Every January, Better publishes our “Top Fitness Influencers Who Are Making A Difference” list along with our “Restore, Revive, Thrive: Online Guide to Mental & Medical Wellness,” to inspire you on your journey to better fitness. We also make it easy to help those underserved to enjoy greater access to athletics and improved fitness. Please join us in kicking off a healthy and inspiring new year by telling us about the fitness trendsetters and trailblazers who most inspire you, or share a brief version of your journey to better fitness.
Submit your nominations or personal story here, and we will feature in a January “You Said It” article.
To stimulate your thoughts, a brief version of my fitness journey follows, as well as my list of athletic women who most inspire me.
I was a terrible athlete growing up in Central Indiana — short, skinny, uncoordinated, always the last person chosen by classmates for any teams during recess or gym classes. Furthermore, at that time — in the 1960s and early ’70s — there were no female athletic role models to inspire me. This was the pre-Title IX era (Title IX, passed in 1972, mandated that all schools receiving any federal funding had to spend equal amounts on sports for girls as they did for boys). The only two athletic opportunities available to me were swimming and cheerleading. I hated monotonous lap swimming and was prone to ear infections that were aggravated by water. Although I tried out to be a cheerleader every year in grades 7-11, I never made it — not even for the freshman or junior varsity squads. I only found my way into game-day participation by playing the flute in the marching and pep bands.
My teenaged, land-locked self couldn’t have imagined that high-achieving athletic females would become icons and successful entrepreneurs, or that after the age of 50 I would find my way to and eventually excel at a team water sport — crew.
Like most of my favorite things in my life since becoming a mom, I found my way to meaningful athletic involvement over the heads of my children. Specifically, I discovered crew because my son John took up rowing in high school. As the fourth of four boys, and fifth of six kids, John followed in the footsteps of his older siblings athletically growing up. Gymnastics, hockey, baseball, soccer, swimming, diving, tennis, golf, surfing — he tried it all. But, as soon as he learned about the Crew Team at New Trier High School, John was hooked. Here was a sport that he could make his own.
It didn’t take long as a spectator for me to become intrigued too. Crew called to my subconscious; I didn’t even understand why. But, working in unison with teammates, racing across water in all kinds of weather — but especially through misty mornings and in glorious evening light — tickled my imagination. When the New Trier coaches — including Sandy Culver — offered parents a chance to learn to row on a Sunday afternoon, I was the first in line of a motley group. Few of us looked athletic; all appeared to be eligible for a “midlife crisis” too.
I took my first stroke that day — at age 51 — and I was really bad. Wobbly, unsure about the placement of my hands on the oars, awkward while trying to move the rest of my body through complicated strokes, I had every reason to hate the experience. But instead, I loved it! And I yearned for more. Long story shortened, almost one decade later, at the last US Rowing Masters Nationals to be held before Covid, I won a silver medal competing as a member of North Suburban Crew. I’m determined to earn a gold at a future Nationals, too. Because US Rowing already offers opportunities for athletes in their 80s, I have plenty of years ahead of me to do so.
But what I love best about crew isn’t winning medals or feeling myself get fitter. Rather, I love the team aspect of it. No one even gets a boat rigged and in the water if they don’t work well in a group. People attracted to crew know how to collaborate, appreciate that every practice is a privilege, and understand that the real competition is within oneself, not against teammates and others. When an individual improves — their stroke, power, balance, timing, erg split — the whole boat’s performance improves too. As you get better, your boat goes faster, your team gets better and everyone has more fun.
Because of this experience, my list of the athletes or fitness influencers who most inspire me is skewed towards crew or true icons whose influence transcends a particular sport. It includes Sandy Culver, but every other crew coach that I’ve experienced has been exceptional too.
All winners of Better’s Best of 2022 in the health and fitness category are worthy of mention too. I’m always delighted to learn the results of our audience’s voting, because invariably the winners are not only accomplished, they have big hearts and use their platforms to help others.
The Top Fitness Influencers who Inspire Me
A three-time champion in Women’s Lightweight Double Sculls at US Rowing National Championships, Culver has coached rowing at New Trier High School for 15 years and was recently named Head Girls Varsity Coach. She has coached many high school rowers to Scholastic National Championships and led varsity lightweight crews to 2nd and 3rd place medals at US Rowing Youth National Championships, and served as head women’s coach for Northwestern University Rowing Club, Lincoln Park Boat Club and Lafayette College. She also made it possible for me to achieve a dream by sculling with my son John in the Head of The Charles, and coached my learn to row program. She recently cofounded North Channel Community Rowing Camps, during her time as executive director.
A tennis champion and activist, King was a pioneer for equality and empowerment in women’s sports. And she still is to this day, inspiring the next generation of athletes through the Women’s Sports Foundation, which she founded in 1974. She also serves as a director on the Elton John AIDS Foundation and recently presented a check for $1 million from the Dodgers Team at Sir Elton John’s final North American concert at Dodger Stadium in L.A., of which I was in attendance.
Co-owner of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, Gilder is also an entrepreneur, author and Yale Rower. In 1976, along with her teammates, she marched into the Yale Athletic Department completely nude to protest the lack of facilities for women rowers at the boathouse in comparison to the men’s, one of the first high-profile debates post-Title IX legislation. In an article Gilder penned for The Daily Beast, she wrote “Who knew that the clarion call of a simple protest would resound across the ensuing decades, infusing subsequent generations of women with continued hope and passion to pursue the justice that Title IX’s sponsors envisioned in 1972?”
The actor, fitness legend and champion for human rights took the fitness world by storm in 1982 with Workout Starring Jane Fonda. One of the bestselling VHS tapes ever, Fonda’s workout showed us that we didn’t need a gym to get fit, and led to her aerobics empire. Of Fonda In 2018, Vogue writer Patricia Garcia wrote that her workout is still the “best exercise class out there.”
The Williams sisters are all-time greats in tennis, breaking records and barriers throughout their sports history. Serena announced her retirement last summer (and then announced she is “not retired” this month), and is considered among the greatest tennis players of all time. Even as they step away from professional competitions, they are some of the most inspiring athletes to ever perform.
The Japanese professional tennis player is rated number one in singles by the Women’s Tennis Association, and frequently uses her platform for activism. The 2021 Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year, she is also the founder of Kinlò Sun Care, a sunscreen formulated for the melanin-rich.
The Wilmette native is in her fourth season with The Connecticut Whale, part of the Premier Hockey Federation (PHF). The New Trier graduate joined the Connecticut Whale after four years playing hockey at Yale University. Vlasic told The Record North Shore that she is still honing her skills, and has enjoyed playing for the PHF, which allows the world’s best female hockey players to compete while making a living.
Again, please share your favorites with us or your personal story here, and we will feature in a January “You Said It” article.
More from Better:
- Diversity Heads For The Water: How Rowing is Becoming a Powerful Force for Good in the Chicago-area and Beyond
- Champions on the Field and Off: 10 Most Inspiring Athletes
- A Woman of Steel: Rowing Crew and Living with a Vengeance
Susan B. Noyes thrives in the midst of Happy Chaos, which is why large family dinners and overcommitted days are still her favorites. Because she believes that we are all Better Together than apart, she also loves spending her time, money and out of the box thinking to foster the most good for others too. That ultimately led her to become the Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of Make It Better Media Group, as well as the Founder of Make It Better Foundation’s Philanthropy Awards. A mother of six, stepmother of two, grandmother of seven (and hopefully growing!), former Sidley Austin labor lawyer and U.S. Congressional Aide, passionate philanthropist, and intuitive connector, she has served on boards for the Poetry Foundation, Harvard University Graduate School of Education Visiting Committee, American Red Cross, Lurie Children’s Hospital, Annenberg Challenge, Chicago Public Education Fund, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New Trier High School District 203, and her beloved Kenilworth Union Church. But most of all, she enjoys writing and serving others by creating virtuous circles that amplify social impact.