I was thinking of my friend Julia and how many ways health seekers at the Y and their instructor, trainer or coach interact and impact one another. The path to lifelong fitness and health seems like it should be a simple, straight line: Establish an exercise routine, eat healthy foods, and get lots of rest. Repeat. Sounds like a pretty straightforward plan, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the way our world is organized. The path winds and tangles, with large peaks and valleys. Very few of us can go it alone. Relationships develop along the way. You find common ground on the road when sharing space and attention with others who may be very different from you. In my 10+ year connection with Julia, every time our paths converge, it is because one of us, (usually her) had the courage to ask a question.
Any fitness facility can be an intimidating, hectic place. It can be tough to get started. Often people will revert to doing the same things all time, because that is all they know how to do. It can take courage to ask for help. While I was working as a Wellness Coach, Julia, fresh off of a brutal knee injury, approached me with the rare, quiet confidence of someone who knows what she does not know. She asked me about options for cardio exercise that didn’t require the use of her injured leg. Partially due to the limitations of our equipment and more due to my lack of experience at the time, I didn’t have too many helpful answers. But I, like Julia, am fully comfortable admitting that I don’t know, but I would research more.
As she rehabbed her knee and grew stronger, she started attending my high intensity circuit training class. Still very quiet, but an absolute beast when the exercise began. She was relentless in wanting to work to her potential and getting the movement right. Often when teaching an exercise, I will use a phrase or cue that I may think is pure gold, only to find that the class has no idea what I mean. They just fake it and hope they get it right, Julia asked questions. If I used one of my “golden” cues, she would ask, “what does that mean?”. I loved it! It made me a better instructor.
I got to know her little by little. Overcoming my own hang ups about bothering people with too many questions, I would gradually, gently ask about her life outside of the Y. I learned that she was a single mother. I got to meet her amazing 5-year-old daughter, Violet. It became clear how the Y supported families like Julia and Violet. While Julia came to class to work out with me, Violet spent time in Childwatch. She took swim lessons and was enrolled in the Y’s Early Learning Center preschool. I was always overjoyed to see Violet every summer in our Summer Fun Club Day Camp. She even had a birthday party in the Downtown YMCA’s party room.
A quick story about Violet and how a question, even one in jest, can stick with you. There must’ve been some sliver of time after Julia’s workday and before Violet’s swim lessons for a quick dinner. They were sitting at a table in the lobby eating deli sandwiches. Violet, a poised 6 years old at this time, sat quietly munching on potato chips. “What, I don’t get hungry? Where’s mine?” I said, trying to be clever. Without hesitation, Violet reached out to hand me the bag of chips. I expected an eye-roll or a giggle. Instead, I was given a much sweeter gesture than my lame joke deserved. Since then, it has always been a joy to watch as she grew up at the Y; becoming strong and confident while keeping the potato chip-sharing kindness that is so true to her nature.
Julia has always had a laser focus and does not talk unless she has something to say. I was often challenged by her lack of pretense in requesting quality information. So, when she asked me about martial arts training, I made sure I gave her thoughtful recommendations. And when I started a Mixed Martial Arts Fitness small group training program, I mustered up the courage to ask Julia if she’d like to join. Oh boy, did she dive headlong into martial arts. The small group trained so hard I was running out of ideas as to how to challenge them. Julia set the pace for the group and Violet stayed in the office beside the gym, drawing me pictures with her crayons. Over time, we had reached the limit of what martial arts I could teach her and introduced Julia to a real martial arts academy so she could continue to improve. It wasn’t about me keeping a “client”. It was about seeing a friend reach her potential.
Moves, career changes, school schedule changes all get in the way of that straightforward goal. There were long chunks of time where I wouldn’t see Julia or Violet. We would check in with one another, often asking questions not just about fitness, but art, music, books: things we discovered we had in common when we shared space and attention. Recently Julia contacted me about strength training after enduring a significant shoulder injury, surgery, and rehab. Here we were, 10 years after she asked for help after a knee surgery, and I was privileged to try to help again, this time, with one-on-one training. We still asked each other lots of questions: I, to make sure I was giving her safe, quality exercises, and she, true to her nature, to make sure she understood she was doing everything correctly and to its full potential.
The path winds and tangles. Despite all those peaks and valleys, from that single question 10 years ago I was able to interact as a wellness coach, group exercise instructor, martial arts training partner, personal trainer and of course as a friend. Julia found a place where she and her daughter felt welcome and could share space and attention with others. Violet is now 16 years old, as fierce as her mother, and comes into the Y after school to work out on her own. I see them both often and still get to help them in their fitness goals when I can. Or just get to say hello. Of course, not all gym connections will result in a lifelong friendship, but you never know how to find the common ground unless you ask.
--Dan Kohler, Downtown YMCA Lead Personal Trainer