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Power Combos: How Fitness Brought Us Together

  • Andrew Hetherington

    "He Turned Me into a Champion"

    Four years ago Laurie Hyacinthe was looking for a way to blow off steam from the pressures of her dental residency when she took her first class at the Wat, a gym in downtown Manhattan that specializes in muay Thai, a full-contact martial art from Thailand. Today the 34-year-old pediatric dentist is an amateur fighter with a killer record: nine wins — including titles as both the World Kickboxing and Karate Association North American Champion and World Champion in her welterweight division — and just one loss. "I never in a million years would have thought I'd compete in a martial art," she says, "or that it would make me as happy as it does."

    It was Phil Nurse, the owner of the Wat, who "turned someone who had never committed to any fitness activity into a competitive athlete fully dedicated to being the best fighter she can be," Laurie says. Phil knew that Laurie was a champ the moment he saw her. "She may not look like your idea of a fighter, but she's got a spark inside," he says. The first time Phil asked Laurie if she might want to train for a fight, she turned him down flat. But after she became enthralled watching another woman compete in a match, she changed her mind. As Laurie trained for a grueling two hours a day, she slowly began to realize that the combat sport is about a lot more than well-placed kicks and jabs. "Fighting isn't just about two people hitting each other; it's a life lesson," Phil explains. "When you face a problem — in life or in the ring — you can't stand still. You have to go around it, over it, under it."

    Laurie has since spent a three-week vacation in Thailand polishing her sparring skills, and she has gone on to open her own dental office in Harlem. Whether facing a formidable opponent in Phuket or negotiating a lease back home, she would remember Phil's admonishment: "He taught me that in moments of the most intense stress and competition, when things really count, you have to relax and trust your abilities."

  • Andrew Hetherington

    "We Faced the Music Together and Danced"

    High-school friends from Latham, New York, Jennifer Larson and Erin Radez, both 34, were going through romantic troubles when they ran into each other at a party in December 2010. When Erin suggested they take a Zumba class to distract themselves from their heartache, Jennifer scoffed. "Hell, no!' was my first reaction," she recalls. "I'm far too uncoordinated." But, with some prodding from Erin, she relented. "Sometimes when you hit rock bottom, you do crazy stuff," she says.

    Like many intimidated beginners, they picked spots in the back of the room for those first classes. "We were clueless," Erin says. "But we laughed a lot and figured there's no wrong way to do Zumba." They may have been jesters, but they weren't slackers. "We would jump high and work hard," Jennifer says. "And that inspired everyone around us to work harder, too." Soon the two were taking classes four nights a week, and people were saving spots for them in the front of the room. "We were having so much fun that people thought we had these perfect lives," Jennifer says. "If they only knew." Eventually the joy they felt in class helped them get through the pain of their relationship woes. "It's Zumba love," Erin says with a laugh.

    Today Jennifer and Erin tag-teach Zumba several times a week in classes that feature dance-offs and encourage sing-alongs. "We call all the girls in class Zumba sisters, and Jennifer really does feel like a sister to me," Erin says. "Whenever I need her, she's there. I feel humbled by her friendship." Jennifer sings a similar tune. "I'm tearing up as I say this," she says. "But when you find that right person in your life — and it doesn't have to be a spouse — you can be transformed."

  • Andrew Hetherington

    "We Baked Up A New Business in the Pool"

    Bakers are typically early risers. That's true of Connie McDonald, 53, and Pam Weekes, 52, the owners of New York City's Levain Bakery, who wake before the sun is up to get in a swim before work. They've been at it since they met as twentysomethings at the YWCA, when Connie was in banking and Pam was a fashion executive.

    "When I met Pam, I hadn't swum competitively in a long time," Connie says. Pam was part of a friendly group of athletes who swam together daily. One of the women invited Connie to join them; then, when Connie was looking for an apartment a few weeks later and Pam needed a roommate, the two began living together. Within a few months they were training for an Ironman triathlon — running at 4:00 a.m. before they hit the pool and biking 100 miles on weekends. They needed energy-boosting snacks for those epic rides, "and back then there were only disgusting power bars," Connie says. Both were avid cooks, so they began baking cookies as a tasty alternative.

    When Connie lost her job, in 1993, she went to cooking school and eventually began making pasta and baking for a restaurant. In 1995 she and Pam launched a wholesale bakery and, later that year, opened a store. Things started out slowly — "We'd have maybe a dozen customers a day," Connie says — until the New York Times described Levain Bakery's chocolate chip cookies as the best in Manhattan, in October 1997. The next morning there was a line out the door. The pair went on to open two more locations.

    "We're great workout partners and great work partners," Connie says. "I trust Pam more than anyone in the world." Pam feels the same way about Connie, adding that they help each other get to the finish line, whether it's a triathlon or perfecting a recipe for cinnamon brioche. "We're both really focused and determined," Pam says. "When you put the two of us together, we're even stronger."

  • Andrew Hetherington

    "We Ran Together, and Now We Work Together"

    Erica Sara and Lora Vaccaro were both feeling isolated in December 2011 when they went online to meet people who shared their interest in running. Fresh from a divorce, Erica, 36, felt abandoned by many of the friends she and her ex-husband had shared. And Lora, 37, whose own marriage was going through a rough time, had left her job in finance to raise her daughter. Though they lived just a block from each other in New York City, they first met when Erica tweeted about a trunk show of her jewelry designs at a local community center and Lora went to check it out.

    The chemistry was instant. "There are some people that you're at ease with from the minute you meet; that's the way I felt with Lora," Erica says. They started jogging together several times a week, chatting about everything from marriage crises to career dreams. "Conversation is a lot less guarded when you're running in the middle of Central Park instead of sitting in a restaurant," Lora says. Something they discussed a lot was Erica's hopes for her one-year-old jewelry line Erica Sara Designs, which features racing-inspired necklaces, rings, and charms. When sales surged and Erica needed someone to help with the growth of her company, she brought Lora onboard as vice president for business development and social media.

    Business is thriving. But while Erica and Lora are as close as ever, they're no longer sharing runs. Erica recently moved to rural Pennsylvania and "now we stay in touch with daily phone calls, e-mails, and texts and a weekly video chat," Lora says. One frequent topic of conversation is Erica's upcoming nuptials. She met her husband, a fellow runner, through — who else? — Lora.

  • Andrew Hetherington

    "We Climbed to New Heights"

    There's more than one way to scale a wall. Just ask Stephanie Chan, 32; Ashley Dunsmore, 29; Elizabeth Chua, 35; or Emily Maltby, 29. For the past two and a half years the foursome have been climbing every Thursday at Brooklyn Boulders, the rock-climbing gym where they met. "Ashley is fearless, which gives us confidence to do things we might otherwise be scared of," Stephanie says. "Elizabeth is crazy flexible. She can help you find solutions when you're stumped. Emily is teeny-tiny but has awesome upper-arm strength and teaches us tenacity." As for Stephanie: "She's deliberate and thoughtful," Ashley says.

    Elizabeth, a psychology professor; Ashley, a marketing associate; and Emily, a researcher at Time magazine, all had some climbing experience when they arrived at Brooklyn Boulders. It was a new challenge for special-education consultant Stephanie, who was motivated to get active after a terrifying health scare. When she was 24 years old and 220 pounds, tests had revealed that three of her arteries were nearly 90 percent clogged. Once she had the blockages treated with stents, Stephanie started playing tennis and running, biking, and climbing.

    Today the women are stronger on the wall and off, thanks to their bond. "When we're weak, we encourage one another — just one more move, one more reach," Ashley says, and they joke that they're equal parts therapists and climbing partners. "These girls have helped define who I am," Emily says. "The four of us are a team, and we're a damn good team."

  • Ericka McConnell

    Be a Better Workout Buddy

    Everyone knows that the best motivation to get out of bed and into your sneakers on a chilly morning is a friend who's waiting for you. Follow this advice from the research lab at Kansas State University so your pal will keep setting her alarm to meet you.

    Don't cheer too much. A study from the university showed that people tend to work out longer when their partner isn't constantly offering verbal encouragement. Study author Brandon Irwin, PhD, says that those accolades can be distracting or interpreted as condescending.

    Excel at something. People who exercised with someone they perceived as being stronger increased their workout time and intensity by as much as 200 percent. If you can't match your buddy's killer serve or running speed, train yourself to do more crunches or bust out a perfect set of burpees.

    Make a friendly bet. A casual wager will motivate both of you. "The key is to have respect for your friend," Irwin says, so keep the competition informal, without any extrinsic rewards. That means you say, "Let's see who can hold a plank longer today," without adding, "Let's put 20 bucks on it, sucker."

    Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2014.