These Workout Buddies Live 3,600 Miles Apart—But They Still Find Ways to Motivate Each Other
Latoya Shauntay Snell and Jan-Willem Boerhout are giving "workout buddies" a whole new meaning.
When Latoya Shauntay Snell received a notification last year that someone had tagged her in an Instagram Story, she didn't think much of it. As an ultrarunner, athlete, and body-positive activist with over 40,000 followers on the platform, Snell often gets tagged in people's posts. But this post was from Jan-Willem Boerhout, a man from the Netherlands who'd shared a video of himself working out and had credited Snell as his source of motivation. (Related: How Your Friends Can Help You Reach Your Health and Fitness Goals)
"I noticed that he tagged to me, and my first reaction was, 'Who is this guy in the Netherlands?'" Snell tells Shape with a laugh. "But I thought it was cool. My goal with my Instagram is to encourage people to be the best version of themselves, and I felt like Jan was one of those people."
For months to come, Boerhout would continue tagging Snell in his Instagram Stories. Keep in mind, IG Stories weren't nearly as popular then as they are now, says Snell. "While I'd had some people DM me videos of themselves working out, no one was bold enough to share these videos to their Stories for the whole world to see. But Jan was," she shares.
Boerhout's consistency struck a chord with Snell, she says. Sometimes the exercises in his videos mimicked Snell's workouts; other times, he was just doing his own thing in the gym but still said he felt inspired by Snell to get his body moving, she shares.
"It was like I'd become his invisible accountability buddy," Snell tells us. "He reminded me of myself when I started my own fitness journey."
Over the past few years, Snell has become an inspiration to thousands of people around the world. The body-positive activist has competed in more than 200 road, trail, and obstacle course racing events—and she only started her fitness journey in 2014, she tells Shape. Last year alone she participated in 46 races, 14 of which were marathons, she shares. So yeah, she's a beast. (Related: This Is the Grueling Reality of What It's Like to Run an Ultramarathon)
But when Snell first created her Instagram account (before she gained recognition), her only goal was to find her own accountability buddies to help keep her motivated, she says. "I was basically using the platform as an online journal, and I found that Jan was doing the same," she shares. "On his personal account, he has food, fitness, life moments, and he has this wonderful light air to him that made me be like: 'I want to be friends with this dude.'"
A month after he first tagged Snell in his Instagram Stories, Boerhout DM'ed Snell to encourage her to visit the Netherlands and run the Amsterdam Marathon, shares Snell. He told her that he loved the way she empowered people to embrace themselves and that he'd love to see some of that energy in his hometown, she explains. (Related: What Running a Marathon Really Does to Your Body)
"From that point on, I started to check on and engage with him, and he did the same for me," says Snell. At times, these check-ins were about fitness and working out, she adds. But other times, the two simply talked about life in an effort to learn more about each other, shares Snell.
A few months later, Boerhout told Snell he was going to be traveling to New York City for work and that he'd love to see her. Unfortunately, Snell was out of town at the time, but she told him that he should reach out to her again the next time he was in town. "I told him that if he came here again, I was 100 percent going to show up," she says. (Related: The Surprising Effect Your Friends Have On Your Exercise Habits)
As fate would have it, in early January of 2020, Boerhout reached out to Snell again, telling her he was in New York for another work trip. "He told me he didn't care how early it was, but if I had time, he'd love to meet up," she says. "I remember saying, 'Is 5:30 a.m. too early for you?' And he said, 'I'll be there.'" (Related: 8 Health Benefits of Morning Workouts)
"I was literally telling him to come out to the boondocks of Brooklyn at the crack of dawn, and it didn't phase him one bit," adds Snell.
When Snell met Boerhout for the first time, she felt like she'd known him forever, she shares. "On social media, people can be totally different compared to who they are in person," she explains. "But Jan was exactly who I expected him to be. He made me feel human. Sometimes, being in the public eye, people expect you to put on a presentation, but with him, I could just be myself. We had the most normal conversations." (Related: How to Be As Happy IRL As You ~Look~ On Instagram)
Snell and Boerhout chatted about everything from politics to the differences between American and European culture. They also totally vibed while breaking a sweat together, she says. The duo did a kettlebell routine, complete with swings and squats. They also did a few bodyweight movements, like push-ups, along with cable exercises, speed-walking on the treadmill, and core work using a medicine ball.
"He was just so open to everything," says Snell. " It was inspiring for me to be a part of that. His whole vibe and energy have pushed me to stay motivated during my scheduled workouts." (Related: How to Feel More Mentally Energized and Motivated)
Snell has since taken to Instagram to share her and Boerhout's story, and what their relationship means to her. "Sometimes I don't know the gravity of my work because I'm still shaking off the fear of being anyone's inspiration," Snell wrote in a heartfelt post. "To me, inspiring people have to fail a LOT before they ever see success. To be that to literally thousands of people when I overthink it gives me anxiety. But there are moments like these that restore my faith in what I do, how I move and why I'm here."
The body-positive activist now feels her friendship with Boerhout goes beyond just their workout-buddy relationship, she says. Their connection also speaks to how people of all backgrounds are capable of coming together, she shares.
"I know the internet can be a cesspool and the world's pretty divided right now," Snell wrote on Instagram. "Everything from politics, race, religion to cancel culture keeps us apart but I'm so grateful that little things like sports can unite us. It's almost like trying to find your favorite song to play and someone hums it from the crowd. Those types of connections are priceless."