Experienced fitness professionals know that the exercise experience is not just a set program of squats, pushups and lunges. It’s key to consider each client as a unique person with unique needs. Fitness pros who truly listen and connect with their clients are better able to guide them toward a fit lifestyle.
The nine finalists for this year’s IDEA World Fitness Awards combine the science of exercise with the art of coaching to provide expert help to their clients and communities. The three professionals who emerged as IDEA Fitness Leader of the Year, IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year were celebrated in June at the IDEA® World Convention in San Diego.
Here, award finalists talk about their philosophies, their careers and how they Inspire the World to Fitness®.
2018 Fitness Leader of the Year
Trina Gray is the owner and CEO of two fitness facilities in rural Michigan: Bay Athletic Club, a large, medically based, full-service health club, and Bay Urban Fitness, a smaller, indoor group training facility. She is a leader but also works in the trenches, teaching five to 10 fitness classes per week in her facilities and training dozens of clients online. She founded Team Rockstar Fit and is an independent Team Beachbody® coach. In addition to all of that, she has spent hundreds of hours volunteering in Alpena.
Gray’s mission is to influence her entire community, which has high rates of unemployment, diabetes and smoking. Her businesses serve thousands of residents in a town of just 10,000 and a county of 30,000. “We have helped people shed pounds and inches, get off medications and become healthier,” she says.
Gray created the Corporate Fit Challenge to help those who don’t feel comfortable going into a gym. This 6-week workplace wellness program provides an accessible entrance into fitness.
Meanwhile, her businesses have created jobs in the local community. “I have hired, mentored and trained more than 100 employees over the years, always maintaining a team of around 40 amazing people from all walks of life,” she says. “We have a lot of local heart, and I am willing to teach people to become fitness leaders.”
How does her health club team of 12 years describe her leadership ability? “She’s inspiring, encourages us to dream bigger, calls us outside of our comfort zone and wants to create other leaders, not followers,” they report.
Juggling all the hats she wears as a wife, mom, community member and fitness pro takes work. Gray devotes 30 minutes each day to personal development. “Your business can never be greater than your own personal growth,” she says. “If you are struggling in your business, fix you. Do the tough interior work. Strive to be more likable, inspiring, generous and confident.”
Gray is excited for the future. “I see certified personal trainers and group fitness instructors working with nutritionists, health coaches, life coaches and even therapists to help people break through their own self-limiting beliefs and self-sabotaging habits to find lasting happiness and health.”
Amy Boone Thompson
Finalist, Fitness Leader of the Year
Amy Thompson is national account executive for Les Mills U.S., a global fitness company that creates innovative, results-based programming. In this position, she fosters strong relationships with partners to advise and support them in business decisions. She has more than 20 years of experience in fitness programming, personal training and health club management.
“Amy is one of the most dedicated professionals I’ve worked with,” says Michael Rowley, senior development specialist for YouFit Health Clubs. “Her efforts to improve our personal training and small-group training programs helped the bottom line in those departments [and] elevated every other department—from sales to maintenance and even hospitality.”
Before working for Les Mills, Thompson was national director of personal training for The Wellbridge Company, a chain of 20 multipurpose health clubs in seven states. She is especially proud of the WellStart physician-referred exercise program she created for people who are inactive.
What motivates her leadership? “To effectively lead and inspire people, you have to genuinely care about their success—and show you care—not just in the immediate sense, as it relates to your own business objectives, but long term, as it relates to that person’s entire career trajectory,” she says.
Thompson enjoys being a thought leader in the industry—by serving a term on the ACE Industry Advisory Panel, for example. “This volunteering allows me to tap into and address major challenges, questions and initiatives related to current events and future directions in the fitness industry.”
She also sees herself as a “connector” of people and, to that end, created a free fitness professionals networking group on LinkedIn in 2008. “What started as an online networking experiment has now grown to a group of professionals from all over the world.”
Thompson has spent nearly two decades advocating for fitness professionals and creating fitness programming. “But, honestly, the best way I lead, and the way each of us can lead, is by advocating for the health of our communities and families,” she advises. “Be an example, lead from the front, and support those around you in achieving a healthier lifestyle, one choice at a time.”
Finalist, Fitness Leader of the Year
New York City
Lisa Wheeler is vice president of fitness and programming at Daily Burn, a streaming platform for video/audio workouts and wellness content with a library of more than 1,100 videos. As part of her job, she produces a daily, live, interactive workout show that is beginner-friendly and inclusive. She is the former director of group fitness development for Equinox in New York City.
From Equinox, Wheeler took the leap to a smaller company to build something special for beginners. “The amount of health and fitness information available can be overwhelming,” she says. “Many people don’t know where to start. We need to make the industry accessible to help people develop a sustainable lifelong fitness journey.”
She is thrilled to target true beginners with Daily Burn 365. “The interactive show we have created and the trainers we have assembled are saving lives,” she says. “Plus, online members have forged friendships around the world through our community and chat.”
She manages a team of more than 25 trainers for the digital fitness platform. “I create an atmosphere where team members feel brave enough to try something different; where they have a place to try, fail, try, fail, and try and try again,” she says.
“Lisa is known as the mentor of mentors,” says Jenn Hogg, a former Equinox colleague. “She has managed to develop many current industry leaders and is feverishly developing the next generation to excel in carrying the torch. This generosity is something rarely seen.”
Wheeler has also been a creative force for fitness programming for years. “With fellow creative manager Lashaun Dale at Equinox, we created and/or launched 50+ game-changing and award-winning programs,” she says. “These include Barre Burn, Whipped, Stacked, Precision Running™, Animal Flow™, Parkour Power Play™ and Runner’s Reset.”
She has presented at several IDEA conventions and at events throughout the world in countries such as Argentina, Denmark, Thailand and Turkey. She currently serves on the ACE Industry Advisory Panel and volunteers for fundraisers and free programs like AIDS Walk NYC, City of Hope Workout for Hope, Cycle for Survival, Housing Works and the Soles4Souls Donation Drive.
Alexis Batrakoulis, MS, CSCS
2018 Personal Trainer of the Year
When he’s not at home training clients, leading courses as personal training education director at the Greek Athletic & Fitness Training School, or fulfilling his duties as general secretary of the Hellenic Exercise Professionals Association, Alexis Batrakoulis is traveling throughout Europe and the United States, sharing his knowledge as a technical expert in personal training. Not only is he a subject-matter expert and master trainer for ACE; he is also a recognized certified personal trainer emeritus through the National Strength and Conditioning Association and a member of the Professional Standards Committee of EuropeActive.
Batrakoulis is serious about exercise. He has a master’s degree in health and exercise and is working on his doctorate with an emphasis on obesity. He has also earned more than 15 professional certifications.
He trains 20 clients two to three times per week. His client Tonia Rapti, who received an exercise prescription from her doctor, says, “I found myself sweating in a gym three times a week under the guidance of Alexis. While I did lose some weight, what I hadn’t expected was what I’ve gained! My stamina, body strength, self-confidence, and health status have really improved.”
Batrakoulis says the most innovative training program he has created is Fun & Functional Interval Training (FFIT™), a novel, science-based exercise training modality. It combines top fitness trends in a circuit-type session that offers integrated neuromuscular training with alternative exercise modes.
In examining this training concept in his master’s thesis, he found it yielded significant results for body composition, physical performance, and health and wellness markers in sedentary overweight/obese women aged 30–45. A more comprehensive research project is already in progress as part of his doctoral studies. In addition, Batrakoulis is the author or co-author of several peer-reviewed articles and coordinates various innovative events, such as the Lifestyle Fitness & Wellness Forum, to promote exercise in the community.
“The next big thing in our industry will be the growth of exercise as medicine,” he predicts. “More specifically, anything related to exercise for special populations, especially in a small-group training setting, will be a hot area.”
Finalist, Personal Trainer of the Year
Hayley Hollander is the fitness director at Midtown Athletic Club®, where she is also a coach. She trains 135 clients per week in small-group classes and one-on-one training sessions. In the span of her 19-year career, she has taught more than 500 workshops, educated over 5,000 coaches from all around the world, and helped to develop and train more than 150 educators in the movement industry. She owns Pivotal, a development company “empowering people to reach their greatest potential through coaching, educating and consulting.” She also volunteers as the strength and conditioning coach for the girls’ basketball team at Northside College Prep and contributes articles, blogs and videos to various sources.
Four years ago, for love and work, Hollander moved from her longtime home of Las Vegas to Chicago. “As a fitness director for two of our midtown locations, [she’s been] instrumental in getting more people in front of more coaches more often,” says Steven L. Schwartz, president and CEO at Midtown Athletic Club.
As a personal trainer, Hollander prioritizes learning. “I submerge myself in many educational experiences,” she says. “In the last 5 years I have completed more educational courses than I did in the first 5 years of my career. Through regular education I am able to look at movement and programming through a new lens, arming myself with an abundance of tools to serve the client better.”
The saying “You can’t speak butterfly to a caterpillar” has influenced her training philosophy. “Everyone has a different life experience, and we all face different challenges,” she says. “Our role as movement professionals is not to change people but to support them through the changes they are seeking. Instead of speaking butterfly to a caterpillar, we speak their language and meet them where they need to be met.”
Hollander’s mission is to help clients accomplish the things they didn’t believe they could, by providing them with the love and support they need to succeed. “This ‘speaking caterpillar’ outlook has allowed me to influence many lives all over the world, simply because I’ve been looking to serve people where they were, not where I thought they should be,” she says.
Finalist, Personal Trainer of the Year
Santa Clara, California
Brian Nunez is the owner and founder of FNS (Fitness Never Sleeps) Training Center, an award-winning performance training facility. His business provides a “team training” experience along with personal training, nutrition coaching and mental conditioning. Although he manages a team of 16 full-time employees, he personally trains clients 15–20 hours a week. He is a Nike® master trainer who coaches elite athletes and creates fitness content for the Nike Training Department. He launched a monthly “Peanut Butter and Jelly Day,” giving back food, supplies, time and clothes to needy people.
Nunez’s center is “for the ‘everyday athlete,’ the mother, father, business professional, student and person who never would consider himself or herself an athlete,” he says. His business started in 2011 with 20 everyday athletes and now has more than 700.
His vision for this year has been to serve more people. “I launched a free 4-day-a-week, 20-minute program to do at home,” he says. “I have been blown away at the amount of engagement from people all over the world.”
Nunez is also passionate about growing the fitness industry. “Each month I offer free coaching calls to fitness professionals, helping them break through an area in their personal or professional life they are struggling with,” he explains. “Many personal trainers and coaches do not have coaches themselves and can feel alone at times. My goal is to create more collaboration.”
“Brian is a great human being who epitomizes what a trainer/coach should be,” says Todd Durkin, MA, owner of Fitness Quest 10 & Todd Durkin Enterprises. “He is passionate, enthusiastic, caring and a great listener. He serves his community unabashedly, has the highest standards and ideals, works tirelessly, and loves being a ‘life transformer.’”
Nunez’s belief? “Authenticity always wins. Sharing my journey and struggle is my favorite way to inspire the world to living a fit life,” he explains. “When we are genuine and serve for the sake of serving others, we can connect on a deeper level with people.” He shares his personal story, starting with a difficult childhood, in his book Elevate to Great: How to Live Your Most Fit, Focused and Free Lifestyle (Gatekeeper Press 2018).
Irene Lewis-McCormick, MS, CSCS
2018 Fitness Instructor of the Year
Irene Lewis-McCormick teaches exercise physiology at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa; develops and leads education courses for Power Systems; works as a master trainer for several fitness companies and certification programs; and is head coach at Orangetheory® Fitness in Ames. She is a RYKA® fitpro brand ambassador and a master course instructor for Savvier Fitness and TRX® Suspension Training®.
Lewis-McCormick possesses the skill set to instruct any type of group exercise class listed on a traditional fitness schedule. “My strengths include barre, Pilates mat, fitness yoga, circuits and intervals, HIIT formats, strength training, recovery training (such as flexibility and foam rolling), trampoline, and TRX,” she says. “I also teach both shallow- and deep-water aquatic exercise classes.”
How does she create inclusive environments in classes? “I offer built-in off-ramps for exercise selection that I refer to as options, so each person can seamlessly choose the correct level of progression for themselves. By using inclusive terminology, [I let] participants . . . make informed decisions about their own personal experience within the context of the group fitness class.”
Fabio Comana, MA, MS, former manager of certifications for the American Council on Exercise, worked with Lewis-McCormick when she served as an ACE subject-matter expert. “Her ability to successfully blend a strong base of knowledge and skills in the exercise sciences and her passion for helping others—coupled with an outstanding gift in the soft skills of rapport-building and communication—are quickly becoming her legacy,” he says.
Lewis-McCormick encourages fitness pros to continue educating themselves about the “why” and “how” of movement and to keep learning about technology. “Technology is . . . changing the fitness industry for the better. Fitness professionals should be prepared to up their skill with new forms of technology.”
She volunteers her time to teach chair-based fitness classes at Green Hills Retirement Community in Ames, Iowa, and, for the past 3 years, has offered free, community-based “Workout in the Park” summer workouts. “I have also utilized this opportunity to mentor new fitness professionals,” she says. “I write the program design and assist them in implementation. They are quickly ready to lead the classes themselves.”
Eve Fleck, MS
Finalist, Fitness Instructor of the Year
Granada Hills, California
Since 1999, Eve Fleck has been a lecturer and instructor at California State University, Northridge, addressing topics like exercise physiology, applied fitness, fitness walking, strength and conditioning, and aerobic fitness. Since 1993, she has taught formats such as step choreography, boot camp and kickboxing in local clubs. She owns Gym Without Walls Outdoor Fitness, where is also an instructor. An IDEA author since 2005, she is co-author of the textbook Growth and Development Across the Lifespan (Elsevier 2012).
“I believe that having a master’s degree in exercise physiology allows me to be a highly effective instructor, because every exercise and every class structure that I create is based on the principles of science,” she says. “The proper form and pacing for each exercise is based on the goals for each movement. Also, being in academia, I am constantly updating my knowledge of new developments in physiology by reading scientific journals and textbooks.”
Kim Worthen, who has managed Fleck, says, “Her classes are relevant, challenging and contemporary, and she keeps safety at the forefront. When it comes to posture, technique and awareness cues, no one is better. This is something that many instructors overlook.”
Fleck enjoys teaching classes in facilities but thinks fitness pros also need to go into communities to offer free or low-cost exercise and education. “Programs like 3 WINS Fitness, created in the kinesiology department at California State University, Northridge, and sponsored by ACE, are the key to unlocking effective community outreach,” she explains. “In this program, kinesiology students provide free training and nutrition education in the community. If every fitness pro offered a weekly (or monthly!) free class like this, this would change more lives.”
What is Fleck most proud of in her career? Contri-buting significantly to the fitness industry while balancing life as a fitness pro and a mom. “I decided early on that I wanted to keep my traveling to a minimum so that I could be home with my children,” she says. “I’ve found ways to contribute through limited presenting, training future fitness professionals, writing articles, creating videos, and promoting health and fitness in my community.”
Finalist, Fitness Instructor of the Year
Jeffrey Scott has served as national senior manager of educational programming and mentoring for Equinox since 2005. For more than 15 years, his focus has been on education and innovation. He has certified over 15,000 indoor cycling instructors through Schwinn® and personally mentored more than 250 cycling instructors as national cycling manager for Equinox. He teaches 50 classes a year for free to raise critical funds for Cycle for Survival and Cycle for HEROs.
Although he was bullied in his youth, Scott never doubted that he had a purpose: to be of service. “I trusted that there would be a place for me, and I found my calling in fitness.” Each week, he teaches 10–12 classes such as cycling, muscle conditioning, circuit, HIIT, running and core.
“My favorite way to inspire anyone into fitness is by creating a fun, inclusive environment in every class I teach,” he says. “When you can get people to laugh and have a good time while they are ‘kicking butt,’ they are more inclined to return again and again. I show them that fitness does not have to be grueling, and I create a ‘we are all in this together’ environment.”
Scott believes his true talent is bringing out the best in others and fostering their development. “I travel nationally and internationally over 30 weeks a year educating the next generation of fitness professionals,” he says. “I impart my time, resources and talents to keep driving the field forward. The fitness industry can be incredibly rewarding, but it takes skill, persistence and a little luck to make a career out of it. By developing the next generation, I am lighting the way for others.”
“Jeffrey and I were a part of Reebok University,” says Petra Kolber, his colleague for more than 25 years. “We worked together, both on the development team and as presenters. Whether teaching to a group of 10 or rocking a main stage to a group of 500-plus, Jeffrey always walked in giving 150% and walked out leaving the people in the room changed for good.”