This story was originally featured on November 18, 2012 in The Essay Magazine. The Photos were taken by Jasmine Beaubien.
Stephanie Dankelson cannot imagine her life without fitness. She’s participated in a 4000-mile bicycle trek across the United States, races on a triathlon team, recently completed her first full marathon and teaches weekly fitness classes. The Ohio University senior doesn’t stop there. She is constantly finding new ways to challenge herself and to teach others the joy that she’s found in staying active and living healthy.
Her proudest fitness accomplishment was participating in a summer-long bike event called Bike & Build, a non-profit organization that raises money and awareness for affordable housing funds. Through 2-3 month long trips, and eight different cycling routes all over the United States, groups of about 30 people ride each route every summer.
Stephanie heard about Bike & Build in the fall of her sophomore year from a freshman on the triathlon team while they were peeling potatoes. She instantly felt what she describes as a “fire to go,” something she just had to do.
Stephanie applied and found out she was accepted right before a French final in November of 2010. The initial barrier was getting her parents on board—letting your daughter ride her bike across the country is a big deal. After convincing, they were her biggest supporters.
Her course, the Northern route, stretched from Maine to Vancouver—through Niagara Falls on the 4th of July, down Chicago streets and through beautiful Western Montana—averaging 75 miles a day. This was an incredible journey for her, having to push herself mentally and physically, and learning so much about the world, about others and about herself.
“Pre-Bike & Build and Post-Bike & Build Stephanie are two different people, and it’s for the better,” Stephanie said.
Through this trip, she learned about the generosity of people, the necessity of flexibility in life and saw the vision for the things she could accomplish.
“This trip forever changed my life,” Stephanie said, “[It helped me] realize the strength in myself and in others. I met so many amazing people, realized there is so much good in the world and I learned how to accept things as the way they are. Life is so good and anyone can make a difference.”
Back at school, training is just as important as studies.
“Those who know me can tell which days I don’t get a good workout in,” Stephanie said, “If fitness were not a part of my day something would be wrong! Whether it be my morning workouts, taking the stairs or through working, I manage to fit it in one way or another.”
She believes that it is possible to make time for fitness, and that it allows her to get focused for the rest of the day. Stephanie does all kinds of things for fitness—lifts weights, rides her bike, runs and more.
“After getting my training done for the day I am focused and have a much clearer head on my shoulders. If that means getting up at 5:30 to be at the pool or on the road by 6 then so be it!” she said.
Above all, Stephanie’s favorite incorporation of fitness in her life is being a group fitness instructor. She currently teaches a cycling class at Ohio University’s Charles J. Ping Recreation Center.
“I find so much joy in sharing my love of fitness with others and helping them find their love as well.”
But Stephanie was not always the fit fan you see today. It was until her junior year of high school that she was the person her friends considered “the lazy one.”
“I tried to find every and any excuse to get out of track practice,” she said.
Her coach suggested she try cross-country, which she didn’t think she could ever do, but when peers started to joke about the unlikelihood of her success, Stephanie was motivated to prove them wrong.
“I discovered a new love in the process. I gave everything I had and by my senior year, I was successful on both the cross country and track teams, as well as my new found hobby, swimming.”
Now, Stephanie loves to share her love of fitness with others, and strives to motivate them to get active because of the value it has had on her life.
“Healthy starts in the soul,” she says, and pushes everyone to believe they have the power to get going with a little determination. Stephanie encourages everyone to get active— start with group fitness classes or with a workout buddy, to get excited about it and to not beat yourself up if you have a bad workout day.
“Healthy is being happy. Healthy is feeling good about yourself. It’s accepting the body you have and it’s about sharing fitness with other people, making healthy choices. It’s not about getting to a perfect image, or to what society defines as that— it’s accepting who you are and loving that person.”
Stephanie’s most recent accomplishment was completing her first full marathon in Columbus, Ohio on October 21 of this year. Next up, she is focusing on challenging others to make positive fitness changes in their lives. She cannot see herself in any other career path besides one inspiring and promoting healthy living or at least making it an important part of her life, but she is still trying to figure out what that looks like, where she wants to go and if she wants to swim there, bike there, or run. Most likely all three.