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Action Figures: Women Who Get Paid to Be Fit

  • MPG Sport

    The Acrobat

    Imagine being thrown from a 25-foot-high platform and completing a twisting double front flip into less than five feet of water. That's just the beginning of 90 minutes of aerial and underwater feats that acrobat Kelly McDonald, 30, will perform in Le Reve, a Las Vegas show that takes place in essentially a giant pool flanked by high platforms and lights. During her 10 weekly performances, McDonald also does tumbling, break dancing, and a vertiginous trapeze routine. "It involves lifting my body as well as the other girls, sometimes hanging by our feet, as we descend to the water," says the 5-foot-1-inch former college gymnast. When she's not performing, McDonald works with staff trainers on full-body workout circuits, cardio, and stretching, or takes hip-hop dance classes and hikes nearby in Red Rock Canyon. "It's the best job I can imagine," McDonald says.

  • The Sweat-Tester

    When you work for the world's largest exercise equipment manufacturer, let's just say you often show up in spandex. Melanie Douglass, 39, specializes in research and development for Icon Health and Fitness, the makers of everything from fold-up yoga mats to high-tech treadmills. "I take trends and use them to craft new products," says Douglass, who has spent 20 years in the fitness field. Once she's developed an idea—like one of her latest creations, a resistance band with multiple "rungs" to be used as handgrips—she works with an engineer and a manufacturing team to whip up a prototype. "Then I get to play on it, break it, improve it and perfect it for the end consumer," says the mother of three (with another on the way) in Salt Lake City. That means working out with the product in testing facilities as well as a local gym, where she leads classes. "I figure that if I'm going to take the time to make up a fabulous routine, I should take 50 people with me!" Douglass says.

  • The White-Water Whisperer

    "I'm usually on the river about 150 days a year," says rafting guide Tess McEnroe, 27, who is based in Santa Barbara, California, and regularly leads trips in Idaho and through the Grand Canyon. McEnroe fell in love with white water as a kid, when she went on her first river vacation, and has been working as a guide for nine years. You might think that calluses on her palms or aching arms from paddling or rowing with 40-pound oars for up to seven hours a day would be her top occupational hazards. "The hardest part of my job is lifting 100 pounds of equipment multiple times a day," McEnroe says. "But I love what I do so much, it's okay." Her day starts at 5:00 a.m. and, depending on the type of trip, includes 15 to 25 miles on the water interspersed with hikes of up to nine miles. When she's not trailblazing, McEnroe maintains a regimen of vinyasa yoga, swimming, hiking and skiing. "I like 'hidden' exercise," she says. "Basically, I prefer to be outside."

  • The Daredevil

    Blink and you might miss Gaëlle Cohen flying backward through the air in an explosion in 2012's Zero Dark Thirty. The 41-year-old Hollywood veteran has been a stuntwoman for the past 16 years, specializing in fight scenes—she got into this gig after competing as a fencer in her native France—but no two days are ever the same on the set. Likewise, the list of skills in which she has taken crash courses keeps growing: martial arts, diving, horseback riding, motorcycle driving, camel jockeying. That last area of expertise came as a result of doing a chase scene in the 2005 adventure movie Sahara. "A few weeks into rehearsals, my skin was so raw, I couldn't wear underwear," she says. These days, Cohen is in the best shape of her life. She hits the gym six days a week, either lifting weights—she squats with a 140-pound barbell on her shoulders—or doing intervals on a mix of cardio machines. You can catch her latest cameo in the recent tornado flick Into the Storm.

  • Andrew Taylor/Vail Resorts (Corrigan)

    The Snow Queen

    Sunny Corrigan, 34, is one of some 15 professional women ski patrols who watch over the mountains of Colorado's Vail ski resort. From November to mid-April, the mother of two arrives on the slopes as early as 6:00 a.m. to "skin" Vail Mountain, hiking all the way to the top with her skis on. And that's just to keep herself at peak fitness. Her job officially begins closer to 7:30; Corrigan spends the next eight hours skiing one of six "outposts," whether it's a black diamond trail or a bunny slope, to make sure it's safe. She also stays on call to provide first aid and a safe descent for injured skiers. "A toboggan loaded with an average-size male, his ski or snowboard equipment, and all the necessary medical gear can weigh upwards of 250 pounds," she says. All Vail ski patrols have to pass strength, agility, and endurance tests each fall, so Corrigan stays in shape during the off-season by mountain biking, running, waterskiing, and training. Not to mention her year-round multitasking as a mom.

  • The Deep Sea Explorer

    A typical day for marine biologist Andrea Marshall, PhD, 35, begins in the turquoise Indian Ocean waters off Mozambique. As the head of the Marine Megafauna Foundation, Marshall makes several ocean scuba dives each day in order to tag, photograph and collect genetic samples of every manta ray she comes across. Her biggest challenge: "fighting a monstrous current." (Manta rays never stop swimming, and sometimes they head into the current to get a lift and "rest.") "Swimming is one thing, but swimming against the current is almost soul-destroying," she says. It was a chance encounter with a manta ray on a photo expedition at age 17 that led the California native to make the threatened species her life's work. Off the clock, Marshall keeps fit running on the beach and doing yoga. "Yoga changed my life," she says. "Having a mastery of your breath is so important to people who spend time in the water." Especially those who surface only when it's quitting time at sunset.

  • The Animal Tamer

    Spoiler alert to all you True Blood fans: "These wolves don't really attack people," says animal trainer Diane Branagan. Those scenes where you see someone getting mauled? That's the handiwork of pros like Branagan, who, at 44, has been handling animals for films and commercials for two decades. One of her sleight-of-hand tricks involves holding a juicy steak to entice a 120-pound wolf, say, to jump high in the air and knock her to the ground. After kicking and thrashing to make it seem as if she's being ripped to shreds, she dusts herself off and does another take. A different day's work might entail carrying a 50-pound baboon around a set between takes (Zookeeper). Or you might find her reining in a stallion. All of which takes a toll on her back, so Branagan focuses on core workouts and building her balance: She does squats on the same vibrating platform she uses to help train horses. But don't expect to find her in the gym. "I stay in the best shape riding horses," she says.