Shana Verstegen helped a struggling teenager transform her physical accomplishments into confidence outside of the gym, reinforcing the true power of exercise.
On any given day at Supreme Health and Fitness, a gym in Madison, WI, you'll find 14-year-old Clare*—a confident eighth grader who's a leader at her school—swinging kettlebells and squatting 95 pounds with a giant smile spread across her face.
But less than two years ago, things looked very different. Clare was a shy, withdrawn girl struggling with a host of emotional issues. She had long dealt with anxiety and depression, spurred in part by turmoil at home.
Then, in an effort to give her a positive, healthy role model, Clare's mother connected with Shana Verstegen, a master instructor for the American Council on Exercise, and another instructor at Supreme Health and Fitness.
Verstegen, a 5-foot-4-inch, 37-year-old blonde with an enviable six-pack and rock-hard shoulders, fell in love with exercise herself at age 7, when her parents enrolled her in a logrolling class at a local YMCA (today, she's a six-time world champion women's professional logroller and head coach and co-owner of Madison Log Rolling). At the time, Verstegen's mother had been diagnosed with Huntington's disease, a fatal degenerative brain disorder. Her parents turned toward sports to help keep their daughter's life as normal as possible. Verstegen went on to become the first female pole vaulter at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
"Fitness is my passion, and I love working with young girls and women, either through personal training or through logrolling, to help them find their inner athlete and to unlock their potential," Verstegen says.
Healing Through Fitness
Clare and Verstegen have slightly different takes on their first official meeting. Clare says she wasn't nervous at all, and that she enjoyed getting to know her new trainer. Verstegen, however, remembers Clare not making much eye contact and barely speaking. "I could tell she was unsure of herself," she recalls. (Did you know just one workout can boost self-confidence?)
Clare and her new coach sat down for an initial session and discussed goals as well as what Clare enjoyed (and didn't enjoy) in workouts.
"She had done some working out before meeting me, so she was comfortable with some moves, while others I could tell were not her thing," Verstegen recalls. "She enjoyed seeing improvement, which I'm sure boosted her self-esteem, so exercises that were easily progressive on the TRX Suspension Trainer, and heavier weightlifting were her favorites, because she could see and feel the improvement from workout to workout."
Because one of their main goals was to build Clare's confidence, the duo's initial workouts purposely featured exercises that weren't frustrating: basic squat mechanics using her body weight, lunges, and kettlebells.
After meeting weekly for a few months, Clare's personality began to emerge.
"She smiled more, and instead of showing up late, as she often did, she'd come early." As Verstegen upped the intensity of the workouts, incorporating weightlifting and jogging, the typically tight-lipped student began sharing more details about her school life.
Slowly, Clare opened up about her family. She also spoke about her love for art, teaching the non-artsy Verstegen about different techniques in between sets. They also discovered a mutual obsession with Pokémon Go, which served as a great motivation for them to walk and run outside. "Sometimes I had to ask a lot of questions, but she would tell me about her amazing school projects, speeches, work for social justice, and interaction with schoolmates," Verstegen remembers.
A Butterfly Emerges
Clare noticed the positive changes fitness was causing too. "I noticed changes in my personality immediately, as did my mom and sibling," she says. "My confidence skyrocketed. I started to feel more comfortable speaking up in class and in front of other students. Exercise takes my mind off things I don't want to think about, and I can also use it as a time to reflect. I started talking to Shana more about things going on in my life. Also, I have endometriosis, and working out made life a lot less painful."
After a year of working out together, the duo added a second day of working out to their weekly routine. Soon, Clare began attending Verstegen's 60-minute TRX class and had signed up to run a 5K.
Coming out of her shell helped Clare to come out in another way too: Last year, she revealed to her family and seventh grade friends that she is pansexual, a term used to describe individuals who are attracted to people of all genders and sexes. She even used her newfound bravery to organize a Gender Sexuality Alliance in her school, which now counts 50 young activists as members, all fighting for issues such as LGBT rights and gender and racial equality.
The Midwestern teen describes herself as someone who had always been interested in women's issues, but had trouble speaking out loudly against injustice. "It's not so much that Shana taught me to be a feminist, it's just that she's helped me gain confidence to do what I am devoted to," Clare says. "Before working out, I couldn't talk in front of groups. But now I set up opportunities in which I can talk in front of groups of people, because I enjoy it and think it's an important way to spread information and kindness."
Clare also creates body positive art. "I draw people who aren't conventionally attractive—people who have big noses or small eyes, who don't look like models. I think doing this tells people that [we all] look beautiful and unique, and shouldn't feel like we have to change because of society."
As for Verstegen, the ESPN STIHL Timbersports Series Gold Medalist and Women's Tri Fitness competitor continues to spread her love of logrolling as the head coach and co-owner of Madison Log Rolling, and serves as a national spokesperson for the Huntington's Disease Society of America.
Now in the eighth grade, Clare says she continues to work through some issues in her personal and family life. But fitness fuels her struggles. "I think if I had never worked out with Shana, I wouldn't be as far in life and health as I am today, and I certainly wouldn't be as confident."
Verstegen says the parallels she's witnessed between Clare's physical and emotional growth have been exciting. "Personal training is not just about losing weight—it's about feeling good inside and out. Her strength in the gym has mirrored her strength in the outside world. She's going to be a real force in this world."
And yes, logrolling is on Clare's summer bucket list.
*Because Clare is a minor, we are only using her first name.