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The Power of Fitness: Real Women Share Their Stories

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"Fitness gave me the strength to fight off an attacker."

The encounter started like a bad horror flick. It was still dark outside one morning last September when Katy Vander Roest, 24, suddenly woke in her Cincinnati sublevel apartment. "The room felt strange somehow, and I sat up in bed," she recalls. "I put my arms at my sides, and then I felt a gloved hand." Screaming, she looked down to see a man crouching on the floor.

Katy, a student and bartender, wasn't about to be a helpless victim. First she punched the intruder in the face. Hard. Then she jumped out of bed and pinned the would-be rapist, who police estimate was six foot one and 185 pounds, over a low dresser. "I held him down with my left hand and hit him in the face with my right," says Katy, who is five foot eight and 145 pounds. "I was yelling at him to get out, and he was begging for me to stop."

She maneuvered him out of her room, down the hall and through the front door. She literally punched him out of her apartment, an outcome Katy credits to CrossFit, an intense strength-and-conditioning program that is especially popular with police academies and military units. Katy, who had played soccer and basketball and run track as a kid, was introduced to the tough training regimen by her boyfriend; she'd been doing it daily for several months. She loved the challenge and variety of the constantly changing workouts and was putting in up to 12 hours a week at her local CrossFit gym. At the time of the break-in, she had five new pounds of solid muscle to show for her dedication and hard work.

Police arrested the intruder that night; he was eventually convicted and sentenced to five years. "Looking back, I realize how scary it was," Katy says. "Other girls I've talked to say that if the same thing had happened to them, they would've frozen. But I felt as if I were physically ready to fight back, and that made me less afraid. I feel strong on the outside and the inside."

"Fitness gave me the strength to get through a divorce."

Three years ago Kris McKinney told a friend that she was thinking of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. She didn't expect wild enthusiasm, but she wasn't prepared for laughter, either. "My friend cracked up and said I'd lost my mind," says Kris, now 44, of Overland Park, Kansas. True, the new divorcee wasn't exactly in fighting form, thanks to the stresses of being a single parent and going back to work. "I'd really let myself go when my marriage broke up," Kris says. "I couldn't run 15 minutes without being out of breath."

Yet her pal's response flipped a switch in her. "I said to myself, I am going to prove that I can do this," Kris recalls. So she signed up for the guided Mount Kilimanjaro trip she'd been eyeing and immediately enlisted the help of a personal trainer to prepare for the peak. She began by walking 30 minutes on the treadmill carrying a 10-pound weight; gradually she increased the incline and speed, upping the duration of her workouts to two hours and the weight to 20 pounds. To find time for her training, Kris involved her daughter and son, then 9 and 7. "They hiked with me, went along on my runs on their bikes, and played in the pool when I was doing laps," Kris explains.

Six months of sweat later, Kris was ready to take on the mountain. Leaving the kids in their father's care, she got on a plane to Africa. The climb took seven days. Through air so cold that the water froze in their CamelBaks, Kris's group of 12 hiked all day and even once through the night to reach successive base camps. Only five people on the trip, including Kris, made it to the top.

The feeling of accomplishment didn't sink in until Kris was on her way back down. "When we got near the bottom, there was a hut where a guy was selling beer," she says. "I sat down, and then it hit me that I had just done what I had set out to do, what most people will never do. And I thought that however busy and hard life gets, I am a strong, brave, and independent woman."

"Fitness gave me the strength to conquer lung cancer."

Last August, Maki Inada finished a sprint triathlon in Ithaca, New York, in just under two hours. It wasn't her best time. But for Maki, who had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer 18 months earlier, it was a sweet victory — and marked the end of a difficult journey.

It all started with a lingering cough, which Maki, now 38, a biology professor, chalked up to the change in climate when she and her husband, Jeff Pleiss, moved from San Francisco to Ithaca. Jeff, though, was worried and pushed her to see a doctor. The chest X-ray revealed a seven-centimeter mass in Maki's left lung. "I was completely shocked," she says. "I never smoked. I've always exercised. I had really healthy habits."

The tumor was too large to be surgically removed, so Maki's doctor put her on chemotherapy plus Tarceva, an anticancer drug. The chemo treatment, which was scheduled in three-week cycles, was taxing: Maki lost her hair and spent the first days after each drug infusion sleeping or recuperating on the couch.

But she was determined to stay strong and in shape. So as her energy returned, she exercised. "At the beginning of each cycle, my husband and I would go on easy walks," she says. "By the following weekend my fatigue would break, and we would go for a run, maybe three or so miles."

After four months Maki's tumor had shrunk to one centimeter; it could now be removed along with a lobe of her lung. But rather than rest before the major surgery, she upped her training schedule. "I wasn't going to be weak and bedridden," she says. Indeed, the day after the operation, she walked laps around her hospital floor.

Because of her excellent physical condition, her surgeon says, Maki was back home in just four days as opposed to the usual week. Her operation was deemed a success, and she was declared cancer-free. Thirteen months later she finished the triathlon with her husband by her side. "We made it," Maki says, "and with just one lung. I will never take running, biking, or swimming for granted again."

"Fitness gave me the strength to recover from a car crash."

To be honest, Hillary Hopkins, 33, is fuzzy about the accident that upended her life 17 years ago. But the fallout is unforgettable: Her sister Bethany, who was driving their car when it collided with a semitrailer, died at the scene. Hillary, sitting in the front passenger seat, miraculously survived.

When she woke in the hospital, doctors told Hillary, the star of her high school basketball team in Rome, Georgia, that she had broken her neck as well as her right arm and all the bones in her face. She had some feeling in her arms and legs, but she was in effect a paraplegic. With youth and athleticism in her favor, Hillary improved over the next two years to the point of being able to take care of her basic needs, like moving from her wheelchair to the bed, on her own. She could even stand and take several steps with leg braces and a walker. In college, she started going to a gym, intent on being fit.

Fast forward to 2007: Hillary, living in Salt Lake City, was at her gym, using the upper-body bike, as she usually did, when a trainer approached her. "He said he wanted to work with me," she recalls. "I thought I was doing a pretty good job by myself, but the session was free, so I figured it wouldn't hurt." That session led to several more and eventually to her current trainer, Joe Heinbecker.

Excited by the challenge of improving Hillary's mobility, Heinbecker believed that to reach the next level, she needed to strengthen her core. The workout plan he devised included crawling and twisting exercises, yoga, and upper-body weight lifting. She also started to get massages to stretch her atrophied muscles.

Today Hillary is able to stand with no support, lift weights with both hands, and do 40 squats with minimal stabilizing assistance. Even more amazing, she can walk with two canes for an hour. She works out up to two hours a day, six days a week. "Staying fit is now part of how I define myself," Hillary says. "I've taken my life into my own hands, and that makes me feel vital and strong." Her new goal: getting back on the basketball court.

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