The fitness industry is rich with inspiration. Attend any IDEA convention or read through an IDEA publication, and you’re likely to discover countless stories of the many ways in which fitness professionals help others surmount obstacles. Four of those people are the 2009 recipients of the IDEA Health & Fitness Inspiration Awards.

Debi Pillarella, MEd

2009 IDEA Program Director of the Year

In middle school, as an overweight child, Debi Pillarella was forced to endure taunts and criticism. At her high school, only tomboys took part in girls’ sports, and there were few other options for physical
activity. Fortunately for Pillarella, she loved music, and she loved to dance. “A neighbor asked if my mom and I wanted to go to a ‘dance exercise’ class in the park,” she recalls. “I was hooked. I went to every class offered and even became an ‘instructor’s helper.’”

Pillarella eventually obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees in education, while continuing to stay involved with the fitness industry. “Before I was a full-time fitness professional, I spent 15 years in education and worked in fitness as an ‘evening/weekend’ job.” When she
finally made the leap to a full-time career, Pillarella admits, the transition was not easy. “I didn’t have any management or business training, which caused me to make financial mistakes,” she says. “This caused my first business, Bodyworks Inc., to not be very profitable.” Her business folded, but Pillarella drew positive lessons from the experience and realized she needed to enhance her education. “Eventually I overcame those mistakes by studying business/management on my own, attending seminars, visiting other successful fitness businesses, networking with industry mentors, attending IDEA conferences and lots of trial and error.”

Pillarella currently works as the education/fitness program manager for The Community Hospital Fitness Pointe® in Munster, Indiana. There she uses her hard-earned knowledge and expertise to ensure the success of Fitness Pointe’s programs. “I learned a while ago that you can’t just think of a new program and put up a sign with hopes that it will work for you,” says Pillarella. “Borrowing the ‘best practice’ philosophy from the education arena has been paramount to my programs’ successes.” Each potential program is put through a rigorous process to determine its validity. “All the programs I develop follow the same format and go through the same development process, one step at a time.”

Award Criteria
  • is a healthy role model
  • demonstrates keen professional commitment through community and industry involvement
  • inspires staff through outstanding leadership
  • develops successful, creative and diverse programming that
    influences both active and underactive people to commit to
    a healthy lifestyle
Cynthia Carrion Norton, MBA

2009 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year

You might refer to Cynthia Carrion Norton as the Philippines’ “First Personal Trainer.” Years ago, President Gloria Arroyo wanted to learn to stand on a surfboard for an international surfing event. She selected Norton to train her up to the task. “She gave me only 10 days to do it,” she recalls. “One cannot say no to the president. I called my friend to help me, because 10 consecutive days would be a tall order for me in the face of my hectic schedule and prior commitments.” Norton’s efforts proved successful: President Arroyo accomplished her goal.

“After that,” says Norton, “the president realized she enjoyed the fitness training because she lost inches, but not weight. She asked if I could continue giving her training twice a week.” A year later, the two began to meet three times per week.

Norton has learned that working with the president, along with 15 of her cabinet members and heads of national agencies (as well as private individuals), comes with unique challenges. These have included learning to maintain the utmost professionalism while working with strong personalities and hectic schedules. “I learned to overcome such challenges by giving [my clients] absolute rules to follow in order to receive their full focus and attention during training,” she states. For instance, Norton strictly prohibits cell phone use during training hours. “One time, during the implementation of this policy, Arroyo immediately questioned it, saying, ‘Even me?’ I said, ‘Especially you, Madame President. Only in a crisis, when the nation’s interest is at stake, will you be
allowed to take phone calls.’”

Norton’s position has also allowed her the opportunity to cultivate and develop fitness in the Philippines. As undersecretary for sports and wellness in the department of tourism, Norton is responsible for promoting her country as a sports destination. “We campaign to raise international awareness and promote the competitive advantages of the Philippines as a destination for health and wellness, medical tourism and retirement.”

Award Criteria
  • is a practicing industry professional spending at least 15 hours per week actually training clients one-on-one
  • demonstrates exceptional leadership, business management, motivational and instructional skills
  • inspires clients to greater personal growth and a higher level
    of fitness
June Kahn

2009 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year

Physical activity has been a part of June Kahn’s life since she was just a toddler. She continued to pursue this interest and eventually studied physical fitness education and dance in college. But it wasn’t until after the birth of her first son that she got her first taste of the fitness industry. “I was looking for a way to lose the ‘baby weight,’ and although I was still dancing in a jazz company and teaching skiing on the weekends, I wasn’t seeing the weight loss I was trying to achieve,” says Kahn. “Then I was introduced to Jacki Sorensen’s aerobic dance.” Kahn began to lose weight and also learned about the many benefits of cardiovascular exercise. “During one of my dance classes, a fellow dancer needed a substitute [instructor] for her aerobic dance class, and I was intrigued.” Kahn taught the class and fell in love. “However, I felt there had to be more to learn, and as an educator I was compelled to arm myself with more knowledge.” Kahn saw an advertisement for an IDEA convention and immediately decided to attend. “That was my introduction into the fitness industry, and I was hooked.”

Since then, Kahn has made it her mission to provide quality education and instruction. She began working as a Reebok University Global Master Trainer and was reintroduced to Pilates, which had been part of her dance training as a child. “[It was like] coming home,” she recalls. “But more than that, I had a strong intuition that this could be the future down the road for the fitness industry.” Currently president of June Kahn’s Bodyworks LLC Professional Fitness Pilates Training, Kahn credits her
enduring success to her chameleon-like abilities. “I have been lucky to have the foresight throughout my career to note what is new, fresh and upcoming. Being able to recreate myself over and over in an effort to maintain longevity and exposure has given me the ability to sustain my popularity over the years.”

Award Criteria
  • demonstrates strong leadership skills through community and industry involvement
  • uses his or her superior abilities and influence as an instructor to motivate active and underactive people to commit to healthy lifestyles
Scout Bassett

2009 IDEA Fitness Inspiration Award

Scout Bassett is no stranger to adversity and challenge. At a very early age, she lost her right leg to severe burns. She was later abandoned at a Chinese orphanage, where she experienced years of physical abuse, starvation and child labor. Bassett believes that these horrific events helped her develop the fortitude to overcome anything—an
attribute that would later ignite her passion for athletics. “I know that I can rise above any obstacle on this journey and strive to reach heights that I never thought possible,” says Bassett. “I
appreciate my life in a way that most people cannot understand unless they, too, have walked in my shoes.”

Fortunately for Bassett, she was adopted by a loving family when she was 7 years old and subsequently raised in the United States. She began taking an interest in athletics in elementary school when she saw her friends participating in various sports. “Naturally I wanted to be a part of something,” she says. “I was always welcome to practice, but not always welcome to play or compete with the team.” Still yearning to be involved in competition, she discovered a track and field event for disabled athletes. “I first met the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) at this event and received my first grant from the foundation a year later.” CAF invited her to attend the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, and she realized then that her potential was limitless. “It was at that moment that I saw the possibilities and realized I was going to be just fine in life,” she adds.

So, while “it was heart wrenching to be the only girl on the junior varsity softball team to never play a single game or inning because
a coach didn’t believe [she] was capable of playing,” Bassett saw the season to its finish. “I believe that with any challenge there are only two choices: to let the challenges defeat you, or to conquer the obstacles and live the best life possible. I have chosen the latter;
it’s a much easier route to take.”

Scout was unable to accept her award in person, but her mother Susi tearfully accepted for her.

Apply for 2010 Awards

Want to apply for next year’s IDEA Health & Fitness Inspiration Awards or nominate a colleague? Visit The deadline is December 1, 2009.

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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