Inspired by 52 Cups of Coffee, I've set out to meet inspiring women of colour doing their part to help people on their journey to wellness. Whether it's over a cup of coffee, tea, a smoothie or kombucha, I want to meet the women encouraging positive change in their community.
This project started a few years ago with me sitting down with entrepreneurs and small business owners in the health & wellness space. My journey has evolved and this project has evolved.
Do you know someone I should meet? Leave a note in the comments below.
I've known Debbie for a long time. We met over 10 years ago when we were both working on the marketing team for a Toronto-based toy company. Our lives have evolved and the work we do has changed. We're no longer colleagues, we are friends. Her journey over the last several years has inspired me, so I sat down to have a conversation with Debbie King of Supafitmama for the first in this new series.
A conversation with Debbie King
Everyone I know in the health and wellness space has a story, a reason why they are doing what they are doing. What is your story?
I’ve often tried to think about what my story actually is. I feel like it’s a story with a lot of chapters, and I don’t necessarily know which chapter to jump into to tell the story.
There were a few key turning points for me. The first one was in my early 30s. I was married and working at the LCBO in a full-time management position. I was doing well on paper, everything was good. I remember going home one day, taking the subway and having to run up the stairs from the subway level to the street level. At the top of the stairs I was out of breath. More than out of breath, I was hurting. I distinctly remember thinking ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t me. When did this happen?’
I used to be the avid athlete, I used to be the one who couldn’t envision a life that didn’t involve some kind of sport or fitness or movement, yet here I was. That was a huge turning point and it didn’t take long, everything happened very quickly where I made the decision to leave that job and I started taking up distance running. I joined the Running Room, not because running was something I enjoyed but because it was a challenge that I wanted to overcome.
You joined the Running Room but running wasn’t something that you enjoyed? Tell me about that.
No, but it was something that I wanted to be able to conquer. Growing up I was a sprinter, always excelled at short distances, power sports, team sports. There were all these people in the world around me running. It just seemed like this huge mountain to me, but it was something I wanted to be able to do. Why can other people run 5K? I want to be able to do it too, and I want my body to be able to do that.
That part of the chapter - I ended up quitting my job, joining the Running Room, and later coaching at the Running Room.
How did you go from running up the stairs and hurting, to joining the Running Room to better your own health to quitting your job?
I think there were two things culminating at the same time. I had reached a point where I was in a management position at the LCBO. On paper it was a glorious job, the kind of job that people don’t want to leave. You stay there until you retire. Get your glorious government pension and that’s it. I was only in my early 30s, I was recently married, I didn’t have kids yet. I remember sitting in my cubicle just looking around and thinking ‘Oh my goodness, is this my future? If I stay in this seat is this where I’m heading? Am I going to be her and her and her?' I wasn’t okay with that. I knew that I wanted more and I wanted something different.
Already in my head there was this whole job-lifestyle situation isn’t quite right for me, and now I’m feeling that my body and my health are compromised. Or at least not as good as I think they could be, not reflecting who I felt like.
The two things happened at the same time. Freeing myself up from work and not really knowing what direction was going to come next, I had the time to invest in something else that was important to me. That was the running and the fitness.
I saw myself getting fitter, I saw some of the pounds coming off, and that led me to want to get back into the gym. I went to Curves. If you know me now, Curves is so not where you would picture me but at the time it was perfect. It was low key, women only, a program that you walk into and was designed for you, a circuit that you just do. It was very accessible, very welcoming and not intimidating.
"I knew that I wanted more and I wanted something different."
As I was going through the circuit, doing the weights and the program I was remembering, I was feeling strong. I remembered that I loved lifting! I forgot that. It was something I used to do as part of my training in highschool. Other women would comment on how strong I was looking, how toned I was. It was like something from my memory kind of clicked back in. This is who I am!
I had another job at this point and I remember checking out a personal training gym across the street from my new job. That’s where I met the guy who became my bodybuilding coach. I was working out with him, personal training. I started looking at magazines and saw that there was this whole fitness competition world. I remember going to him and saying “Do you know there are women who model fitness?” He told me about the competitions, and then it was in my head that that’s what I wanted to do.
That’s around the time I met you. You were training for your first competition when you joined the company.
That was one big turning point for me. The second one happened when I had my daughter.
I had won my first fitness competition, I had done a half marathon - something I never imagined that I could do. I was fully embracing this true, authentic, fit, sporty Debbie.
How were you feeling? Was it good and natural? Did you feel like you were pushing yourself to do something outside of who you are?
It felt good and natural. It felt more like coming home.
That was all really good, and at the same time my husband and I were starting to talk about starting a family. We knew it was something that we wanted and we knew the feeling was coming.
I had just starting the whole fitness competition thing, I was in the best shape of my life, never looked like this before. I loved being on the stage in competition and I would continue to do that if the process wasn’t so rigorous and expensive.
I’m loving training but we also wanted to start trying for a family, so I said “You know what? I’m going to train for both, keep going for both and whatever happens happens.” Well, it happened pretty quickly, in about a month or so I was pregnant. I was really,really hell bent on keeping my identity. I didn’t want motherhood to be something that took over my life, that eclipsed everything else that was important to me. I didn’t have a lot of friends who were mothers at the time, so I didn’ta have a comparison to what peer motherhood looked like. I just knew that it can’t be this takeover where I become this other person.
I really attached to this idea of being fit for 2, a fit mom. Once I had my daughter I was starting to see some really fun parallels between my fitness journey and my parenting journey. I started a Twitter account. I just wanted to be able to document little musings about it in a fun way.
As my daughter grew and as I continued in my pursuits, that’s when the whole @supafitmama persona came about. My interests really started turning to women I could relate to. I was really looking to support other mothers who wanted to feel good and look good while they figured out this whole new motherhood thing.
"You don’t have to have it figured out, you don’t have to commit to something, give yourself permission to explore and experience."
As my daughter has grown, she’s 9 now, my interest has really parallel that growth. Where I'm finding myself now is looking at the little girls and I’m thinking Who are their role models?, Who’s getting them involved?, How are they developing their skills and their confidence?, Where are they getting their information about wellness?’. I’m really starting to look at girls, youth and how we connect the adults to help and influence and support each other.
Now it’s mothers of school aged children. I completely anticipate that this will continue as I grow and I see my daughter’s needs, get more exposed to her peer group. I’m sure that when she’s a teen my interest in going to go that way a bit more.
Your life and journey is reflecting what you are doing. Tell me what you are doing these days. Let’s talk about two things: work, passion and where do the two meet.
Let’s talk about passion first. Right now I am training for Masters Track & Field. That is Track & Field Association is specifically for adults 30 and over, non-professionals, some are retirees, some are working, some students who are outside of the collegiate age group. I sprint, so I run the short distance 100 and 200 outside, and 60m inside. The track & field itself is all of the events, middle distances, long distances, throws, jumps, everything. We’ve got people from 30 to 90 years old and some people do many events.
I’ve been doing that for 2 years and I intend to do it for at least 2 more because the World Championships are being held in Toronto in 2020. I plan to be there representing Canada, and I’ll decide after that if I want to continue or do something else.
On the work side of things….I’ll tell you what I’m not doing as a starting point. Most people assume that I’m a trainer. I don’t train people and I’m no longer instructing classes. I did them, I enjoyed them but what I found when doing it was I was a little bit less interested in the physiology of what was going on. Not that I’m not interested at all, but compared to people who are very passionate about that area of the business, I was less so. I found myself more interested in all of the adjacent conversations happening in people’s lives around fitness and around health. I was more interested in the conversations around body image, or the conversations around representation, conversations around aging adults. It was all of those kinds of intersections, and I figured out that the communications background have, my degree and all of my work, could serve me really well here because I was able to capture some these ideas, articulate them, write about them and share through different media. Right now I am freelancing, I do health & fitness communications. I’ve written fitness related articles for magazines and newspapers, I’ve co-produced video around body image, spoken at wellness events and I'm working as am Ambassador as well.
You are in this space where you are forging your own path. Gone is the 9 - 5 where you and I met. If there is someone out there who wants to make a change, a woman who is in the place that you were when you were at the LCBO. What’s one piece of advice you would give that woman, sitting in her cubicle who has a passion that she wants to pursue and maybe leave the 9 - 5 behind, to bridge that gap.
There’s two sides to that. It’s what’s happening in your head and some of the internal work that you have to do, and there’s also a very practical side to making that kind of switch. Instinctively for me it’s the internal work. I’m really big on giving yourself permission to explore, and that’s exactly what I did when I started at the Running Room and what I’ve done ongoing. You don’t have to have it figured out, you don’t have to commit to something, give yourself permission to explore and experience.You can better make those decisions when you are experiencing something and then you can decide if it works for you or what parts work for you or not.
The other side of that is…it took me a very long time to stop being identified by my work. I think that’s a huge one for a lot of people. If you are going to walk away from this role and this identity, then who are you? That gap is the scary place to be sometimes. I’m okay to let that go but if there’s nothing replacing it then I’m unanchored, a place where I don’t know what my worth is now. That can be a scary place to be, so I think you need to be okay with that or just go through the steps and that will develop.
We are often defined by our work. In the first few minutes of meeting someone a question they often ask is“What do you do?”
Yes, and it’s a question I purposely do not ask anymore.
Now, though, it kind of does because you are doing something you are passionate about? Does it more define you because you are doing something that you love versus a job?
Yes, but at the same time I also recognize that I am a whole person outside of all of this. So if something happened and I couldn’t run tomorrow, that’s okay. The fact that I’m not a track runner it’s okay. If I decide I’m not into writing anymore that’s okay too. I’m still a valuable person.
That’s a big shift, learning how to not define yourself by your work. How did you do that?
It’s not something that happened immediately. It’s something I really wrestled with earlier on. Part of it has been maturity, some perspective, age, wisdom. I’m going to guess that having my daughter plays into it as well, having another role as a mother and a whole other side of life, something that I’m contributing to and has value outside of my profession has been helpful. My faith has become more pronounced and a bigger part of life lately. I am a Christian, and I believe in my value just being here and being created. Whether I decide to be a coal miner or an accountant, those things are not defining part of me, it’s how I live and who I am and how I act that’s important. That’s what defines me more than anything.
Do you have a daily healthy habit?
I wake up and have water right away, it’s the first thing I consume after my shower.
Do you have a ‘worth it’ food?
What does that mean? [I know Debbie and we have similar philosophies when it comes to food, so I could have anticipated the confused look on her face when I asked this question.]
In the world of health, fitness, nutrition, wellness people can get very concerned about what they are consuming.
That’s not me.
Me neither. The ‘worth it’ food is the thing that you eat because you love it. Period. It may not be considered ‘good’ for you, fit with your fitness or health plan, but you love it and you are going to eat it without guilt or shame or any other nonsense because it brings you joy. Mine is fried chicken.
Pizza! Nothing is off limits for me, that’s the thing. I think everything is a ‘worth it’ food.
What is the best change you made for your health?
Getting sport back into my life was the right thing for me. I’m distinctly saying sport rather than fitness. Sport has the element of training for a purpose, and I’m not saying people who do fitness don’t have a purpose. Sport gives me a purpose, a goal and I love competition. I thrive on competition. It all brings it back to serving me.
What is something that you learned last year that you think is important for your growth or wellbeing?
It took until the end of the year for me to see it, but I finally saw that I had pushed through a lot of health problems. I wasn’t eating as well as I should, I wasn’t getting the nutrients that I needed to get, and I had a very very heavy period, I didn’t realize how heavy it was. There were a lot of things that were happening for me that were my norm, I accepted them as my norm, not realizing that with the kind of training that I was doing the two were not compatible. When I look back I think “How the hell did I train and compete when my body was in that state?” A doctor looked at my blood count and said “I don’t understand how you are training.”
What took you from this is my norm to seeing a doctor?
Feeling like shit. Not being able to get through my workouts. I wanted to do better, I knew my workouts shouldn’t be feeling the way they were feeling, and I finally reached a point where I had to see somebody.
Did you think you were eating well, getting the right nutrients before all of this?
I knew it wasn’t great, but I didn’t realize to the degree how the lack of nutrients were affecting me. When a Naturopath was able to say things to me, talking about oxygen getting to my muscles to recover, what the iron does for the blood cells, this is what’s getting rid of the lactic acid - when I was able to make those connections. I understand what happens in training and I understand those feelings. It made it motivating for me. It made it matter.
In a sentence, last year you learned….
To recognize thresholds and respond to them.
What is one achievement that you are especially proud of?
Because this is so top of mind for me right now, I’m going to say strengthening my relationship with God. I’m really happy that’s happened, it’s reshaping for me, it feels like new life, new perspective, new respect for my health and my body, just everything. I think that’s probably one of the most significant changes that I’ll look back and talk about in terms of where my life goes from here.
Was faith a big part of your life growing up?
It was on the outskirts. My mom was Christian and she took us to church on and off, usually just a community church in the neighbourhood. It wasn’t daily or weekly thing. I saw my mom reading the Bible now and then, we said our prayers before bed. It was always around. As an adult, at times it was more important to me than others, and I’ve just come to a point now where it’s become so much more central for me and my family.
What brought you back to faith, to God?
A miracle that happened in my life last year. It was so outstanding and so powerful, I have no other explanation for how it would have happened.
If there is a woman like you were running up those stairs, thinking they can’t do something because they aren’t physically able to but want to make a change. What tip that you would give her?
Start with something that you like. Pick one thing that you enjoy doing - dancing, walking, riding your bike, lifting weights - something enjoyable that moves your body and start there. I think once you do that you will be compelled to move more, maybe to move differently, things will evolve from there but you just have to start to move.
When it gets hard, because there is a point where it will feel hard. What would you say to someone who really wants it but feels like their body isn’t there, isn’t cooperating?
I’m really big on goal setting. That’s something that works for me and motivates me. Not just big goals, I’m really into setting mini goals along the way. So don’t make it too big of a chunk, start with a three week goal. I’m going to do this new activity that I enjoy doing two times a week for the next three weeks. Start there and take it from there. That feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing what you said you would complete is motivating in itself to set the next one.
Let’s talk about representation and social media. How do you feel about what is out there for people to look at and see? Keeping in mind what you are doing and putting out there, motivating young girls and empowerment.
I feel really lucky and unique in that my journey has taken me to a lot a different touch points. I’ve touched on sport, fitness and wellness. I’ve been in a lot of different environments - fitness clubs, clinics, athletic environments. Through all of that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many dynamic women of colour who are very passionate, talented and doing their thing. I know there are a lot out there, because my branches extend that way, but I recognize that very few of these women are the women you are going to see on the magazine cover or see on a TV show, or any other kind of mainstream platform, for a variety of reasons. I feel right now there is a huge opportunity for mainstream fitness to be more representative, inclusive, in the images and everything that they are putting out. There are nuances behind the type of food that we talk about, the type of movement that we talk about. There are problems in the way we talk about different bodies as they relate to different races. Generally speaking, I think now fitness looks very skinny, white and young and I don’t think that that is inspiring and motivating for a lot of people.
We are not all skinny, white and young but that doesn’t mean we all can’t be fit and healthy. How do we change what is being put out?
Personally, I feel like there’s a two pronged approach. When it comes to representation, I don’t ever want to feel like we need to rely on the mainstream culture to invite us to the table. Two things need to happen. Women of colour collectively need to come together, keep doing what they are doing but step up, create our own platform, support one another. At the same time, I do think mainstream fitness culture needs to be more inclusive so that they are getting the right people at the table when they are making these kinds of decisions about who they are hiring as their staff, who they are hiring as a model. Even the subject matters that they are speaking of. We can do more for ourselves and I think mainstream can open up and be more representative.
"Generally speaking, I think now fitness looks very skinny, white and young and I don’t think that that is inspiring and motivating for a lot of people."
I do think there is a shift happening and that one day we won’t have to talk about women or women of colour getting a seat at the table, it’ll just be a seat at the table with no discussion about gender or the colour of our skin.
I agree. There’s a huge bubbling right now in Toronto, almost every women of colour in the industry is talking about it either privately with her friends, I’m getting texts about another ad and how tired they are of it. I know other people who are just coming out and saying it, blasting on social media and calling people out.
I think that's a great place to leave it for now. There's so much more we can talk about, and we will.
Connect with Debbie
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