BY: KIM HASTY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY: CINDY BURNHAM
From the start, the energy, the enthusiasm and the encouragement inside the gym were strikingly contagious.
“You’re looking good, girl,” was the mantra of the day. “You’re doing great.”
They are five women of all ages and all from different walks of life, facing life’s pressures from a variety of perspectives. A couple of them knew each other, but most were meeting for the first time. But as soon as they gathered around the weights and the resistance bands, it was if they had known each other for years.
Call it the Sisterhood of the Kettle Bells.
“You are all so strong, beautiful and inspiring,” said the youngest, 22-year-old Ally Copenhaver, who has already learned the power that lies in finding not only your own strength, but in helping others find theirs.
Top Alicia Banks
Left Jan Ervin, right Ally Copenhaver
Middle Alysse Stewart
Bottom Rachel Burbank
Five women of all ages and all from different walks of life are facing life’s pressures from a place of strength.
How does the saying go? A rising tide raises all ships. Strong women just naturally gravitate toward helping each other. It’s a spirit that comes in particularly handy as we emerge from one of the most difficult years many of us have ever experienced.
As we move into a new year, allow us to introduce you to these five strong women and to toast their spirit of resilience, optimism and determination. Each of these women will tell you that one of the best ways to face life’s challenges is through challenging yourself. And while they all make it look easy, they’ve all had to overcome challenges in their fitness journey.
Life’s burdens may seem heavy at first glance, but they are often just like that barbell in the gym that appears full of intimidating weights.
Take a deep breath, bend your knees and hold on with a firm grasp.
You just may find that you are stronger than you think.
“It is kind of a source of pride. I want to take care of myself physically and mentally. I just love to exercise. At 80 years old, that’s the attitude I have to have. I do it for me.”
Always the first person to say hello and to help someone new to class set up their weights,
Jan Ervin is known as everyone’s gym mom.
“I love people,” she said. “Sometimes, I don’t know anything but their first names, but I still think of them as friends.”
Her affinity for fitness began as a girl growing up in an athletic family in Red Springs. She was a forward on the high school basketball team and a pretty good softball player, as well. She was also Miss Red Springs when she was 15 and, later, homecoming queen at then-Campbell College. She taught English for 52 years, becoming like a mom for middle school students as well.
Through the years, she’s always found a way to make it to various gyms to take her beloved step classes and body pump classes, which feature weightlifting to music. She’s outlasted many of the gyms themselves. And while she’s still a beauty at 80, her fitness isn’t just about looks.
“It is kind of a source of pride,” she said.
“I want to take care of myself physically and mentally. I just love to exercise. At 80 years old, that’s the attitude I have to have. I do it for me.”
After suffering a breakup and subsequently sad holiday season a few years ago, Banks embarked on losing 55 pounds in nine months. Rather than allow herself to steep in heartbreak, she began by taking baby steps toward changing her lifestyle and eating habits and making a serious commitment to weightlifting.
Midway through her journey, a healthy body became less about proving herself to someone else and more about taking care of herself.
“I truly started to find myself outside of someone else,” she said. “It’s what has kept me consistent for more than a year – and will for the rest of my life. Now working out is like brushing my teeth. I plan everything else around working out.”
“I’ve done crash diets before, and I can’t do it,” Banks, 32, said. “So I broke it down into pieces. If the goal was to go to the gym five to six days a week, I started with ‘Let’s go one day.’”
Once she had established a regular fitness routine that included weights mixed with cardio, she began focusing on her diet.
“At first I changed just my breakfast,” she said. “I said, let’s eat a healthy breakfast. I gave my body time to adjust so I wouldn’t have those cravings.”
Along the way, she’s learned valuable life lessons.
“Live in the body you want because it’s for you and you want it,” she said. “That is the only way it works. It took heartbreak for me, personally, to make this realization.”
It was a terrifying injury, so serious that Ally Copenhaver doesn’t remember much about it.
“I blacked out when it happened,” she said.
It proved to be a life-changing moment for her. Three days before her older sister’s wedding in 2015, Copenhaver tore the ligaments in her knee while playing in a volleyball game as a high school junior. But the injury would eventually lead to an indelible bond with athletic trainer Julia Henry and her gym, CrossFit Metanoia. That bond would in turn change the way
Copenhaver thought about fitness. A senior at Meredith College who is scheduled to graduate in May with a degree in exercise and sports science, Copenhaver already has started her own virtual personal training and nutrition coaching site, AC Fit, based on the concept of mind, body and power. She’s already begun taking on clients.
Hers was a journey in which she not only overcame her injury but went on to learn that strength and healthy eating are much more important than strict diets or calorie-counting.
“It’s not just about losing the weight; you’re more than a number,” she said. “I learned that I had to work on my mental health before my physical health. When I’m working with clients, I always say that nutrition is 90 percent mental.
“I don’t believe in fad diets,” she said. “Those only work for a certain period of time. I hate society’s thing about being a certain size. A healthy body is different on everybody.”
She has a take on physical fitness that belies her age and is both fun and inspiring.
“Be stronger than your excuses,” she advised on one of her recent posts. “If it’s important to you, you will find a way.”
Always quick to invite others to try one of the many fitness classes she taught every week before COVID-19 affected gym schedules, Rachel Burbank looks like a woman who has never battled so much as a single calorie.
But 22 years ago, she was crying in a plus-sized clothing store when she realized she needed to go up a size yet again.
“In 1998, I was 280 pounds,” she said. “It took me three years, but I lost 130 pounds. Since then, I’ve continued my journey.”
It’s a journey in which she became a popular fitness instructor at several gyms. You had to arrive early to secure a spot in her Saturday BodyPump classes, a program in which participants lift weights to music.
“I worked out every single day,” she said. “I used to teach 22 classes a week and had two babies in between.”
Burbank, whose full-time job is as a medical assistant and cast technician at Fayetteville Orthopedics, is still generous in encouraging others. She was the person who advised Alicia Banks to use weights to get healthier faster.
At 43, she still pays close attention to food choices. For breakfast, she typically eats four eggs and a protein shake. For lunch, she has a lean meat with cottage cheese and pineapple. Dinner is more lean meat and two vegetables. Snacks throughout the day are protein bars or protein shakes.
“I’ve helped a lot of people lose weight,” she said. “I’m passionate about it. I know it’s my calling.”
Alysse Stewart has been active all her life, having been a track and field standout while growing up in Durham. Still, as she turns 52 this month, she’s never been in better shape.
She attributes that, in part, to discovering the book “LL Cool J’s Platinum Workout” a few years ago. In the book, the famed rapper details the routine that led to his chiseled good looks.
“And I just followed that,” she said.
Never has hitting the gym been more of a source of relieving stress and staying healthy than it is now. Stewart, program director at Magic 106.9, is the busy working mother of 13-year-old Durell. Like many of us, she worries about her son growing up in an uncertain world and also about the impact of COVID-19.
“I can’t see life without my son,” she said.
“However, at the same time, I worry about his safety, his future and his happiness. I suppose that’s a stress point for many moms. And my guess is that a lot of us don’t take time for ourselves to deal with how those protective instincts add stress to our lives along with the good.
“I’ve talked about this on the radio, but it was a joy for me to actually grocery shop,” she said. “Now it feels like a place where I have to socially distance myself, fewer smiles and somewhat more of a rush to exit.”
The gym and a little regular time to herself keeps her healthier physically but has mental benefits as well.
“For me, exercise keeps me balanced,” she said. “If I don’t do it for long periods of time, I do not feel my best.”