Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”
I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.
HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.
To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.
Name: Lisa Van Ahn
Location: Minneapolis, MN
Profession: Kickboxer, fitness trainer, and founder of the I AM Initiative for Girls
You’re currently on the US National Kickboxing team and you’ve fought on an international level. That’s so impressive! How did you become a kickboxing champion? Did you always dream about competing at a pro level? Were you always an athletic kid? Or did you discover kickboxing later in life? Walk us through the sequence of events.
When I was 19 years-old, during a particularly volatile run-in with my boyfriend, I was pushed out of a Bronco and landed on the curb of a kickboxing studio. It sounds surreal, but it’s true. I walked up to the entrance of the studio and decided to go inside and try a class—and it changed the course of my life. That was the day that I decided to stop feeling like a victim and start moving down the path of confidence and self-love.
Up until that point, I’d been involved in a series of unhealthy relationships, and I was holding so much trauma and pain in my body. I started kickboxing to get out my anger, bitterness, and hurt, and to find my strength and confidence again.
After a year or so, I decided I wanted to try fighting in competitions. My first fight was a shock. I won, but I got hit so hard in the head that I thought, “I’m never doing this again.” But then three days later, I had a change of heart. I was soaring from the excitement of that first win, and I decided I wanted to move forward and keep training. I’d never felt so sure of myself and proud of what I could do.
I spent a number of years competing at an amateur level before taking on my first professional fight. After winning my first professional kickboxing match, I moved to Las Vegas. I boxed there for 3 years before moving back to Minneapolis and joining the US kickboxing team. My time fighting on the US team has been incredible. They’ve unlocked opportunities for me to fight all over the world, and it’s been one of the best experiences of my life.
You run LVA Fitness in Minneapolis, and you offer personal training, nutrition, and weight loss services for your clients. Take us back to the “early days” of your business. How did it feel to start a completely new business? Did you have clients right away? Or did things feel “quiet” and “empty” and discouraging at first? Describe what those early weeks and months felt like for you. (Also, describe how you got your first 3 or 4 clients, if you can remember.)
In 2003, I moved from Las Vegas, where I’d been boxing professionally, back to Minneapolis. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I was skilled at fitness and athletic performance. Also, years of training camps and cutting weight for fights had given me a great basis of understanding for proper nutrition and fat loss.
The first incarnation of my fitness company was called Santé Fitness. Santé is the French word for health. When I think back on it now, I laugh because I thought choosing a French word sounded so “fancy” and “official.” These days, I believe that simplicity is best, which is why I changed my business name to my initials: LVA.
Back in ’03, I created a website and found a local fitness studio that I could rent by-the-hour to teach classes and work with clients individually. In the beginning, I was bartending part-time and teaching fitness the rest of the time. Working in that studio really helped to build up my confidence. The studio owners introduced me to new clients and I taught some of their bootcamp classes, too. After awhile, I stepped into more of a “partnership” role with the studio, which also helped me further my client reach.
My first long-term client found me through my website. She contacted me on the phone, we chatted, and I invited her to come to one of my bootcamp classes. She was really unhappy with her body. After taking my class, we talked again. She had a lot of weight to lose, and I gave her an achievable plan that promised better fitness, nutrition, and comfort in her body.
Over the course of one year, she lost 75 pounds with me. She also left her marriage and stepped fully into the light of being herself. Working with that client gave me so much confidence in my abilities as a trainer. It also helped me to see, very clearly, that I want to help people truly love their bodies—and that means working on more than just fitness and nutrition. It requires taking a deeper dive into people’s beliefs and stories, and helping people to release the emotional weight of past trauma and pain.
In addition to working with grown-up clients, you also run the I AM Initiative for Girls. You work with girls to help them build self-esteem, confidence, and a positive, “I CAN DO ANYTHING!” mindset. What inspired you to start this program?
I was exploited, bullied, and victimized when I was growing up. I didn’t know what it felt like to have confidence and belief in myself. It wasn’t until I was 19 years old and started kickboxing that I was able to start releasing the trauma and false beliefs that had haunted me.
I met two women in the kickboxing community who could see my strength and power, even when I couldn’t see it myself. With their support and encouragement, I was able to grow into a confident young woman. Eventually, I knew I wanted to pay it forward and share that same type of encouragement with the next generation of women.
My mission with the I AM Initiative is to teach girls how to love themselves, believe in themselves, and protect themselves from negative influences—people who want to hurt and take advantage of them, as well as their own inner critics.
What did it feel like to start the I AM Initiative? Did you have lots of interest and sign-ups right away? Or did it take a lot of effort and patience to get things in motion?
The I AM Initiative is my passion project, and from the moment I first presented the 3 rules of self-protection to a group of forty 10-13 year old girls, I knew it was my purpose on this planet. After that first class, I sat in my car shaking and crying because I knew with such clarity that the reason I went through the trauma I did was so I could teach girls how to navigate their teens with a different result.
It took me a couple years of refining the curriculum, branding the company, and leading events before it started to grow. My first big break was becoming an approved resource for the Girl Scouts of America. Once that happened, I began booking more workshops. I realized I wanted to offer more than a one-off workshop for girls. I teach girls that self-protection is a daily practice, so it became important to me to be a continued voice in their ear, rather than someone who motivates them once and then disappears. I started leading longer retreats and traveling to speak at other retreats.
I also wrote a guidebook and created a superpower card deck for girls. It took me nearly one year after development to launch my Kickstarter campaign for these products. Though the Kickstarter was a success, this portion of my company is taking patience. I have a vision for empowering products that help girls practice confidence and self-protection daily—and programs that leaders can teach to girls in their community—but it takes financial resources to develop these things, and time to organize the business foundation so it will be a successful endeavor. I’ve been telling myself: “Slow and steady wins the race.”
I continue to be motivated by the incredible feedback I get from the girls and their parents. I really believe that doing this work is the reason I’m here on the planet, so giving up isn’t an option.
What was one of the scariest or toughest moments of your career, and how did you get through it?
When I was boxing, I had a big match at the Arco Arena in Sacramento. There were thousands of people in attendance, and I was knocked out about 30 seconds into the first round. It was the only knockout of my career, and it was extremely embarrassing. I had to pick myself up and move forward. It took me awhile to decide if my heart was even in fighting anymore. Ultimately I decided to retire from boxing and follow my first passion: kickboxing.
I see stressful times in life as an opportunity to test my dedication and commitment to the path I’m following. I believe that if your heart is fully engaged in the work you’re doing, you can get through any obstacle. If you’re not “all in,” then disappointment and frustration can become overwhelming. I realized that my heart wasn’t in boxing anymore, and I was able to let it go and focus on the things I truly cared about.
If someone is interested in becoming a fitness trainer like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?
First, it’s important that you’re passionate about fitness and helping others. If that’s the case, and you have a history of being an athlete, you can probably start training clients without getting a Personal Training (PT) certification first. If you don’t have a background in athletics, then it’s usually a good idea to get a PT certificate so that you’ve got a basic understanding of how to train people effectively. Either way, if you’re considering a career as a fitness trainer, I recommend doing the following 3 things:
1. Connect with a trainer in your area that has a successful business and is well respected and skilled at what they do.
They might own a small studio, or teach at a studio, either way works.
2. Take some classes from them and make sure you enjoy their teaching style.
Then ask if you can shadow or intern with them. Study how they run their business and how they work with clients. Soak up as much as you can.
3. Offer your friends and family the opportunity to train with you free of charge.
Build up your confidence and develop your teaching style, and take people’s feedback. Continue to develop your style and stay true to your personality while training others. In the end, your clients will work with you because they like YOU—your personality, your story, your attitude about life—not because you’re really good at teaching squats.
ONE MORE THING…
Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Lisa? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)
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