his 25-year career as a physical therapist and personal trainer and, today, as a leader in education and innovation. The move from one-to-one client care to product and content development has enabled him to “have a larger global impact on the industry,” he says.

He launched his first product—the Functional Training Rack—in 2008, followed by the TRX® Rip Trainer™ and the Glute Drive, licensed to Nautilus®. “My goal when I design fitness products is to have a lasting impact on individuals’ health, fitness and vitality; if the product doesn’t have validity and reliability, it won’t last!” His newest product, licensed to Escape Fitness®, is set to launch this year.

Holman admits he’s had both hits and misses—and mastering the business sector of the industry has been a learning curve. It’s why he’s so happy to mentor other fitness entrepreneurs, such as Sarah Apgar (FitFighter Training) and Jesse Ohliger (BreathBelt). “My life experiences have given me a perspective that is easily articulated to ‘newbies,’” he says. “I truly feel that sometimes all we need is a ‘nudge’ and someone to give us a break in this life for us to actualize our human potential.”

Holman continues his mission through writing, podcasting and presenting, as well. “My largest gift that I have been blessed with in this life is the ability to connect with others, build rapport and maintain relationships,” which is really what leadership is all about.

Jan Schroeder, PhD: Finalist, Fitness Leader of the Year

Long Beach, California

Jan Schroeder

Her résumé is impressive. She has studied kinesiology since 1987, earning a PhD in exercise physiology in 1997. In 1999, she began leading the Fitness option in the bachelor of science program at Long Beach State University. She holds more than 20 licenses and certifications in everything from group exercise to bone densitometry, publishing research articles and presenting nationwide.

But Jan Schroeder makes her biggest impression on her students. “Jan believed in me and my talents before I did,” says Candice Campbell, MS—former student and current colleague at LBSU. “[She] helped me develop those talents and build a career I am thankful for every day.”

“I do not have the traditional roles that someone overseeing a fitness facility would have,” says Schroeder. “My mission is to provide education, both theoretical and practical, [to] develop successful fitness professionals. My purpose is to help elevate the fitness industry through education, research and service.” Her leadership mix includes financial management skills and team building that celebrates the strength of her faculty. “These skills ultimately lead to a program that inspires future fitness professionals.”

And that’s not all. “I also believe in working with the general public to put into practice what I [teach] and research on,” she says.

Enter the Garage Girls. Schroeder has been leading group classes—yep, in a garage—for them twice a week for over 10 years, although they have been safely meeting outside in a park during the pandemic. Not only is the program based on scientifically proven group exercise formats, it’s, well, a blast! Schroeder, ever the researcher, explains: “The success of this program is quantified by the 95% adherence rate . . . while the qualitative gains can be seen by the continued positive health and social gains experienced by this group.”

The “girls” simply know they love it. “No one wants to miss a class,” says 71-year-old Nancy Curtis, who describes Schroeder’s leadership qualities as “pillars of character”—she’s responsible, respectful, trustworthy, fair and caring.

IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year

Leslee Bender: 2020 Personal Trainer of the Year

Orlando, Florida

Leslee Bender

You could summarize Leslee Bender’s impact on fitness in two words: Bender Ball. That’s accurate—more than 1 million Bender Balls have been sold since 2007—but, as a tribute, it’s woefully incomplete. Bender’s influence on personal training over the last 30 years is a much bigger story.

“My mission is to help people of all ages and sizes to embrace life and age gracefully,” she says. “With a focus on nonpunishing workouts based on the science of movement and tools and tips to make training fun, functional and beneficial, I listen to my clients and tailor each session to their needs.”

That focus led to the creation of The Bender Method of Training—the first to use a small ball to protect the back and work the core. She has since certified more than 2,000 instructors in this safe method of functional Pilates training.

Now, at age 60, Bender has founded and directs I Am Ageless Now, a functional training and certification program for active agers, focusing on injury prevention. The program is offered at many retirement communities and hotels. Bender also works with Orlando Health® to improve the protocol for patients suffering from pain and inflammation before and after surgery.

She had her own full knee replacement last November. “Although the journey has been very challenging,” she says, “the outcome has given me a greater gift of compassion for anyone in pain—both physical and emotional.”

While her outreach is vast, her ability to connect with clients individually is still key.

“I believe that listening is essential to be a compassionate, caring and truly great trainer,” she explains. “I love when I can inspire someone to make a small change in order to live a happier and more productive life.”

Case in point: Bender’s client Tom Rumph, a 65-year-old cancer survivor—and avid water skier—who once had “unbearable” back pain. “I was at the lowest fitness level of my life,” he remembers. “I assumed that my water-skiing days were over.”

Instead, Tom trusted in Bender’s workout plans and is now skiing pain-free. “Leslee makes working out fun, and she inspires me to reach new goals. I can honestly say that she is the best trainer I have ever worked with.”

Bender believes you can never fully learn the complexity of the human body, but her passion for education is unstoppable, as is her desire to help others.

Greg Johnson, MS: Finalist, Personal Trainer of the Year

Sacramento, California

Greg Johnson

“Motivating clients comes down to what each client needs,” says Greg Johnson. “What motivates one person may completely demoralize or embarrass another. You need to understand your audience.” It’s a philosophy he practices up to 70 times every week in private, semiprivate or group sessions, as well as in virtual sessions tailored to his clients’ fitness needs. As his business has grown—he opened his own training studio in 2014—he has kept a “clients-first” focus.

“I always try to meet people where they are with both fitness and nutrition,” he explains. “My goal is to help them make subtle changes, one at a time, to create lasting habit changes. My clients are my family . . . any of them know I will be there for them if they need an open ear.”

A touching example is Gemma Martin, who came to Johnson after an auto accident—and a history of less-than-positive experiences with other trainers who had incited her to “push through the pain,” she says. “That typically resulted in migraines, days of extra pain and, ultimately, quitting.”

Johnson’s approach of post-rehabilitation, creative movement solutions and a focus on empowering Martin to make educated choices about her progress made all the difference. Now 55 pounds lighter and much stronger, she describes Johnson as “incredible,” adding, “His passion shines through in all he does.”

He is equally passionate about community service—raising more than $27,000 for Shriner’s Hospitals for Children in Sacramento over the last 3 years—and his own education, which ensures that he offers the best evidence-based protocols.

“I make it a point to keep up on current articles and trends so I can better answer clients’ questions and needs,” he explains. “More recently, my focus [has been] speaking and contributing to the field of fitness, which demands more research and knowledge of subject matter. My goal is to never stop learning and never stop growing.”

Tracy Markley: Finalist, Personal Trainer of the Year

Florence, Oregon

Tracy Markley

Tracy Markley has dozens of fitness certifications, but one of the titles that’s most important to her is also one of the most unique: “God’s Stroke Angel.”

It was bestowed upon her by a client in Portland, Oregon, who was thanking Markley for her special insight on stroke survivors and for the training programs she has developed for them. “When they can walk without a walker or a cane after working with me, it feels surreal,” says Markley. “Helping clients who have been so broken get their daily life back and feel safe in movement is so wonderful.”

Although she specializes in stroke recovery—even leading a monthly support group—Markley works with a wide variety of clients in her studio in one-on-one and small-group sessions. She has published six books for both clients and fitness professionals, covering stroke recovery, balance and stability, spine strength, and brain health. She has also contributed to her local newspaper and manages her own YouTube channel.

She’s publishing another book this year on hearing loss. It’s especially meaningful—as Markley is partially deaf in one ear and almost totally deaf in the other—and especially poignant, as the severity of her own hearing loss was not diagnosed and treated until several years after she graduated from college.

“The fact that I can teach and write books that pertain to the fitness industry is something I am especially proud of,” she says. “Coming from people telling me I talk funny—and often being treated as if I was not smart—to [accomplishing what I’ve achieved] the last several years is something that’s pretty cool.”

Also cool? She hosts her own radio show, The Health and Fitness Show with Tracy. It’s produced at a local Oregon station but syndicated worldwide. She’s on every Monday afternoon.

The empathy she brings to her profession—overcoming physical and emotional struggles to reach a goal—resonates with her clients. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ at Tracy’s studio,” says client Robert Pack. “She has an uncanny ability to help immeasurably with your core strength, spatial awareness and self-confidence. Tracy is a lifesaver!”

IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year

Jeffrey Scott: 2020 Fitness Instructor of the Year

Los Angeles

Jeffrey Scott

“Jeffrey is magical,” says friend and colleague Amy Dixon. “[It’s] the way he leads with his heart that makes everyone fall in love with him and the content he is teaching. He creates a very safe space to learn and grow and encourages others to do the same. He truly is the embodiment of authenticity and joy.”

You can feel that joy in classes he teaches, as well as in his ability to mentor other instructors. Jeffrey Scott truly loves what he does. And it shows.

“Whether he is teaching five people or 500, his love for his craft, devotion to his students, enthusiasm for education, and passion to Inspire the World to Fitness® are unmatched,” says colleague Lisa Wheeler. “He has a way of making everyone feel special and, with his close attention to detail, he delivers thoughtful, engaging and compelling content, much of which he has created.”

Now the vice president of fitness, nutrition and results for Beachbody International, he can reach an even larger audience with his creative programming to help people live healthier lives.

Serving others is a Scott family tradition. “But as an openly gay man, I knew I would not follow the same path as my other family members,” he says. “My sexuality exposed me to a heightened level of bullying as a young man. Truthfully, I’m not sure how I weathered the storm. All I know is that I never doubted that I had that purpose—to be of service—and I trusted that there would be a place for me. I found my calling in fitness.”

But here’s the really magic part: “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would go from being bullied to seeing my name on billboards at the largest fitness conventions in the U.S. and all over the world,” he adds. “My life is truly blessed; my heart is full, and my soul sings with satisfaction for the work I am fortunate to do.”

Stacy McCarthy: Finalist, Fitness Instructor of the Year

San Diego

Stacy McCarthy

Stacy McCarthy’s favorite quote comes from a Swedish proverb: “Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; hate less, love more; and all good things are yours.”

Living these words has, indeed, brought good things to this highly accomplished instructor and motivational leader. “When you think of the qualities that make up a great instructor . . . Stacy has it,” says Phil Sanchez, group fitness director for Bay Club Carmel Valley in San Diego. “She has that unique blend of education, talent and personality that draws students into her classes and keeps them coming back week after week. She has a gift.”

In her 35 years as a fitness professional, McCarthy has taught a wide array of group classes, but she found her true calling in yoga. In 1996, she resolved to devote her time and talents to bridging the gap between yoga and meditation and fitness.

“One of the greatest jobs I can do is to create a safe, nonjudgmental and inclusive environment that allows the student to feel successful no matter what their age, shape or size,” she explains. In addition to live classes, McCarthy produces DVDs, online “on-demand” courses, and other books and videos. “I have a broad reach to students around the world who may not have access to educated, experienced instructors.”

As a professor at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, California, McCarthy has co-created and accredited yoga teacher certification programs. She is equally committed to giving back, which she does by offering full scholarships for classes, coaching, and mentoring instructors and students who need support as a result of the pandemic.

Fearless in her approach to new challenges, McCarthy continues to expand her impact. “To be deeply, truly fulfilled, we need the capacity to grow and to contribute to others,” she says. “Helping other people reach their full potential and find more joy in their life is the greatest power we have.”

Aileen Sheron: Finalist, Fitness Instructor of the Year

West Covina, California

Aileen Sheron

Here are some numbers for you: 15: the number of classes Aileen Sheron teaches each week; 40: the number of years she’s been doing that; and 32,000: the number of class hours it all adds up to. So many classes! And, yet, each one is special.

“I get asked all the time, ‘What is your favorite class to teach?,’” she explains. “My answer is always, ‘The one I am teaching at this moment!’” Sheron commits to “doing whatever I can to give every individual student what they need to achieve their own optimal experience.”

This experience helped turn some students into teachers. For Chalene Johnson, it turned into much more. Sheron recruited Chalene to be in one of her Weight Watchers® videos. In turn, Chalene asked for help developing her own presentation, coaching skills and business skills. “She had the makings of a rock star from the beginning,” says Sheron. “She just needed the right encouragement and the right mentor at the right time.”

The admiration is mutual. “What you see . . . is only 1% of her genius,” says Chalene, now CEO of Smart Life, describing Sheron as “one of the smartest and most creative women I had ever met.”

Although Sheron has much to be proud of—from developing pre- and postnatal programs to creating the Omniball to dedicating herself to community service—she says, “My proudest accomplishment is that I’ve mentored others who have gone out into the world to make a major difference in the lives they’ve touched.”

That impact has certainly touched the lives—and careers—of thousands of IDEA members over the last 30 years; Sheron is a favorite presenter at IDEA World and a regular contributor to Fitness Journal.

And she’s still learning and growing. “To be a great teacher, I feel one must never stop being a great student,” she explains. “I can’t wait to figure out my next big way of transforming lives and share it with everyone . . . because I’m far from done!”

See also: 2019 IDEA World Fitness Awards Recipients