Karen Ward, Owner of DFC CrossFit, on becoming uncompromising in finding fulfilling work
I need to start with a confession. The story I want to share is self-serving. Dripping with sweat, deeply satisfied, I vividly remember finishing my CrossFit workout, and thinking this is what it’s all about. I felt amazing!
That feeling faded fast once I began gathering my things to leave the gym and get to work. I wondered if it was possible to feel as fulfilled as this all day long. I couldn’t imagine that level of satisfaction in my professional life. Was there a way to bring the enjoyment I get from my morning workouts into my career?
At that moment, I looked up to see a smile on my coach’s face, beaming with the gratification I longed for, piquing my curiosity to know more about Karen Ward. Standing barely 5 feet tall with a perfectly petite frame, she is our fuel for fitness and the owner of Go Fitness, also known as DFC CrossFit.
Her enthusiasm is infectious, spreading quickly into each person who walks in the door. Even after coaching for decades, she gives everyone that smile and her individual attention. With a childlike spirit that defies the booming take-charge tone she takes to keep us in line, she’s still doing it at 65-years-old with a vigor and zest I could only dream of having in my career.
How did she land a profession that keeps that joyous gratified smile on her face? I had to know how she did it! I’m thinking she must’ve had a brilliant plan and took all the right steps and figured out the formula to finding career success.
I gave her a long list of questions about her personal ambitions, business strategies, work/life balance, and a slew of other secrets I wanted in on, so that maybe I could discover a professional path to bring me the same joy that gives Karen that genuinely satisfied smile.
Karen wasted no time blowing my mind. As we sat in the sunshine at a small bistro table outside her gym to dig into the list of questions I gave her, she immediately said, “I need to tell you, this is not me!” She explained that none of the questions really applied to her.
She didn’t have a plan; she didn’t have a formula or any profound secrets. She said, “I just selfishly did what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a vision. I was day to day. I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do. It was survival. There was nothing else.”
This shattered my preconceived notion that to create a successful and fulfilling career, one must follow certain rules and take the appropriate steps to get there. I was sure she must know something I had yet to learn, and she did! But it wasn’t what I expected, so I listened to her story and began to see how building a meaningful career wasn’t necessarily about plans, goals, and formulas.
The realization sunk in that the predefined, structured path I took to develop my own career didn’t result in a purposeful, pleasurable living. For Karen, her purpose was actualized by staying true to herself and committed to helping others. Her sheer determination to do what she loves led her down a path to a fulfilling career, which not only allowed her to help others, but brought others serendipitously into her life to help her too.
What keeps that smile on Karen’s face while coaching is not only loving her job; she loves you.
“I have never not been in front of a group of people. I learned I don’t bring my sad self or angry or insecure self into the room with me. My hurting self. It’s no longer for me, it’s for them. I want the experience with me to be something that makes their day better. It may not be their best workday but hopefully they have a laugh or a smile. Something that makes their day better.”
Karen hits that mark each day. We leave her gym better versions of ourselves, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Before digging into her story, I have to emphasize that the admiration for Karen Ward is pervasive among her gym members; everybody loves Karen. I asked a handful of our gym family to express how she’s impacted their life. Their responses attest to the enormous influence she has on others and tremendous benefits she brings to our lives.
"Karen taught me that you can become an athlete at any age as long as you’re willing to put in the work to achieve your goals. And she’ll cheer you on every step of the way.” - Pat Duboise, Atlanta, GA
“Karen has been my coach, turned friend for more than 20 years. In that time, I have come to appreciate her commitment, knowledge, enthusiasm, generosity and friendship!” - Dana Nichols, Lilburn, GA
“For over 25 years, Karen has been the person to keep me motivated and wanting to get fit.” - Donna Roberts, Lawrencville, GA
“I love Karen because she is very professional at the gym and her personality is very nice. She impacted my life in a very positive way. I never thought I would be able to squat again after all my injuries, but now I can do that and many other things. Best coach ever!” - Angel Rodriguez, Lilburn, GA
“Karen has made me feel empowered by the strength of my body. Her coaching has given me the confidence to keep pushing the limits of what my body is capable of and embrace its abilities everyday.” - Erika Wilson Isaza, Tucker, GA
“She demands excellence!” - Victor Jones, Jr, Atlanta, GA
“Karen is positive, genuine, upbeat, encouraging, knowledgeable, but they say every interaction you have with someone you don’t really remember what they did or said but rather how they made you feel. I think what I love most about Karen is that I always walk away from her feeling good. As for how she has impacted my life again so many ways. I’m stronger because of her, I have more confidence because of her. I’m a CrossFit coach because of her. But I think what I really learned from her is to meet people where they are not where you want them to be. That was a really good lesson for me.” - Carmen Hall, Atlanta, GA
“Karen is such an inspiration, not only to me, but to everyone that walks through her gym doors. She has coached me for the last five years and impacted my life more than she even realizes. Without her encouragement and accountability, I wouldn’t be where I am today. So THANK YOU KAREN!!” - Holly Rappaport, Lilburn, GA
Now that you have a sense for how much of an impact Karen has had on our community, I hope you can better appreciate the journey she took in order to be the light in the life of so many.
Becoming Good at Something She Loves
Karen’s level of athleticism and skill today is astonishing. We occasionally get glimpses of her talent in class while she’s coaching, which never ceases to amaze me. She makes the most difficult gymnastics skills look so easy. She reveals that she wasn’t born with this innate talent; just the passion to figure out how and a willingness to go through dark painful places to get it. Karen sums it up, “I was willing to do really hard things on my own.”
“From the beginning, I was not an athletic child at all. There was nothing I was good at. My mom put me in tennis, and I am really bad at all ball things. She put me in all the sports, and I was really bad. I came from a family that has no mobility whatsoever. We didn’t have a lot of money, but in sixth grade I got to take acrobatics. I was so bad they put me in with the third graders.”
It was in acrobatics at eleven years old that Karen developed her love for fitness. Unrelenting in her desire to become skilled at gymnastics, she went to the library and checked out a book on acrobatics. She practiced skills from the book in her living room for three hours a day and returned to the library to check that book out over and over, until she was placed in a class with gymnasts in the same age group as her. She was getting pretty good, despite her sports-related challenges and her unconventional training, which Karen explains was common around 1970 in Evansville, IN.
“My acrobatics/dance instructor was in her 40s. She would be smoking while she coached, and her 20-year-old boyfriend would bring her a steak dinner with a glass of wine. She wore sexy clothes, an ex-Vegas showgirl, pointing at each girl to tumble. Back then, it was typical for gymnastics teachers. They didn’t know gymnastics, only floor exercises. In high school, I made the gymnastics team and became a cheerleader. They taped wrestling mats together for our floor routines.”
Becoming Clear on the Right Direction
By now, Karen knew her passion but wasn’t clear on her direction. She went to Indiana University to major in physical education and made the gymnastics team her freshman year. Her curriculum was grueling, and her self-discipline began to deteriorate. Like many of her friends and colleagues, Karen developed an eating disorder. Overwhelmed by the pressures of school and a stressful relationship, she struggled to find her way.
The demands of physically keeping up with her classes on top of the demands of her relationship had her stretched too thin, putting everyone else’s needs before her own. By compromising herself and prioritizing others, Karen lost her confidence and felt like life had spiraled out of control. To regain her self-discipline, she had to stop compromising.
“My self-discipline came from compromising myself. I became selfish with my workout. If I don’t do that, I feel bad about myself. The process is very satisfying and enjoyable to me. It’s the greatest pleasure for myself. I also take a walk every day that it’s nice. That’s where I get my visions and think. It’s my meditation and the sunshine inspires me.”
Though she learned to be uncompromising in her purpose, Karen’s path was not without bumps and obstacles to overcome. After college, she began teaching PE at an elementary school in Columbus, IN. It wasn’t her dream job. She hoped to coach gymnastics after college and her studies were geared toward coaching high schoolers.
Instead, she taught at elementary and middle schools, which wasn’t her forte, until she was given a high school state championship team to lead. She found herself clueless and facing more challenges than she anticipated. The gym didn’t heat up in the winter, there were no breaks, she was alone figuring this out, with a group of high school kids who needed a level of support beyond the sport itself.
The reality of coaching was not fun. It was a relentless series of late nights at meets, out of town travels, and news interviews. The publicity was pressure, because if you lost, the backlash was harsh. After a year, she again stopped compromising and moved back to Evansville, accepting that this path was not the one for her.
Karen reached back in her mind to an aerobics class she took right after college, when aerobics classes were just starting to trend in the mid-1970s. She had great rhythm and couldn’t get enough of working out to music. It dawned on her that she could do this for a living.
Karen got to work starting one of the first aerobics classes at the University of Southern Indiana. It quickly attracted a ton of people and she made up aerobics routines and mixtapes (on real cassettes!) to play on her boombox as her classes grew. Along with her professional transition, Karen was going through a significant family transition too, being pregnant with her first child. She explains the challenges this brought,
“It was really fun, but at the same time I was pregnant. Then I had my son and couldn’t find someone to take care of him because he cried all the time. I had to bring him with me to aerobics class. He would be screaming all the time, so I’d have to run in the office to nurse him. People were not happy."
Becoming Purposeful Without a Plan
Teaching aerobics classes for a few years at rec centers or fitness clubs, Karen felt she was fulfilling her function in life, but hadn’t yet figured out how to make her function meet her financial demands. She continued to pursue fitness certifications for Nautilus training and various forms of aerobics, including step aerobics, emerging as one of the first on the scene with this set of knowledge and skill. For 8-10 years, she would grind through the rigorous requirements of certification after certification, until she moved to Atlanta, GA.
Still unsure how to make her passion lucrative enough to support her and her growing family, she taught an obscene number of aerobics classes and offered personal training on the side. Almost everyone taught aerobics for free in Atlanta, so she took all the continuing education classes in aerobics and started teaching classes at the good places in Midtown to give herself the best opportunities of making this coaching career sustainable.
It wasn’t until 1988 when she got a paying position as a trainer at Tucker Racquet and Fitness Center, which was suggested to her by a friend, Sharon Magruder from Midtown, that Karen finally felt at home.
“I met people in these classes that were so happy you taught and hooted and howled and the coaches in charge loved on everybody. Sharon Magruder told me to come to Tucker and was a huge inspiration in my career. I had my own class called Tucker Training Camp; it was longer, 45 minutes of aerobics, running, and weight training. I ended up with a group of fun, committed people and it was a wonderful time.
"Lots of them were unlikely people to be together, which is how my fitness career ended up being. Nothing was fun like this before Tucker. I had to do a lot of personal training, I worked 20 million hours. One of the fantastic things I had that no one has now, was full-time childcare whenever I needed it. I didn’t pay a dime for childcare because the workout center gave it to me for free. I was very fortunate there.”
While in Tucker, Karen had her second child, a daughter this time. Her professional life was thriving, and motherhood was a blessing, however her marriage wasn’t on the same track and Karen divorced around this time.
“When I was a single mom, I lived day to day. Can I get enough money to pay rent, have some food? Pizza for the kids was taking pita bread, splitting it in half and melting mozzarella on each side. We would go to Harry’s Farmers Market and eat the samples and that would be their dinner. I had no family help, and the biggest challenge was figuring out ways to work enough and make enough to support the family. I did personal training, but never had a guaranteed amount to supplement the aerobics money. I’d save enough money to buy the kids fun stuff, but had no extra for anything.”
These challenges didn’t diminish Karen’s momentum at the Tucker Racquet and Fitness Center, where her tribe had grown so much that the intimacy of the group had somewhat faded. In 2002, the Center closed with just a one-week notice. Suddenly, Karen lost her only form of guaranteed income and had to figure out what to do next. Her core tribe, that intimate group of fun, committed people who had a wonderful time together since she began coaching in Tucker, wanted to keep working out.
Becoming Established: More Training, More Trials
This tribe helped Karen find the fulfillment she was seeking in her work for the past ten years. She was as dedicated to them as she was to fitness, so she started informal classes at a local park when the Center closed. The Tucker tribe followed, and she was able to continue coaching this way.
The garage of her house turned into a gym, and she formatted new classes into serious training for runners, applying the expertise, including 5 certifications, she got from running camps with Roy Benson and Owen Anderson, both leaders in distance running and exercise coaching.
Some years later, Karen discovered CrossFit. She was in awe of these girls lifting huge barbells, and she really wanted to try it. The outdoor fitness classes, running, and garage workouts continued for ten years as Dynamic Fitness Concepts (DFC), the corporation she established for her operations. In blistering heat, unbearable cold, rain or shine, 22 people kept coming and Karen kept coaching.
Some of them got hooked on 5Ks and races, and Karen started CrossFit training, completing certifications in CrossFit as she learned what it was. Finally, around 2011, tired of being at the mercy of weather and jumping from one place to another, one of her devoted class members, Anne McClearn, found an adorable 1,000 square foot space in downtown Lilburn, GA for Karen to lease as a gym space.
“At the end of the summer, I got an opportunity to open my own gym. I thought CrossFit was really cool stuff. I opened the gym, and the group of people who worked out with me in the parks didn’t know anything about CrossFit, so I didn’t ask if they wanted to do it. I sort of transitioned to it and did more of what we did outside inside. They all helped me paint and put the new place together. We did all the community activities downtown, Lilburn Daze, Christmas things. They were really good to me, and we started growing.”
Growing Through Happenstance, But No Business Plan
The cozy DFC CrossFit gym in quaint downtown Lilburn was doing well and steadily growing. Karen was still working feverishly to complete CrossFit certifications and figure out how to coach CrossFit classes all at the same time. She confesses that maybe she lost some people in the beginning because she was learning while she was teaching, but for the most part people stayed. A stroke of luck showed up when Chris Nichols walked in the front door of the gym.
Chris happened to see the gym while he was downtown and walked in out of curiosity. He had done CrossFit at another gym and asked Karen if she wanted help. He offered to build racks and format the gym to look more like a CrossFit gym. Chris was invaluable to her. They trained together for a while to learn CrossFit techniques, then Chris got his certification and coached some classes. He helped Karen immensely, always patient with her and willing to help improve the gym.
Karen’s good fortune didn’t end there. More people walked into her gym and became part of her fitness family, helping her grow her business and improve her classes and space. Folks from the Lilburn community, many who were still with her since the days in the park, contributed time and effort helping Karen and DFC. Of course, her husband Matthew helped hugely by taking over as CFO.
Within a few years, DFC CrossFit grew too big for the space. Half the workouts had to be done on the sidewalk outside, the ceilings were too small, people living upstairs had to endure blasting music, and a restaurant just opened next door.
As fun as downtown Lilburn was, Karen had to move to accommodate her growing business. She found a huge 7,500 square foot warehouse in the back of a nearby industrial park and started moving in November 2013. At first, she worried the space would be too much. It ended up being the perfect size.
For a couple of months, she had two rents and everyone who had become part of her DFC family helped her get the new gym ready. They filled carloads of stuff and drove it from one gym to another. They were as excited to be in this huge facility as Karen! She thinks back over her journey to this point:
“The park thing was the coolest group thing ever. We had 22 people and everyone knew each other. We had Christmas parties at people’s houses, birthday parties, every holiday at the parks, and everyone did it. We took lots of pictures, photo albums for everybody. It was very time consuming. Matthew hated me for it!
We would stay after, go to coffee, eat lunch or dinner, make smoothies, lots of bonding. What was neat is that so many people got to know each other that never would’ve. That’s the coolest thing about it. All these different kinds of people connecting. It secretly warms my heart that our differences can be put away and people are happy to come together and get to know each other and see each other improve.”
CrossFit is not an easy business to undertake. It is not set up in a money-making way. Karen’s son took a different approach, using the planning method to build a very successful CrossFit business, and they both acknowledge it is hard to make it work. Karen continues reflecting on why she does it,
“It always started with the people. It never started with women in sports or having a business. My son tried really hard to have me write a business plan. But that’s not how I did it. I probably should. I am determined to make this work no matter how hard CrossFit is to run. I have nothing else. If it’s not in this industry, then I can’t do it."
DFC CrossFit got a new nickname, Go Fitness, upon Karen’s son’s suggestion to rebrand the name when CrossFit was getting a bad reputation for causing injuries. She started offering boot camp style workouts that weren’t formatted like CrossFit workouts.
Her daughter, Jessica, also jumped on the CrossFit train. A natural athlete, she took the certification classes, loved it, and within five years was programming the workouts for her mom, who coaches almost every class and hears all the complaining about the crazy WOD (workout of the day)! We are all supposed to thank Jess.
Nine years in her current facility, a decade in downtown Lilburn, a decade in public parks and running trails, a decade at Tucker Racquet and Fitness Center, and a decade before that teaching in schools and aerobics classes, Karen has over 50 years working in a field she loves, learning constantly, growing incessantly, and fostering a community of misfits who needed her as much as she needed them. There was no business plan, but it came together as it was meant to be, the unknown pieces showing up just in time.
The takeaways from Karen’s story, that had a huge impact on me:
1. You don’t always need a plan, but you cannot compromise on your passion
2. If we stay true to ourselves, everything will work out, even if we can’t predict how
3. If we are in a soul-sucking position, walking away could help you find fulfillment
4. Life comes with challenges, and there is always a way through. Let people help you!
5. Selfishly acting in our own best interests lets us better serve others and become fulfilled
6. Never Give Up!
7. Follow Steps 1-6 to make a living that keeps a huge, satisfied smile on your face, even after 50 years.
Go Fitness/DFC CrossFit
40 Rockbrigde Road Suite 500