By Pamela Jacobs
Dubbed “the Carrie Bradshaw of fitness”—turning exercise into a lifestyle and bridging the gap between fitness, entertainment, and personal empowerment—Amanda Russell has more strength in one well-toned arm than most people have from head-to-toe. And it’s not just the kind of strength that comes from a good workout; it’s also what comes from a life of persevering, powering through, and passionately going after what you want.
An Olympian-in-training turned TV personality (founder of Amanda Russell.TV and a YouTube partner), writer (with multiple national columns), spokeswoman, keynote speaker, and consultant, and the founder of fitstrongandsexy.com, it’s easy to imagine that she’s been blessed since birth. After all, she’s a role model and a brand, and was named one of Google’s “Next Top Fitness Trainers.” But it was neither luck nor an accident that brought Russell to where she is today. Instead, she is the epitome of a woman warrior; she is a go-getter who proves that in order to get what you want out of life—whether in health, in love, or in career—you have to go after it with gusto, and never take “no” for an answer.
Sitting poolside in East Hampton, the sweet, sassy young woman filled me in on her dramatic personal journey, and demonstrated what it is to be a girl on fire.
Pamela Jacobs: I know that you were a serious runner, training for the Olympics, and basically the worst happened. How did your journey as an athlete begin?
Amanda Russell: So there’s a charity that I love, it’s called Girls on the Run, and the whole premise is how giving girls the training to be able to run a race teaches you so much about life and how it can open up doors. I’m like, exactly the personification of what Girls on the Run is trying to achieve. I was from this small town [in Canada]. I got into running because there were no organized sports. Dance and swimming cost money. Running was free, so I ran.
I had the most amazing phys-ed teacher, and in 9th grade she said to me, ‘You know that in the U.S., there’s these things called scholarships, and if you work really hard and you keep your grades up and you run fast, you could get a full scholarship. They will pay you to go there and run USA track and field.’
I would run in the snow, on my lunch hours, before school, after school. I was known as the crazy girl who was always running. But I wanted out of there so badly, and I felt like that was my ticket. I have the most amazing family and it’s a great hometown, but I knew there was something bigger out there. My parents were saying, ‘Amanda, that’s great that want to go to University in the U.S., but we can’t help you. We can’t pay even if you have a 90% scholarship. It’s gotta be 100%,’ so I was only looking at full rides.
PJ: So it was as much about getting away as it was about the actual running?
AR: Yes, and by my senior year I was running times that were among some of the fastest in the U.S. for girls my age, and I became one of the top recruits. I took a scholarship and that was what changed everything. In the U.S., training is very different [from Canada]. Every coach has a different training philosophy—my coaches were known as kind of hammers, like, ‘train more, train more, run more.’
On my body type that didn’t really work well; it just kept breaking down. And they didn’t care about me qualifying and going to the Olympics; they cared about me performing for that team and making money. Before Olympic trials I had a team-sponsored race, and I was in so much pain. I couldn’t train, I was on so many painkillers and I was on crutches, and they basically played on all my weaknesses. At the end of the day it was like, ‘you’re afraid of failure, if you don’t do this you’re going to get dropped.’
PJ: So you kept going. And what happened to your body?
AR: I didn’t realize I had a stress fracture in my femur, which is almost unheard of. And it ended up cracking on that last race, when I decided to just go through with it. The surgeon that I saw was like, ‘I’ve seen tens of thousands of fractures and I’ve never seen one like this before.’ And so then that was like the end.
PJ: You must have been devastated.
AR: You go through an identity crisis. Because my whole life, I was running. That was everything—it was my ticket. And when it stopped, your sponsors drop you, my visa would expire—I couldn’t stay in the country. I had no family here. All I could think about was, ‘The worst has happened and now I’m going to have to go back to my hometown with my tail between my legs.’ And I thought, ‘Well, if I can’t go to the pinnacle of the athletic world, my other dream would be to go to the pinnacle of the corporate world, which is New York City.’
I had seen New York City in movies, and I was like ‘I don’t even care if I am homeless, I will go there.’ I devised a plan to be able to do that. I didn’t have credit history so I couldn’t even get a cell phone or an apartment, so I was literally like alone in the world. There were some scary times.
PJ: It’s very brave.
AR: Oh, it’s stupid.
PJ: Brave/stupid [laughs]. Sometimes they go together.
AR: So I moved to New York, found a few consulting firms, got all these rounds of interviews at one, and they hired me on the spot.
Meanwhile, I had lost everything, body wise. I had to learn to walk again in the water. I got into non-impact stuff. It started with the pool, and then biking, and I joined a men’s bike racing team in Central Park, and it was amazing. These guys took me under their wing because I was the only girl who was there at 5:00 in the morning, rain or shine, and would bike 30 miles before 7 a.m.
It turns out a lot of these guys are big wigs, like one of them is the chairman of JP Morgan and one of them was a big wig at the Met. I knew I wanted to start a business, and one of my new mentors was like, ‘You should do an MBA. It’s never a financially stupid decision, and it will give you a student visa.’
So I did an MBA and I was working in a restaurant, then signed with Wilhelmina and started modeling to pay my way through school. I also started pitching myself to every single editor and person on set, because at the same time I was doing these workout videos. I wanted to start a brand and the best way was through digital media. You can have nothing and start a business on the macro scale yourself. You need an audience, and how do you draw that audience, in today’s world without any capital? And that was YouTube; YouTube is free.
PJ: So you’re in school, modeling, and making workout videos at this point?
AR: Yes, and in my free time I’m also training everybody that I can, because I just love it. And I started hosting these boot camps on the West Side Highway for whoever would come, and they started getting packed. And then the founder of Zico Coconut Water came, and I ended up replacing Molly Sims as a spokesperson for Zico, and that’s when things really started to take off. Zico became a huge endorser of mine.
I started doing this YouTube stuff on a bigger scale, too; I wanted to use YouTube as a driver to something that’s monetized. I partnered with Trium Entertainment. Mark Koops is behind that—he’s the creator of The Biggest Loser. To this day he’s a really good mentor and friend of mine, and supporter. It was great, but then I just decided to hire my own employees and start doing production on my own. And because I had this niche in producing online content, I started doing a lot of consulting work, building online branding models for other companies and helping them build and grow.
PJ: Recently you’ve been shooting videos at the YouTube studios. So they’re having their biggest personalities, the people with the most subscribers, come and shoot there?
AR: There’s a training as a YouTube partner. You go through all the training there, but they’re like like, ‘We work for you. We work for our biggest creators.’ So they make you feel like you’ve got these top production resources, editors, props, and people, everything at your fingertips.
PJ: While you’re there, and you’re a YouTube partner, are you having moments where you’re like ‘I can’t believe I’m here right now and this is happening,’ given where you started?
AR: I’ve had a lot of those kinds of moments. There are certain times where I’m like, ‘how did I get here? How did this happen? From this small town that nobody leaves, to sitting at dinner with Donald Trump—how did I get here?’
PJ: So are there other fitness methods out there that you can describe as similar to yours?
AR: Barry’s Bootcamp—who are actually good friends of mine—is the closest, and we’ve done a lot of collaborations. They’ve done my videos, and I have done pop-up teaching for them. Actually I just did one yesterday at their studio right around the corner [in East Hampton].
PJ: Do you have advice for anyone says, ‘I really want to get in shape but I don’t know where to begin’?
AR: Oh yeah. I’m actually doing that right now with 13 editors in New York. Part of what I am doing is training them mentally, and I’m getting e-mails like, ‘Oh my gosh, I ran my first hill,’ or ‘I finished three miles in under 45 minutes.’
But advice wise—everybody’s got that inner fire inside of them. You learn about yourself, about what motivates you personally, and it’s a trial and error. And you have to figure out what it is for you and go with what drives you.
PJ: So where do you see the near future and the evolution of you and your brand?
AR: I think it’s going to continue to expand and the online platform is not going to be just fitness. That was my heart, my passion, but what it’s evolved as is more, to build this community and elevate the conversation on women’s lives. Fitness is about more than exercise. It develops a certain confidence and it develops a ticket out. It gives you a work ethic. It gives you discipline.
What I’ve done with fitness is try to package typical exercises in a way that draws people in. Once they’re in, it’s going to forever change their lives. They feel a different confidence. They achieve things that they thought they never would have done. It’s amazing to watch the transformation of people, and to give that to other people—I feel like that’s why I was put here and that’s why my Olympic career didn’t work out.
PJ: A lot of people in your position could have just gone and quit everything, and instead you chose to go in the opposite direction.
AR: Right. And that’s what my message is trying to get across. You have to shift your attitude. There’s always a way to create something positive. And even if you can’t see it at the time, you look back and think ‘Wow, thank God that crappy thing happened because it led to all this.’