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By Kaitlyn Lesnikoski

It has been a little less than a year since I walked into what is now my home gym. At the time that I did so I was juggling my first full year as a full-time teacher, full-time graduate school, a part-time job as a spin instructor, and a long list of volunteer opportunities. Realistically, I had no extra time to dedicate to a new gym, but this place had a 6 week challenge and I and couldn’t turn down any challenge opportunity.

Fast forward to almost a year later and that gym has become my lifeline. I had no idea that when I signed up for that mini challenge I was signing up for counseling, my new passion (competitions), my new social circle, and where I would heal years of damage to my self esteem.

Skipping all the details… my mid-20’s we’re a miserable mess. I had to move across the country and restart my life — I entered grad school and found my dream job, but I lost my entire social circle and had no idea how to navigate healthy relationships. My self esteem was also obliterated. I ESPECIALLY had no idea where to draw boundaries. I couldn’t pick out a healthy social interaction from a destructive one if my life depended on it.

Then here comes my gym. This place full of ninja equipment and barbells. This place where people asked to get to know me and cheered for me every time I hit a PR. This place where SOMEHOW everyone was smiling… even during grueling workouts. I remember when I first signed up for the gym the owner gave a speech and told the challengers… “These members, they’re my family and my positive support network — they can be yours too.” I had rolled my eyes at her entire speech, but my doubtful attitude didn’t stop the gym goers from high five-ing me for every achievement I made. I could roll my eyes for weeks, it wasn’t going to stop the athletes around me from loving on me through every work out.

Then I signed up for my first competition and met my first competition partner. Suddenly, I wasn’t just being supported and encouraged in group work outs, I was being supported and encouraged in our individual competition practices. That competition partner listened to me cry through painful works outs AND painful life changes. He also introduced me to new people who had the same competitive nature as I did. Before I knew it I was being invited to obstacles course races and training events. I was going to social events that I was actually excited to attend.

Months later? I enter my next competition and met partner number 2. This partner was a woman who reminded me how important it was for women to support other women. She was a partner who had strengths in the areas I had weaknesses (both inside and outside the gym). And she is now my closest female friend.

Without even realizing it I had turned my social circle upside down. I was no longer allowing myself to be around people who didn’t allow me to speak my opinion. I had swapped friends who looked at women’s bodies through a critical lens for friends who saw the beauty in all body types and said things like, “any guy who doesn’t appreciate muscles on a woman doesn’t deserve a woman with muscles.” I had let go of people who made me feel like I needed to lower my bar (pun intended) and started clinging to people who shared my passion for setting goals and crushing them.

I lost hundreds and hundreds of pounds of unfulfilling relationships. And when I did I was open to newer, stronger, healthier ones. It wasn’t that the past people were bad people — to this day I wish that crowd nothing but happiness. But these new relationships were a better fit. To be cliche, “I found my tribe.” I needed people who were also crazy enough to wake up at 6 am to climb up mountains with dumbbells and weight vests. People who knew endurance in a work out could help them build endurance is every aspect of their life.

I started my gym a little less than a year ago and I haven’t lost a single pound off my body (as a matter of fact I’ve gained weight since I now have a more muscular physique). But I have lost crappy self esteem. I have lost lowering my expectations. I have lost the fear of setting boundaries. I have lost feeling guilty for letting go of people who aren’t a good match for my personality. I will be forever thankful that I found a place that pushes me to shatter glass ceilings — and is full of other human beings who are looking to do the same.