This Philly Woman Thought Competitive Running Was the Answer to Her Problems. Then She Got Hit by a Car.
Sally Andersen is now, happily, a powerlifter, but the journey to fitness bliss has been a rocky one.
Before Sally Andersen was a runner, she was a heavy drinker, a self-mutilator, and, unsurprisingly, a severely depressed human. Once the Maryland native turned Philly resident started running, though, all of that changed. She thought she was happy — until an out-of-state driver hit her while she was riding her bike down Broad Street. Even though Andersen didn’t break any bones, her body resisted all her efforts to pick up the pace again.
Eventually, the now 36-year-old discovered weight lifting and, in October, began working as the head trainer at Boot Burn Camp in Exton. She refers to the heartbreaking accident as a “life-changing crazy event” and a “blessing in disguise.” We think we would pout just a little more? But that’s why we decided to let her tell her long and winding transformation story in her own, uplifting words.
Even as a little kid, I remember feeling out of control with my emotions constantly, being very upset and having extreme fits of rage and not knowing why and not being able to handle it. I was constantly looking for ways to solve that problem and never had a healthy outlet. Wooee, I put my mom through the ringer. But I was a totally functioning kid. Nobody thought anything of it. It was like, ‘Oh, sometimes she has outbursts.’
When I became 16 and could drive, that’s when I discovered drinking and realized that high you could get from drinking was something I hadn’t gotten before. I spent the next eight years, from age 16 to 24, probably as blacked out as often as I wasn’t. I just completely wasted eight years of my life. I started cutting my arm before it was something you even heard about. I don’t know how I thought to do it or where it came from. I remember thinking, ‘This is my life. I’m in a constant struggle.’ I never got suicidal, but I would go on anti-anxiety meds and anti-depressants. I was seeing counselors and therapists and lying to them. I wasn’t telling anyone about drinking really.
One day, things just kind of snapped. I was 24, and it started when I was hanging out at the bar at like 3 or 4 a.m. It was a Tuesday night, and all of a sudden, I was looking around and thinking, ‘These people are 10 years older than me, at a bar, at 4 a.m., on a Tuesday night.’ I knew I didn’t want that when I was in my 30s. On top of that, around the same time, I had a situation where I was walking up two short flights of steps to my apartment and stopped for a second to catch my breath halfway up. I had to grab onto the railing to catch my balance. It was another one of those moments, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m 24, and I just had to stop up a small flight of steps and catch my breath.’ I sat on the staircase and cried for about two hours.
But I got myself together. I knew nothing about fitness. I’d never had a gym membership. I played a couple sports as a kid, but I was never good at them, even though I loved them. I’m pretty sure I put on pajamas ‘cuz I didn’t even have workout clothes. I went for a run ‘cuz that’s the only thing I knew about fitness. I literally made it two blocks and had to turn around and walk back. Every day, I would go another block.
I do everything all or nothing. That month I started running, I started going to a gym and taking lifting classes, and I became vegan and I stopped eating out and ordering takeout food. All of that 100 percent changed my whole life. It was this crazy feeling of thinking, ‘I have found this magic solution that nobody has ever told me about.’ I can remember slipping into anger of, ‘Why did nobody tell me about this?’, but turning it quickly into, ‘I have to tell everybody else. Everybody else needs to know this is a possibility.’
Twenty-five was a hugely pivotal year for me. For a couple years, I still had to work at it, still had to stay in touch with my mental gain and focus in on doing work on it. Happy did not come naturally to me yet. But then I got picked up for a sponsored running team as a track athlete, so I was like, ‘This is it. This is going to make me happy now. Now it’s going to be no work. I’m good.’ I had a shoe sponsor and a coach that paid for all my entry fees. That was such an incredible high.
Probably less than a year later, I was leaving practice, and I got hit by a car on my bike. I hadn’t really prepared myself for having such a down low. I thought, ‘OK, I’m happy now.’ So I didn’t have any defenses up. Everything fell apart. I couldn’t run anymore. I couldn’t recover. I’d popped a rib out and damaged my hip a little, but nothing was showing up on any test results. I think that’s what made it extra frustrating. Doctors and my coach told me, ‘You can still run. You’re fine.’ But my body wasn’t willing to do it.
Then a coworker at a gym invited me to lift. She had seen what I’d gone through a little bit and took me under her wing and said, ‘Let’s lift together all week.’ She literally just let me tag along with her workouts and start lifting with her. It became this incredible healthy high that I could chase.
I was working for the city, for the rec department, and started doing personal training a couple hours a week, just for fun at a local gym. I had an amazing boss who pulled me outside one day and said, ‘Girl, you have it. When most people try to get into this field, I’m happy to let them do five to 10 hours a week. But if you want to do this, you have what it takes to do this full-time as your career.’ I sat down and talked with him. He said if I gave him full-time availability, he would fill my book and never let me go hungry. Right before my 30th birthday, I quit my full-time job and went 100 percent into personal training and group exercise, and that was the pivotal point. From 30 on, happy has just been easy. Now life is not a struggle.
The accident ended up being a huge blessing in disguise. I don’t know that I ever truly loved running. I loved that I was good at it, and that it gave me the high I was seeking in a natural way. I never on my own would have walked away from it. But I love lifting way more than I ever loved running. I love the test of being able to prove to yourself how strong you are in so many different ways. With running, I would shave 10 seconds off my time. With lifting, I would accomplish a pull-up or push-up and move my body in a way I couldn’t before.
Another life-changing crazy event was Burn Boot Camp, [the gym I now work at.] I’d always connected with clients within the gym setting but never connected with a gym and a gym’s mission itself. Burn, though, was a franchise co-founded in North Carolina by a man who was raised by a single mom as a space for women. We’re primarily female. We have free child watch, nutritional one-on-one support. The concept is to break all the barriers down and create a community bond. Everybody gets a high five when they walk through the door. The idea is that you might be the only person to physically touch them that day and how important physical touch is. It’s the first time where I saw a gym owner get it — truly understand how this is so much more than about working out.
Personal training and coaching others is genuinely what makes me happy because it’s the interaction with other people that matters to me most in life. I have this genuine compassion for everybody that walks through my door. I know their family, their friends, their kids. When they come in, I don’t ask them, ‘What kind of weight do you want to lose? What kind of muscles do you want?’ I ask what brought you though my door. What happened in your life?