Life Upended: Trainer trying to win $20K in fitness contest to stay afloat

Life Upended. The coronavirus outbreak has had a devastating impact on our nation, and it has touched Staten Islanders in countless ways. In this series, reporter Tracey Porpora will share the stories of those who have been thrust into situations that were unimaginable just a few months ago — those who have seen their life completely upended. This is the sixteenth story of “Life Upended.

STATEN ISLAND. N.Y. — Like many other boutique fitness owners — who still can’t fully reopen amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — Rachel Norman, 36, owner of Try Hard Fitness, found herself destitute and unable to pay the rent for her cardio kickboxing and fitness center.

Because the Willowbrook resident also offers programs for senior citizens and disabled populations in nursing homes, she lost many of her clients — and 80{554322552816a46baa129cc1ab31b2aae22be5e23f407658ace83a643d80b0e9} of her income — during the pandemic.

Norman, who raised her 15-year-old daughter on her own, was denied loans and simply didn’t know where to turn to be able to pay her bills and put food on the table.

“After I was forced to close my gym, I got a call from the nursing homes that I could no longer offer my programs. That was paying more than half of the rent of my 2,000-square-foot gym,” said Norman, noting the New Dorp-based facility includes 22 kickboxing bags, a dance floor and more.

“Since I had to close in March I have clients calling saying, ’Rachel, I have to put my membership on hold, or I have to cancel my membership.’ … So now here I am, five months in rent arrears — not by choice — membership holds, cancelations and bills creating a hill. How can I keep my gym open? This is all I do. I feel vulnerable. I started my business on my own on Sept. 12, 2015. I thought by now I’d be able to buy a house. Nope,” added Norman.


Besides offering virtual and outdoor classes and personal training sessions during the pandemic, Norman has actively searched for ways to boost her income. That’s when she applied for the fourth annual Miss Health & Fitness global competition, which is won through an online voting system.

And the prize is $20,000. Norman said she could use that money more than ever to pay her rent and overdue bills.

“As of right now, this is my only hope. If I win Miss Health & Fitness, I am rewarded $20,000. …It would really help with my arrears and to get my gym up and running again,” said Norman.

“I would also get my name out to the world, which God willing, would open doors for me,” she added.

Many of her loyal clients have sponsored her, and they go onto the Miss Health & Fitness website and vote for her regularly. She’s made it to the quarter finals.

And if she gets enough votes, she’ll make the semi-finals, for which voting will continue through Thursday at 11 p.m. Voting for Norman can be done here.


Norman said she was denied loans she desperately needed — and still needs — throughout the pandemic for two reasons: She’s a one-woman show and doesn’t have a high enough credit score.

“Because of me being a one-woman show and sole proprietor the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan is of no benefit for me, unfortunately; I wouldn’t even receive $3,000,” she said.

She also applied for the SBA Disaster Loan, “but I was denied and hit with a hard inquiry on my credit score. …What people don’t talk about with these loans is you have to have very good credit to obtain them.”


Norman’s interest in fitness was sparked at a young age when she was professionally trained as a modern ballet dancer under renowned instructor and choreographer Mary Anthony.

“She gave me a full dance scholarship when I was 17 years old. She taught me how to train. She taught me movement. …And more importantly, she taught me how to use my voice using my diaphragm without using a microphone. It is because of Mary Anthony that I am the teacher I am today,” said Norman.

She said her dream was to travel the world as a modern ballet dancer, but at age 20 that suddenly changed when she got pregnant with her daughter, Ruth Norman

But she quickly reinvented herself. She took a job at an adoption agency to make ends meet, and later became a performing arts specialist for the Police Athletic League.


However, during this time, she lost her godmother, Ruth Kow, who died in a nursing home. Soon after, her father, a Vietnam veteran and city corrections officer, also died.

“My father, Richard D. Norman, who was raised at Mount Loretto, was a corrections officer for 26 years. … He fought in the U.S. Army, combat, for two tours. He passed away from Agent Orange,” said Norman. “He was a huge support system for me. I ended up getting my kickboxing certification a couple of weeks before he passed away.”

After these losses she began to focus on becoming a fitness and kickboxing trainer.

“What makes me stand out from other kickboxing facilities is my kickboxing is choreographic. …We are all about form,” said Norman.


Because her godmother died in a nursing home, Norman began offering a performance arts program for senior citizens and people with special needs at various health-care facilities a few years ago.

“After my godmother died, I did research about how to extend the life of someone living in a nursing home,” said Norman, who added that she was going to nursing homes daily before the coronavirus pandemic hit. “So I created a performing arts program for the elderly and the special needs community. …I was working with people with autism, dementia, multiple sclerosis and other conditions for seven years.”

She even had a program where the residents of various nursing homes would perform for the other residents. But due to the coronavirus, she can’t offer the programs in nursing homes at this time. And there is no timeframe for when they can resume.


Norman said she will reopen Try Hard Fitness for indoor personal training on Sept. 12, the five-year anniversary of her opening. In the meantime, she will continue to offer outdoor and Zoom fitness classes, while indoor fitness classes are still banned in New York City.

She is determined to keep her business afloat. Her mother, Zondra Z. Norman, loaned her money to open the studio. Norman said that before the health crisis she had a large clientele and a large roster of classes, including cardio kickboxing, 5 a.m. fitness challenges, cardio ballet, body sculpting, tabata and more.

She currently offers outdoor classes on the Franklin D. Roosevelt Boardwalk in South Beach at 5 a.m., and in the parking lot of her facility.

“That’s what I’m doing right now. But I’m barely making it,” she said.



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