Kelli Vandermoer is game for anything. The 24 Hour Fitness personal trainer, now a member of USA Rowing and a U.S. Olympic hopeful, sees the irony when she recalls declining an invitation to try the sport in college (“they went out at 4 a.m.”). She also considers the possibility that the challenges she has faced since then have brought her not only full circle, but also closer to her life’s dream.

Vandermoer earned her first dance class as a reward for reading books. After that studio experience, she kept dancing until college. I did tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop and lyrical dance,” she says, and she was competing on stage.

But other girls her age were playing soccer and other sports, so her mom put her in the game. Athletic and tall, Vandermoer says, “I guess that’s why they put me on an all-guys’ team.” (At that age, she wasn’t having any of it.) In high school, she tried gymnastics, ran cross-country and track and was urged by coaches to try other sports. (High jump emerged as a favorite while she still dabbled in volleyball, long jump and hurdles.)

At Cal State Humboldt, multiple teams continued to court Vandermoer. The track and field coach encouraged her to go out for the heptathlon (a two-day event including high jump, long jump, the 200 meter dash, the 800 meter dash, shot put, javelin and 100-meter hurdles). The rowing team invited her to come out.

Life came to a halt

And then life came to a halt when Vandermoer lost her dad. “It was unexpected. I had come home for summer, and it happened,” she says. “I tried to go back to Humboldt because I thought he would have wanted it, but it became really hard to be away from my mom and alone [at school], because I’m not from there.”

With the help of a coach, Vandermoer was able to transfer to Cal State East Bay (Hayward, California) and retain her competitive status, although her new coach saw her potential for yet more events. She continued to push herself and adapt to new challenges.

“Then at the end of that year, I got myself into a lovely car accident,” she says.

Her athletic ambitions on hold, Vandermoer moved to Sacramento where her mom lived. “24 Hour Fitness was just up the street from the house that I moved into,” she says. “So, I went there right away and then within two weeks was working there.” Vandermoer eventually became a personal trainer and continued to train herself.

A door opened

Vandermoer stayed in touch with her coaches but had lost momentum due to her injuries. Resuming national competition is challenging, she says, “unless you somehow get seen by someone.” After dismissing previous tryouts for Next Olympic Hopeful, Presented by Milk Life  held at 24 Hour Fitness, she decided in April 2019 to take part.

24Life asked her what it was like to re-enter the competitive realm and ultimately, triumph—and her secret to rebounding from extraordinary challenges.

24Life: What was it like to participate in the tryouts for the Next Olympic Hopeful?

Kelli Vandermoer: I thought it went terrible. First, I did the vertical jump and I’m very critical about my jumping. [My performance was] good for a woman in general, but for me it was upsetting. … The pull-up bar was metal, and I thought great, I have sweaty hands and I don’t have gloves. I was [comparing myself to others], thinking this is terrible, why did I come? Kelli, what’s wrong with you?

24Life: And the sprint test started from a dead stop, not what you were expecting. So how did you feel after all of that?

KV: I was so upset. Eventually I thought at least I did it. It was for fun. A month later, I was taking a nap and I missed a call. I didn’t recognize the number, but I called it back and this guy said, “Hi, Kelli?” and asked me, “Did you get the email?” I said “What email? I don’t know what we’re talking about.” Then he said, “For Next Olympic Hopeful—you were accepted.” I thought he was joking!

24Life: Obviously you realized it wasn’t a joke, and you’re a seasoned athlete, but were there any surprises for you in competition at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs?

KV: It was hard! You can only prepare so much. You have athletes of all types and these people all mean business. It was awesome because everyone is on the same page, everyone is so goal-oriented.

You get chosen for a sport and I was chosen by rowing. During filming, I was asked, “If you could pick one of the sports what would it be?” and I said, “Rowing.” It was cool to have said that at the beginning of this adventure and to have been picked for it.

24Life: What’s something that people might not know about the physical demands of rowing?

KV: The singles boat takes balance and the stability. At the first camp, I ended training in a bigger, heavier [singles] boat. At this camp, the coach said heads up, [this boat is] a little smaller than last time. … Someone helped me lock my oars in … I’m trying to get stable, and you stabilize by putting your hands out while sitting back. But my right oar isn’t fully tightened. I put my hands out and my oar flies out, and I go in [the water].

24Life: But you managed to get through the rest of the camp.

KV: Yes, and we ended in singles again and the coach put me back in the same boat! When you get rowing down, you feel like you’re flying. That’s why I want to get so good at it, because it feels awesome. Something my coach said will always stick with me. She said, “Olympians aren’t born. You guys are just a little more crazy than everyone else.”

24Life: What does that mean for you?

KV: A lot of personal development books I’ve read say that you need to get out of your comfort zone. One of the things [that impressed me] about the book “The Secret” was the law of attraction. Something that I always had on my goal board was “the Olympics.” I didn’t say for what [sport], just “being at the Olympics,” and it was always at the top of the board.

I feel like this came at the right time because I was at the point where I needed to decide what was next, since sports and school have been my focus. There’s something about [being chosen for USA Rowing] that excites me because we may become good at rowing, but who knows where it’s going to take us.

24Life: You have the benefit of understanding goals as an athlete and as a personal trainer. Why do you think people struggle with goals?

KV: Everyone can have a goal (and who cares if your goal is to look like someone). If someone inspires you, then get after it—as long as it’s not something that’s going to negatively affect you. As long as you have a “why,” that’s all that matters. Without a “why,” you’ll continue running into walls that feel inevitable and discouraging, keeping you from ever reaching your full potential.

24Life: Is there something that you learned about yourself that surprised you along your journey?

KV: The biggest thing is that nothing can stop you, except for yourself. I’ve had so many different directions set up for me, and it’s felt like a failure when I haven’t completed them—for example, track. I can’t blame losing my dad. I can only look at it for what I gained from it. If I had never come to Sacramento, thanks to my car accident, I would never have met the people that inspired me to go for it.

We’re the only ones that can stop ourselves. … Anything can knock you down, but one day that door will open and there will be an opportunity you never saw coming that becomes one of the most important and out-of-this-world experiences of your life. Don’t be afraid to live your best life!

Check out the 24GO Daily Challenge workout inspired by Kelli Vandermoer!