Industry professionals share how they overcame significant personal setbacks.
In February 2006, Danny Strong was on top of the world. After years of working as a gym manager, he had opened his own personal training gym, making his dream a reality. The husband and father was also eager to welcome a second child into the family. A month after receiving the keys to his new facility, he took his family on a trip to visit his godmother. While on the road, Strong lost control of his vehicle and was hit by a tractor-trailer traveling at full speed. His pregnant wife, Sandra Urbano Strong, was killed instantly. The personal trainer suffered broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and a lacerated spleen. The lower portion of his right leg was removed, and surgeons placed a rod in his left leg.
“Thank God our 2-year-old daughter survived,” Strong says of the horrific night. “The most difficult part of all of this was losing my wife. That was a battle I never thought I’d get over.”
Strong’s life was in pieces.
“As a gym owner, personal trainer and amateur bodybuilder, I did not know what direction I was going to go in.”
Part of a fitness professional’s job is to motivate others. Clients and students often consider fitness pros almost superhuman in their capacity to inspire and present a positive picture. But what happens when tragedy strikes? How do you lead a successful training session or group exercise class when your world is falling apart? This article explores the stories of several courageous fitness pros, like Strong, who managed to move through significant personal setbacks to become more compassionate professionals.
Justin Price, MA, is well-known for his work in corrective exercise. Co-creator of The BioMechanics Method, he has helped countless clients overcome pain and improve physical function. However, in the summer of 2011, he faced his own difficulties.
“A number of injuries and accidents flared up a long-standing back condition that was the result of years of playing professional tennis, engaging in challenging workout regimes, and doing the ‘crazy’ things Kiwis do, like repeatedly jumping off 100-foot cliffs into the ocean,” says Price. “Eventually, I was diagnosed with three herniated disks, severe disk degeneration, scoliosis, an anatomical leg length discrepancy, and a fracture to one of the facet joints in my spine. My situation was severe, and all the nonsurgical interventions I tried proved fruitless, so I elected to have a lumbar fusion at L5-S1.”
Two weeks later, Price found himself in the emergency room as surgeons worked to remove gallstones that had become impacted in the ducts of several organs—a condition that could have cost him his life.
The surgery was successful, but that wouldn’t be the end of his time in a hospital bed. Price would have his gallbladder removed, receive abdominal meshes to repair four hernias, and suffer damage to two ribs from an overzealous medical massage. The numerous surgeries led to trapped nerves in his torso, causing such frequent and severe pain and spasms that he spent nearly a year lying on his living room floor. He traded 40 pounds of muscle for 50 pounds of fat, something he became self-conscious about because of the commonly held perception of what a fitness professional “should” look like.
Price was also dismayed that he couldn’t use his own expertise to help himself.
“I found it personally distressing as an expert on corrective exercise techniques to be trying to work with clients and presenting on topics related to muscle and joint pain while I was struggling to even stand up and hobbling from session to session on a cane.”
Like Price, fitness industry veteran Mark Kelly, PhD, CSCS, learned the many ways injury can take a toll on the mind and body. Physically active all his life, Kelly developed medial epicondylitis, also known as “pitcher’s elbow” or “golfer’s elbow.” Instead of resolving the issue, which causes pain on the inside aspect of the elbow joint, he chose to receive corticosteroid shots.
“After three shots and very little relief from the last one, I decided it was time to get ‘cut on’ and have it taken care of once and for all,” Kelly recalls.
Postsurgery, Kelly’s arm was placed in a cast to force complete rest.
“I started with a positive perspective,” he says. “I’ll put in my month, and then I’ll get to use it again.”
But once the cast was removed, he grew wary that the injury would persist if he did anything with that limb.
“It was painful to use the arm, and so I didn’t exercise as much,” Kelly explains. “They said I needed to take 2–3 months off from weightlifting. I did use [the arm], but I was really worried about injuring it. That’s the worst place I could be. Fear, rather than reality, decreased my desire to use it. I wanted to [err] on the side of caution so I decided to give myself more time. Then the excuse factory started, followed by depression. I started drinking more. I didn’t get drunk, but having a few glasses of wine after work became the high point of my life.”
Kelly eventually stopped exercising altogether. He also retreated from performing simple activities of daily living, like opening jars or picking up his children.
“A relatively aggressive mindset transformed into a passive one. [I] enjoyed the easy way out, and the sedentary lifestyle was nonthreatening and meant not reinjuring my elbow.”
“It would be hard to pinpoint one specific struggle, as I have encountered so many,” says Jeannine Tromboli, owner of real [FIT] life, based in Albany, New York. “For 11 years I was in a very emotionally and mentally abusive marriage.”
The experience, she adds, threw her life into continual chaos. She spent years embroiled in the court system as she contended with her ex-husband for custody of their children. The process devastated her financially.
“This past year, right before Christmas, I was notified that I was losing the gym space where I trained my clients,” Trimboli says. “I was only given 3 weeks’ notice. That same week I received a letter in the mail notifying me that our home, which was in foreclosure, was going up for sale. I decided recently to file bankruptcy to offset much of the debt I had incurred through my marriage, and the aftermath. To say the past 5 years have been rocky would be an understatement.”
Throughout this ordeal, it took Trimboli every ounce of her energy to get up in the morning. On several occasions she felt so drained that she gave in, secluding herself in the comforts and solitude of her bed for a full day.
“At one point I ended up in the hospital, diagnosed with ITP (idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura—a condition that can cause excessive bruising or bleeding), and I would not be surprised if much of my illness was due to stress.”
By the age of 12, IDEA fitness conference presenter Keli Roberts, owner of Keli’s Real Fitness Inc., had twice attempted suicide, prompted by severe depression and mood swings. As a teen, she developed anorexia and bulimia—disorders that would continue to plague her into her twenties.
“In 1999 I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder (polymyositis, an inflammatory disease that causes muscle weakness) and was too weak and tired to exercise,” she says. “Exercise had been my go-to solution for my depression, and so without being able to exercise I had a complete breakdown. I was hospitalized and finally correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder.”
Roberts recalls being devastated by this news and worried about her future as a fitness professional.
“My initial thoughts were suicidal. I didn’t feel like I had anything to live for. I thought that because of my autoimmune disease I wouldn’t be able to teach anymore. I thought my career was over—that I’d never work, work out or ride my bike again.”
These feelings were exacerbated by the shame she felt at being diagnosed with a mental disorder. Afraid of what others might think of her, she cut herself off from people.
“Financially, I was in deep trouble,” she says. “I had hospital and medical bills piling up and no means to pay them. Everything was overwhelming.”
In 2008, personal trainer and owner of Power Fitness PDX Erin Kreitz Shirey found herself enveloped in any parent’s worst nightmare. Just 7 weeks after giving birth to her second daughter, Emerson, she was told by the girl’s nurses and doctors to “pray hard.” The infant had developed pneumonia, pertussis (whooping cough) and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus, which infects the lungs and breathing passages). Emerson spent 3 weeks in the hospital, covered in tubes, as doctors worked tirelessly to help her. Fortunately, they succeeded.
About 2 years later, Shirey’s eldest daughter, Mackenzie, suffered acute pancreatitis, multiorgan failure and a multitude of infections. The 6-year-old was initially given a prescription for Zophran, but Shirey couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more to the story—and Zophran wasn’t the solution.
“My mother’s gut told me something was beyond wrong, and [my husband and I] rushed her to Children’s Hospital. She ended up in ICU for over 2 weeks, Children’s Hospital Oakland for 6 weeks and then the University of California, San Francisco, Children’s Hospital for 6 weeks. After [going through various] surgeries, relearning to walk, and thriving on a sheer will to live, she is a walking miracle at almost 11 years old today. She has one-third of a pancreas left, is now prone to diabetes and has a huge risk for pancreatic cancer.”
But even this would not be the last time Shirey saw one of her children in the hospital. In October 2014, her youngest—10-month-old Finley—began to vomit uncontrollably. From that point, Shirey says, the toddler caught several infections so severe that antibiotics couldn’t successfully combat them. Since then, she has undergone 5 months of labs and tests to determine the root cause of her damaged immune system. The search for answers continues.
Elizabeth Skwiot, PhD, has led a long and varied career as a certified Pilates instructor and personal trainer. Also a professional aerialist, she combined her expertise in Pilates with the aerial arts to create a program called Aerialates®. However, in December of 2013, her focus would take a drastic shift.
“I became stricken with debilitating nausea and fatigue,” Skwiot explains. “The anxiety paired with constant nausea took a great toll. The fatigue was so severe that I was bedridden for months. I needed help just to carry groceries in from the store—this from someone whose favorite exercise is pull-ups. My personal best is 21, consecutive!”
From there, Skwiot developed dizziness, mental confusion, lightheadedness and a tingling on the right side of her body. She spent significant time and money on doctor visits and tests, all to no avail. The condition was so mysterious that even Mayo Clinic doctors were stumped, she says.
“I felt that something serious must be happening; why else would I be so sick? I was angry and frustrated. I knew there were people who ate fast food and never exercised who felt better than I did. I also became very depressed. With my mind not working and my body useless, I couldn’t do any of the things in life that I enjoyed.”
Skwiot still managed to grow her business by leading teacher trainings for Aerialates.
“It was so hard to be ‘on’ all day when all I felt like doing was staying in bed,” she says. “I’d put on a brave face and get through a whole day.”
“When I was 51 and in the best shape of my life, I suddenly got diagnosed with a very aggressive form of uterine cancer,” shares Josie Gardiner, co-developer of Zumba® Gold. “I could not believe it, as I [had] always led a very healthy lifestyle, exercising, eating right, getting enough sleep and going for regular checkups.”
She believed the best choice was to act quickly, and so she elected to have a hysterectomy a week after the diagnosis. Following the surgery, she underwent 8 weeks of full-torso radiation.
“I just wanted to start it right away and get through it and hopefully survive.”
Gardiner remembers how difficult the radiation was: “The treatment made you feel as if you had a bad stomach flu.” As the weeks passed, the radiation accumulated, causing such severe fatigue that she didn’t have the energy to blow-dry her hair. She couldn’t work and was barely able to walk.
“This affected my career in every way,” says Gardiner. “As an independent contractor I did not receive any pay during that time, but was fortunate enough to be okay [financially].”
As Price was at the height of his suffering, confined to his living room floor, he wondered about his future. “I went through some very difficult times when I questioned if I could go on,” he says. “During those times, my wife (and soul mate) stood by me. She was able to lift me up and help me focus on the sometimes small, but incremental, progress I was making. This unwavering support was paramount in my recovery.”
Price insists that anyone suffering physical, mental or emotional trauma should not keep their struggles silent.
“My chief advice in general would be to use the energy of other humans to help you through your difficult time. Everyone struggles at some point in life. If you are open and honest with other people, and share your experience, it is amazing the amount of help and support you will receive.”
Eventually, Roberts also learned the importance of reaching out instead of hiding, despite her initial shame over the mental illness diagnosis.
“Sometimes the best thing to do is ask for help! I don’t think of asking for help as giving in to difficulties. Trying to cope with a deep depression is brutal, and finding solid emotional support can be lifesaving.”
Trimboli admits there were times when she wanted to give up.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that my first gut response was to throw my hands up and throw in the towel,” she says.
Instead of falling apart, she allowed herself to sulk for a day and then began actively looking for solutions. “I told myself that things would work out because they always have.”
Strong spent a great deal of time blaming himself for the accident and believing he could have done something to avoid it.
“I had such a beautiful relationship with my wife. That was so hard to get over. It was something I played through my mind all the time,” he says.
Ultimately, Strong was able to stop the blame and begin to heal.
“I had to come to terms with the fact that life just happens and many times we don’t have control over things like that.”
Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties for a fitness professional is finding that exercise is (or feels) impossible. Kelly admits that he grew afraid of the exercise-induced “pain” or soreness he once loved. But there comes a point, he says, when you have to force yourself back into it. “I am slowly but surely going to come back. I will never run a 2:41 marathon again, and it is not likely I will win or compete in any more bodybuilding contests or get nationally ranked in duathlons.”
Gardiner adds that it’s important to fully understand where you are when you start your journey back into exercise—especially if you’ve experienced illness or injury that mandated complete rest. But returning to activity is a must, she advises.
“One of the best pieces of advice that I can give is to take one day at a time, listen to your body, and remember that anything you do is better than nothing,” she says. “To get your endurance back, walk, walk and walk some more. Focus initially not on how fast you walk but on how long. As you get fitter, your pace will follow. Even if you get up and move just 5 minutes an hour, at the end of the day you will have moved 40 minutes.”
Fitness professionals are typically go-getters who thrive on helping others. However, Skwiot insists on the need to let go of things that add stress to your life.
“I had to put a lot on hold for 2014, and I feel like I’m still recovering from it,” she explains. “I had big plans to do trade shows, lots of teacher trainings, etc., but I had to keep it all to a minimum. Essentially, I just wanted to keep the business alive while I tried to take care of myself.”
Shirey agrees. “When Emerson got sick, I was a fitness editor for Better TV, had a big Baby Boot Camp® business and owned Power Fitness PDX boot camps. [When we got home from the hospital], it was too much. I couldn’t deal with it all and knew I had to keep life simple.”
She made the tough decision to eliminate many of her responsibilities and focus only on Power Fitness PDX and her family. Shirey also let go of “high-maintenance” clients who required more than she could offer.
“As a fitness professional it is difficult to be ‘on’ all the time while you’re struggling personally,” explains Strong. “It’s not something that comes overnight.”
The personal trainer says he still experiences moments of intense difficulty, which require a very short-term focus so he can be “there” for his clients.
“I know it seems a little cliché to say, ‘Take one day at a time,’ but that’s what you have to do,” Strong says. “Thinking too far ahead and trying to deal with too many things at one time can be overwhelming, so I [learned to] compartmentalize things and deal with one issue at a time.”
Strong also believes it’s important to feel the emotions and take breaks.
“There are going to be times when you need to take a moment or two and meditate about what’s going on in your life or take a moment or two to cry,” he says. “But I promised myself I would never stay in a low or depressed state; it’s okay for an evening or even a day, but it’s not a good place to stay, so you have to control your thoughts, condition yourself and will yourself to a better place.”
Skwiot recalls that, prior to her illness, she’d been judgmental of others in the gym who didn’t seem to put much effort into their workouts. However, that has changed.
“When I was sick, I could barely walk slowly for 20 minutes on the treadmill before feeling like I would collapse,” she says. “Someone looking at me could have thought I was wasting my time walking and barely lifting any weight, but that’s what I needed to do just to keep myself feeling like a human being. So, I’ve stopped judging what people do in the gym. You never know what’s going on behind someone’s face.”
Price believes his ordeal has made him a better professional because he has experienced firsthand what many of his corrective exercise clients deal with.
“I now know what it means to need help and can empathize with clients and fitness professionals who are in the trenches every day struggling to keep doing what they love,” he explains. “My passion to help people has been reignited [and is stronger] than ever before.”
Kelly also says he is better able to relate to others now that he knows what it feels like to be deconditioned and afraid of exercise.
“For many trainers, being in shape is almost ‘inherent,’ or part of their DNA,” Kelly says. “I now much more appreciate when someone hasn’t been exercising. I’ve learned how to better understand my clients.”
One of the primary themes in each of these stories is compassion.
“This whole experience has changed who I am as a fit pro,” says Roberts. “I have a deep compassion for people suffering. I am the last person to judge and the first to seek to understand. Compassion, understanding, love and care are the keys to being an effective coach. My favorite saying is, ‘They don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.’”