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Body of Work: The Top 20 Fitness Icons
The Rock (Hard) Star: Gwen Stefani
Before Gwen Stefani began strutting her stuff as the superfly front woman for the otherwise all-guy band No Doubt in 1995, the role of female lead singer tended more toward being a sexpot than having a six-pack. The blond bombshell, now 42, brought a new athleticism to the stage with a bod she credits to "lifting weights [and] a little boxing."
The Legend: Jane Fonda
She has played many roles — Oscar winner, political activist, billionaire's wife — but for millions of women, Jane Fonda's legacy is all about leg warmers. It was 1982, and fresh off her triumph in On Golden Pond, one of Hollywood's leading ladies, at the age of 44, decided her next act would be as a fitness guru. Workout: Starring Jane Fonda, originally on VHS and Beta, remains the best-selling fitness video of all time, having sold 17 million copies.
"It launched the home fitness video industry and made it okay for women to have muscles," Fonda reflects. Only years after its release did she reveal that the cover photo of her in a striped leotard and those maroon leg warmers, legs scissored skyward, was that of a woman who had embraced exercise as a way to save herself from bulimia.
In 2010, despite hip and knee replacements, Fonda was back in the studio — wearing yoga pants now — to film her Prime Time DVD series targeted at inspiring older people to move. At 74, Fonda loves hiking up mountains, and she has a body most 30-year-olds would envy. Her secret? "It's one-third good genes and less than one-third diet, and all the rest is working out," she says. When asked what's next, Fonda demurs. "I don't know. And if I did, I wouldn't tell because I wouldn't want someone else to get there first."
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The Good Cop: Bob Harper
He is The Biggest Loser's beating heart, a tattooed hunk who helps change lives on TV. In 2004, Bob Harper, then a trainer and Spinning instructor in Los Angeles, answered a casting call for a weight-loss reality show.
"I remember being turned off by the title," he recalls. "I wanted to make sure the show depicted obese Americans in the best possible light." Now in its 13th season, The Biggest Loser is a six-day-a-week commitment, yet Harper still finds time to teach a Saturday group fitness class at Crunch and work on his growing product line, which includes supplements, an interactive website, and his book The Skinny Rules: The Simple, Nonnegotiable Principles to Getting to Thin. (Rule 18: "Go to bed slightly hungry.")
Harper's current fitness crush is CrossFit, the interval workout program that includes a lot of reps and plyometrics. "I've put on more muscle," he says of his new regimen's effect. "I shot the cover for a men's magazine, and when I saw it, I thought, Whoa, that's pretty good for a 46-year-old man!"
The Comeback Kid: Dara Torres
Ronald Reagan was in office when 17-year-old Dara Torres swam in her first Olympics, in Los Angeles in 1984. Four presidents later the California native is still making waves. Now 45, an age when most swimmers have long hung up their Speedos, Torres is trying for a mind-boggling sixth Olympics this year in London. She's already swum the qualifying time in the 50-meter freestyle, the event for which she holds the U.S. record. The oldest woman ever to swim in the Olympic Games, she's attempting to add to her total medal count of 12, including three silvers from the 2008 Beijing games, where she narrowly lost the gold in the 50-meter freestyle to a German swimmer half her age.
Unlike many women on the other side of 40, Torres is happy to reveal her age. Her statuesque physique, with its broad shoulders and egg-carton abs, seems chiseled from marble — if marble had a tan. "I found myself saying 'Age is just a number' so many times that I titled my memoir with that mantra," says Torres, who lives in Florida with her 6-year-old daughter, Tessa Grace, and trains up to six hours a day. "Age is definitely part of who I am, but it certainly doesn't define me."
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The Trailblazer: Lisa Leslie
You can see Lisa Leslie's history-making 2002 slam dunk on YouTube. "Nobody, nowhere, no how has ever done it in the WNBA," crows the announcer. The crowd loses its collective mind. The six-foot-five Leslie leaps into the arms of a Los Angeles Sparks teammate.
When Leslie, now 39, was in middle school in Compton, California, there was no girls' basketball team, but that didn't stop her from becoming a star center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She helped christen the Women's National Basketball Association and then ruled it for 12 years, snagging one accolade after another: eight-time All-Star, three-time MVP, two-time defensive player of the year, and one reputation as the best all-around player in the history of women's basketball. "My mom taught me the importance of responsibility and hard work," the now-retired Leslie has said. "Struggle is good."
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The Troop Leader: Michelle Obama
Even though the 48-year-old mother of two gets up at 4:30 A.M. to work out, first lady Michelle Obama is amused by the media attention her buff-itude attracts. Her first major initiative, Let's Move, launched in 2010, is aimed at fighting childhood obesity by encouraging kids to exercise and eat food that comes out of the ground rather than a vending machine. To underscore her seriousness, she took on TV hosts in push-up contests — and won. "I'm pretty much willing to make a complete fool out of myself to get our kids moving," she has said.
The Badass: Jillian Michaels
She is a new kind of health-and-wellness expert: the dreamy drill sergeant whose supertoned body has given women an attainable alternative to the rail-thin aesthetic. In Jillian Michaels's 10 seasons on The Biggest Loser her teams won every time, and her success has taken her where no trainer had gone before: onto countless magazine covers and into Super Bowl ads. Her DVDs, books, podcast, WiiFit and Xbox games, and fitness equipment and apparel have made Michaels, 38, an industry unto herself.
Her many fans know that Michaels's woman-of-steel persona springs from her own weight-loss struggles as a teenager, which she conquered after taking up martial arts. They also know that her hard shell surrounds a soft-candy center.
Michaels is in the process of adopting a child, and she says pending motherhood has already changed her thinking. "In a perfect world, I would be trying to make a dent in causes that matter to me, like child protection and welfare," she muses. "The one thing I've learned for sure is that you can plan all you want, but your best bet is to prepare for anything."
The Pied Piper: Mia Hamm
It's hard to believe she turned 40 this year, the intense, quicksilver soccer forward with a dark ponytail who helped put women's sports on the map. In 1996, in front of the largest crowd ever assembled for a women's sporting event, Mia Hamm led the U.S. women's national team to its first-ever Olympic gold medal. By the time she retired in 2004, she led had her team to two World Cup championships and two Olympic golds and scored more goals — 151 — than any other soccer player in history, male or female. But most important, Hamm was the poster girl for millions of soccer-playing little girls who wanted to be like Mia: strong, passionate, and not afraid to sweat. And she is still paying it forward, having joined with former teammates Kristine Lilly and Tisha Venturini Hoch to create the Team First Soccer Academy. "We want to share our experiences playing at the highest level by helping girls reach their own potential in soccer and in life," Hamm says.
The Court Royals: Venus and Serena Williams
Follow the Twitter feed of sports' most famous sisters and you'll get an inside look at the sort of sisterly issues they lob back and forth — @VenusWilliams: My car is out of gas; can I drive yours, pleez? @SerenaWilliams: Please stay out of my room. It's booby trapped!
Of course, Venus and Serena are not your typical sisters, unless you consider two phenoms from Compton, California, who transformed the way women play tennis and manage their careers perfectly normal. We've watched them grow up in public, from exuberant teens with braces and braids to glamour girls who would just as soon wear stilettos as sneakers. They share a mansion in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Between them they have 82 tennis titles and five Olympic gold medals. Venus, 31, burst onto the professional tennis scene in 1994 at the age of 14, and eight years afterward became the first African-American woman to be ranked number one in the world. Serena became the second later that year. In 2006, Venus represented the Women's Tennis Association at talks that ultimately resulted in female players getting prize money equal to their male counterparts' at tournaments. All power and muscle and ferocity, Serena, 30, is the greatest tennis player of her generation, with 13 Grand Slam singles titles and the highest earnings — $35 million — of any woman in the history of professional sports. Venus is the second-highest earner.
Both have also had their setbacks. Serena has suffered foot injuries and blood clots in her lungs, and Venus has been diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disease. "I'm continuing to stay positive and work hard," Venus tweeted a fan after playing on the winning Fed Cup team in February. "Things will be amazing."
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The Vogue Maven: Madonna
Look no further than her sweatastic Super Bowl half-time show to believe that Madonna is still calling the shots on what's hot. But then she has always been ahead of the exercise curve, whether it be Pilates or vibrating Power Plates. Madonna, 53 and forever young, has even opened her own gym chain, Hard Candy Fitness. Her message to members: "build strength as far as the imagination will allow."
The Conqueror: Lance Armstrong
He couldn't have known, growing up in Texas as a rebellious kid with a single mom and a passion for cycling, that beating cancer — and not just beating it, but beating it into submission — would be his enduring legacy even though his name is one of the sports world's most celebrated. It would have been enough if Lance Armstrong had merely survived the testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain and abdomen at age 25. It would have been enough if he had merely been able to compete in the Tour de France, cycling's most grueling and prestigious event. But no; after going into remission, he had to win the race not once but seven years in a row, setting a heroic and inspiring new standard for cancer survivorship.
"The one thing the illness has convinced me of beyond all doubt," he writes in his blockbuster 2000 memoir, It's Not About the Bike, "is that we are much better than we know."
Chances are you or someone you know wears a Nike-designed Livestrong bracelet, which is rendered in the same yellow as Armstrong's Tour de France jersey. (They quickly became the inspiration for a raft of color-coded rubbery cause bracelets.) Today, more than 80 million Livestrong bracelets have been sold at a buck apiece to raise funds for cancer research and support — 80 million reminders that, to paraphrase a popular Armstrong-ism, hope is stronger than fear.
The Natural: Elle Macpherson
This Aussie knockout shows that a supermodel can be all about fitness, not famine. "My favorite high school memories are of waking at 5 a.m. and riding my bicycle to swim practice every day," Elle Macpherson says. "This joy for sports has stayed with me all my life." It's true; Macpherson, 48, surfs, paddleboards, skis, water-skis, rides horses, and hikes.
LANCE OMAR THURMAN
The Gold Standard: Jackie Joyner-Kersee
Track-and-field icon Jackie Joyner-Kersee gets bored on the treadmill, just like the rest of us. "I have to mix it up: I adjust the incline or the speed, run a minute, walk a minute — anything to make the time go faster," she admits.
Joyner-Kersee's graciousness and lack of pretension are arguably as famous as her achievements. Named the greatest female athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated for Women, she has held the world record for the heptathlon — 100-meter hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put, javelin, and 200-meter and 400-meter runs — for 24 years; in sports, that's an eternity. A four-time world champion, Joyner-Kersee's trove of six Olympic medals, won from 1988 to 1996, includes three golds, one silver, and two bronzes.
Winning that first gold medal in the heptathlon at the 1988 games in Seoul "is still and always will be a thrill," she says. For us, too. For 16 years, fans of the Summer Olympics watched her run, jump, and throw with an explosiveness and joy that remains unrivaled. These days, at 50, her life revolves around public speaking and doing community work in her hometown of East Saint Louis, Illinois, where she mentors a high school girls' track team. "I don't approach my speaking and coaching engagements as if I'm some superstar," Joyner-Kersee says. "I want to inspire and motivate and have people appreciate my hard work."
The Energizer Bunny: Denise Austin
She is a human exclamation point, petite and bubbly and relentlessly upbeat, the unstoppable force who made exercise a fixture on morning TV. "I just want people to know that you can feel better and get energized about yourself," says Denise Austin, the queen of small-screen fitness and Idaho potato pitchwoman. "That's been my mission, and it still is."
Austin, now 55, burst onto the scene in 1981, when she talked Jack LaLanne into letting her cohost his daily fitness show. That led to gigs on the Today show, ESPN, and Lifetime. Her videos and DVDs — the latest is Shape Up & Shed Pounds — have earned her a place in the Video Hall of Fame.
"Everything in moderation," Austin says of staying trim. And yes, potatoes are okay: "They're a vegetable."
The Success Story: Valerie Bertinelli
First she was the adorable girl-next-door on One Day at a Time and then the adorable wife of rocker Eddie Van Halen. Then, still adorable, Valerie Bertinelli committed the biggest felony in showbiz: She got fat. She lived in tunics until 2007, when she publicly shed 40 pounds on the Jenny Craig diet program and became an everywoman emblem for a nation struggling with its waistline. Her ultimate weight-loss motivator: "embracing the fact that I was worth it," Bertinelli, 52, has said.
The It Girl: Gabrielle Reece
In 1989 a six-foot-three green-eyed blonde stood out as a kick-butt volleyball player at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Gabrielle Reece led the NCAA in kills and held school records in solo and total blocks, which still stand. That year Elle magazine named her one of the five most beautiful women in the world. Reece, a new sort of role model, had arrived: ripped, ultracompetitive, ultrafeminine.
Reece claims to have been a late bloomer, not having a real clue about her athletic potential until she was 17 or so. "I was six-foot-three at 15," she says. "Goofy does not to begin to describe my efforts to do a cartwheel."
After college, Reece continued her hybrid career, captaining the four-person Team Nike for the Women's Beach Volleyball League while also appearing in magazines and hosting TV shows, like The Extremists with Gabrielle Reece, on which she met her husband, the big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton.
Now 42, Reece still graces magazine covers in her bikini — she once joked that she was a babe for a living — while parenting three daughters. She currently holds free training sessions at the community center near where she and her family live, in Kauai, Hawaii, and is working on a new book. Her greatest achievement, Reece says, is being able to live in a way that reflects who she really is. "I might feel differently if I had won a bunch of gold medals, but all the fanfare, being voted the most whatever, comes and goes," she says. "I've been fortunate to live this physically active life."
The Visionary: Billie Jean King
It's not a stretch to say that every professional female athlete who doesn't have to hold down a day job has Billie Jean King to thank. And also that girls who find a level playing field in sports today owe her a debt as well.
When Billie Jean Moffitt, 17, the daughter of a Southern California housewife and a fireman, first went to Wimbledon in 1961, local Long Beach tennis enthusiasts helped pay her travel costs. She proceeded to dominate the tournament for the next two decades. King founded the Women's Tennis Association in 1973 and, that same year, whupped former pro Bobby Riggs in the sensationalized Battle of the Sexes. Title IX, the ban on gender discrimination in public schools, had just passed, and as King explains, "I wanted to change the hearts and minds of people to match the legislation."
Gaining equality would become her life's work: She went on to found the Women's Sports Foundation, an organization that has raised more than $125 million to advance girls' and women's participation in physical activities.
King, 69, may have had knee replacements, but otherwise is fit and enjoying life, thank you very much.
King says she hopes her legacy will be a society modeled after the World TeamTennis circuit she created: "Men and women competing together on the same team with equal contributions from both genders. That is what I want the world to look like."
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The Activist: Alice Waters
If your idea of a good meal is a piece of locally caught fish and a salad made from the greens grown in your garden or purchased at the local farmers' market, you're a culinary descendant of Alice Waters. The 69-year-old "mother of American cooking" is the founder of the legendary Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, and a prime force behind the notion that organic food, grown locally, is the healthiest food for you and your community. Her best advice for eating well? "Find out where your food comes from — all of it."
In 1996, not content with changing how grown-ups relate to food and cooking, she founded the Edible Schoolyard Project, which teaches kids about gardening and sustainability and even how to cook. "My hope is that soon physical education will be joined by edible education," Waters says.
The Hot Commodity: Michael Jordan
We know him as the superman who became a brand. Michael Jordan, 49, has been credited with transforming pro basketball into an above-the-net experience. He owns pretty much every NBA accolade. Now, nearly 15 years after his glory days, the shoes that bear his name have still got game. The man who said, "I can accept failure, but I can't accept not trying," certainly had a golden touch. Jordan forever elevated the sneaker to a true lust object.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2012.