No Labels, No Limits: Individuals of all ages, shapes, and identities are proving that fitness is for every body

From left to right, Molly Lethert, Laurie Woodbury, Caley Danek and Dylan Galos // Photos by Nate Ryan

From left to right, Molly Lethert, Laurie Woodbury, Carly Danek, and Dylan Galos // Photos by Nate Ryan

When she was 9 years old, Molly Lethert was in a snowmobile accident that severed her foot. Doctors were able to reattach it, but the resulting arthritis got worse every year.

“Once I had my accident, year after year something got taken away,” Lethert says. “I couldn’t jump, so I couldn’t do basketball. I lost range of motion, so I quit softball. I was fine when I was on the bike, but when I got off of it, I was so stiff.” Finally, after 40 surgeries, Lethert elected to have her foot amputated in 2017. Her life completely transformed for the better.

Now 50 years old, Lethert has used her prosthetic foot to tackle all the athletic activities she hadn’t been able to do since she was 9. Last summer she participated in a five-day U.S. Olympic training program in Colorado Springs, where she met and trained with Rio 2016 Paralympic Games gold medalist Allysa Seely and silver medalist Hailey Danz (both in the paratriathlon), as well as Team USA paratriathlon coaches. Through Dare2Tri, a nonprofit that works with athletes with physical disabilities to develop their skills in paratriathlon, she met and now trains with Rio paratriathlon bronze medalist Melissa Stockwell. Additionally in 2018 Lethert ran the YWCA SuperSprint triathlon and two other triathlons. She plans to participate in additional triathlons in the coming year. “If I had known 20 years ago how awesome my life would be by amputating, I would have done it then,” she says. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”

Lethert working out // Photo by Nate Ryan

Lethert working out // Photo by Nate Ryan

Lethert’s story is just one example of how the world of fitness is finally becoming a little less siloed, mirroring trends that are happening in almost every other sphere—from fashion, to pop culture, to literature and politics. Representation matters, whether it’s a Somali woman elected to U.S. Congress, fashion models with Down Syndrome walking down the runway, or Young Adult authors of all ethnicities striving to make children’s literature more diverse. Likewise, fitness and wellness are moving beyond narrow expectations of who gets to participate—and thrive.

Fat biking at any age

Fat bike enthusiast Laurie Woodbury is “a child of Title IX,” she says, referring to the landmark U.S. law passed in 1972. “Prior to Title IX, my school had nothing for girls other than the G.A.A. (Girls’ Athletic Association), where once a week we donned our gym suits and played whatever sport we could in the gym. Kind of like gym class extra credit.” Thanks to the law’s passage, Woodbury swam and ran competitively her senior year, 1973, and also swam in college. 

Woodbury met her late husband in the 1980s through the triathlon scene, but as they got older they moved into other sports like mountain biking and, later, fat biking. When her husband passed away last July, Woodbury found solace in a group of women in their 50s and 60s who enjoy hitting the trails in all kinds of weather. They’ve been to Cable, Wisconsin; Grand Marais; and Duluth, biking even when the temperature clocks in below zero. “Biking is the thing I find to be most therapeutic and mind clearing as I grieve the loss of my husband after 32 years,” Woodbury says. “I am trying to figure out who I am now. […] Biking is the one thing that makes me feel real.” 

Woodbury with her fat bike // Photo by Nate Ryan

Woodbury with her fat bike // Photo by Nate Ryan

As someone who has ridden her bike with men, swam with men, and done triathlons with men, Woodbury feels comfortable in mixed groups but enjoys the camaraderie of her female group of friends. “Riding with these women has been life-saving—it really has,” she says. 

Julie Olson, another woman in the group, has been riding with some of the women for 30 years. As a result, they are incredibly fit. “We are still in pretty good shape compared to other women in their 40s or even 30s,” she says.

Outdoor sports for everyone

Breaking down boundaries in the fitness world often begins with challenging the restrictive expectations of who gets to do what kind of activity. Anthony Taylor has been doing that for 20 years, ever since he first got into cycling, bike racing, and bike touring. 

When he first got involved with the bicycling world, Taylor, who is black, quickly realized that it didn’t include very many people of color. Over the last two decades, Taylor has worked to make not just biking more accessible to communities of color, but also trail running, cross-country skiing, rock climbing, and snowboarding. Whether it’s through Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, or his advocacy with the National Brotherhood of Cyclists and the League of American Bicyclists, or as a commissioner on the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission, Taylor has been a staunch supporter of initiatives that increase outdoor fitness opportunities for communities of color. 

Currently working as the adventures director for the Loppet Foundation, Taylor seeks to debunk narratives that only white people, or rich people, or men participate in outdoor sports. “People say that stuff, and what they are acknowledging is that that’s the narrative that they heard,” he says. “Sometimes, all I do is show up and break the narrative, but at the same time, if I’m going to do a snowboard program for women and girls, guess who the leaders are going to be?” 

For Taylor, making fitness more inclusive means broadening the view of what healthful living is. “We change the attention away from the sport to one that is really about active living, personal progression, reclamation of health, reclaiming geography, and living locally,” he explains. “Community connectedness is the ultimate level of success.” 

Danek running through a patch of trees // Photo by Nate Ryan

Danek running at Theodore Wirth Regional Park // Photo by Nate Ryan

Community is also important to Carly Danek, a photographer for KARE 11 who loves long-distance running (she has completed six marathons and two 50K trail races) and often runs with the groups Mill City Running and the November Project. “I rarely run alone anymore,” Danek says. “For anyone that’s thinking about long-distance running, finding your people is so important.” 

In particular, Danek says she intentionally surrounds herself with individuals of as many different body types as possible. “It has helped me travel through space differently,” she says. “I look at people and say, ‘This is what real people look like.’ Bodies come in all shapes and sizes.” 

This realization and reminder is important because as a young person, Danek thought she had to lose weight in order to be able to do anything physical. “There were no large people in popular culture doing anything fun or adventurous or athletic,” she says. “I want people of any size to know that they can show up and live life regardless of how they feel about their body. There’s no reason to wait. I think it took younger me a while to learn that lesson.”

Yoga beyond Instagram

Yoga is another realm that, at least in the way it’s often presented in the media and by Instagram influencers, has a very specific, very narrow type of physique, despite its roots as an Indian spiritual practice. That’s one of the reasons Jennifer Gray opened her own studio back in 2000. When Gray started practicing yoga, she had a larger body and had to force herself not to compare herself to others in the class or to look in the mirrors. “There was a feeling of being judged in class,” she says. Gray wanted a place that would make everybody at every time in their life feel welcome, so she began teaching a class called “Big A#%! Yoga” specifically aimed at larger bodies. “You don’t even think twice about being in that room. And that was something that was important to me,” she says.

Celia McCoy now teaches a class similar to “Big A#%! Yoga” at the Yoga Center Retreat in St. Louis Park, where Gray is CEO and program director, though with a different name: “Viniyoga–for EveryBODY.” Like its predecessor, McCoy’s class is specifically meant for folks in larger bodies. “It’s a space meant for fat folks, but other people can come into it,” McCoy says. 

Galos doing yoga // Photo by Nate Ryan

Galos doing yoga // Photo by Nate Ryan

Dylan Galos has a similar ethos for his classes. He has barred the phrase “full version of a posture,” explaining that if students in his class can do more complex postures, there is space available for them to express that part of their practice. Otherwise, postures are introduced “without hierarchy,” he says. 

Galos himself got serious about yoga after a motorcycle crash seven years ago. “I wanted to get into a modality that incorporated philosophy and mindfulness,” he says. As a large black man, though, he didn’t exactly blend in with the typical clientele of most yoga classes. “Every time I went to class, I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb,” he recalls. But as soon as class began, none of that mattered: “I focused on the strength and peace that showed up inside.”

Ultimately, that’s what any kind of fitness or wellness is about: doing what helps you become your best self, even if you don’t look like everybody else.