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Woman shares the powerful impact of a 'hardcore' gym bro's words of encouragement

Previous experience had her feeling nervous when the man approached her at the gym, but what he said brought her to tears.

Steph shares how a few simple words made all the difference.

Going to the gym can be a daunting prospect for a lot of people. It shouldn't be—the whole point of going to the gym is to exercise, which is something that should universally be applauded—but sometimes it can feel like there's pressure to be at a certain fitness level or have a certain physique before stepping foot in the door.

For people who are heavier, gym culture can be especially intimidating. Unfortunately, not everyone remembers to practice kindness and fatphobia appears to remain a fairly tolerated prejudice. That shouldn't stop people with big bodies from enjoying all that fitness centers have to offer, but all too often, it does.

It hasn't stopped a woman named Steph from working out regularly at her gym, albeit with some trepidation. As she shared in a hugely viral TikTok, she's experienced some unkind behavior at the gym that made her nervous when a man approached her recently. But her description of the encounter ultimately demonstrated how powerful a few positive words can be.

In a video made from her car just after leaving the gym, Steph explained that a "hardcore" gym-goer who is "super tough" and covered in tattoos had came up to talk to her. Her initial response was to be afraid of what he was going to say to her, based on previous experience. She shared in the video how hard it's been to stay steady with her workouts, especially with medications she's on making her body hold onto weight, but she's been working hard to be consistent. She steeled herself for whatever he might say.

She didn't expect it to be this: "I've seen you in here every week, almost every day. I've seen you in here every week—and I'm proud of you." Nor did she expect that such simple words of encouragement could make such a huge impact.

Watch her tell the story:

@steph5468

#gymprogress #workputjourney #keepgoing #healingjourney

People had a lot to say about the interchange and Steph's emotional response to it.

"People do not realize, how one person can change everything," wrote one commenter.

"Girl you are CRUSHING IT," wrote another. "That man you encountered is what real men do. Encourage. Support. Be human! It isn’t hard! ❤️"

"No one knows your story, your struggles. You're doing the dang thing and that takes courage and strength. You. Keep. Going. I'm proud of you too!" shared another.

More and more words of encouragement flooded Steph's comment section, and people on Upworthy's Instagram page weighed in as well.

"I'm a fitness coach and this made me cry 😢 just having someone say they are proud of you can move mountains for so many of us who didn’t/ don’t get the praise growing up," wrote one person.

"Who knows? He may be going through something too and saw a determined, consistent, fellow traveler," wrote another. "You share your Truth so powerfully. You may not know how many people will see this and be encouraged by your honesty. I’m in awe that you show up for YOURSELF every day. And as for the rude and ill-mannered? Well they struggle too—just to be decent kind human beings. Some people have not been shown Empathy and therefore do not know how to use that muscle. You are beautiful, smart, articulate, wise and a woman who knows where she’s headed. Keep walking, head up knowing there are many many more who do empathize, who see you and are on your side❤️"

"It’s amazing to think about how this man’s single act of kindness, spread through you to affect us all in a positive way," shared another. "This made all of our days, and I’m crying tears of joy while I write this. Please thank him from all of us the next time you see him, if you’re comfortable with that. And thank you for sharing! ❤️"

Indeed, thanks to both Steph and the hardcore, tattooed gym bro for being wonderful examples for us all. We never know what a small act of kindness or a few words of encouragement will do to make someone's life significantly better, but it's always worth trying.


This article originally appeared on 9.5.23

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Retired U.S. Marine Brian Aft was in a dark place after losing both his legs to an IED in Afghanistan.

After going through countless surgeries, Aft turned to heroin when he realized the pain wasn’t going away. In time, he became severely addicted.

One day, as he was heading through a parking lot, a dude the size of an NFL linebacker started running toward him. "You’re gonna get robbed," Brian remembered thinking to himself.


Turns out the dude was an NFL linebacker — David Vobora. He had noticed Aft's injury — and apparent addiction — and all he wanted to do was ask what happened.

Little did Aft know that the question would change the course of his life forever.

Vobora always understood the importance of fighting back.

Picked dead last in the 2008 NFL draft, Vobora has the distinction of being that year’s Mr. Irrelevant. But he clawed tooth and nail and eventually became the first rookie Mr. Irrelevant to start a game in over a decade.

Then in 2011, a devastating shoulder injury derailed his NFL career. Vobora played through the pain until the end of the season. But he developed a serious pain-pill addiction along the way and decided to check himself into rehab.

All images and GIFs via Starbucks.

After going through an intense detox, Vobora started training again. But his drive to play professional football diminished. That’s when he decided to retire. It scared him; football was all he'd ever known.

With the odds stacked against him once again, Mr. Irrelevant found a way to make it work. He moved to Dallas with his family and decided to help other elite athletes at his very own training facility — the Performance Vault.

Vobora’s path took a new turn the day he met retired Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills.

Mills is one of five living veteran quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He, like Aft, was injured by an IED while on patrol.

From the moment Vobora saw him, he was drawn to him. "When was the last time you worked out?" Vobora remembers asking.

"I’m sorry. I don’t want to make you feel like an idiot, but I don’t have arms and legs," replied Mills.

That didn’t matter to Vobora. He didn’t see Mills as an Army vet who'd lost his limbs in battle. He simply saw him as a person who had a body. And as Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman once said, "If you have a body, you are an athlete."

Vobora and Mills got to work. And then they worked some more.

It didn’t matter that Vobora had zero experience training someone with Mills’ condition. All Vobora wanted to do was help Mills see what he was capable of.

In time, Mills began to thrive.

That’s when Vobora realized that no gym he knew of was providing the kind of work that they were doing. What about the other people — whether vet or civilian — who had their own physical disabilities?

"They’ve sort of been sidelined," Vobora says. "They fall into the rehabilitation process, but eventually insurance ran out, cash ran out, and where do they go, right? Where do they go to be apart of a collective group that has this community and this ability to push each other?"

Inspired to make a bigger difference, Vobora started the Adaptive Training Foundation.

It’s a nonprofit designed to empower people with disabilities and restore their confidence through athletic movement. By customizing their plan to what each person can do, they’re able to establish a solid training foundation that has the potential to redefine their physical limits.

This is how men and women like Aft were able to change their lives for the better.

The morning after meeting/getting scared by Vobora, Aft came into the gym and started working out.

He came every day for the next three months.

And he trained alongside other incredible athletes.

All of them were pushing themselves to the absolute limit.

No doubt they did things they never would have done at a normal therapy session.

More than just muscle, the foundation is building a stronger sense of purpose into each and every person it trains.

"They make you stronger," explained Aft. "They instill some insane confidence and self-worth back into you. Not just that, they’re giving you something to do, a place to be, a little sense of community with everybody."

At the end of the day, what sets Vobora apart as a trainer and mentor is his ability to make everyone feel equal, regardless of disability.

Because of the program, these athletes are able to shatter barriers they thought were set in stone. But you know what? They powered right through, lifted that dang stone, and hurled it as far away as humanly possible.

It was just like any other daily run for Andrew Jones. He put one foot in front of the other. He breathed in. He breathed out. He made it to the mailbox, but he knew something wasn't right.

"It kind of felt like my lungs had turned into sponges. Like I was breathing through a sponge."

That bizarre feeling first happened in 2012. And it would change his life forever.


Andrew Jones. Image via ajFitness/YouTube.

Labored breathing would alarm anyone, but for Andrew, an avid runner and fitness hound, it was particularly worrisome.

After his run, he called his doctor and requested to see someone right away. Two specialists and 24 hours of heart monitoring later, Andrew was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy.

"I didn't really know much about what it meant," Andrew said. "I was still very strong, getting my workouts in at the gym like normal, just being young and feeling invincible."

Andrew at his gym. Photo courtesy of Andrew Jones.

So after that one troubling run, Andrew kept working out. But his symptoms started getting worse.

Andrew, now 26, has loved the gym since college. He found an unexpected home there and noticed that regular workouts kept him focused and disciplined. "The best way to explain it is that being active is in my blood," he said. 

But soon his fatigue and shortness of breath turned into pain and weakness that left him, at times, unable to stand up for more than 10 minutes.

Eventually, Andrew suffered heart failure. He was coughing up blood and had to be rushed to the hospital. There, doctors told him that if he didn't get a heart transplant soon, he could die.

Andrew in the hospital, recording his journey back to health. Image via ajFitness/YouTube.

That was two years ago. 

He is still awaiting a heart transplant and relies on an artificial heart and a pacemaker to keep him alive.

While he waits, Andrew is doing something few people awaiting a transplant would do. He has become a professional fitness model.

As you can see, Andrew doesn't hide from his scars. Nor does he hide from the tubes coming in and out of his body that operate his artificial heart.

Instead, he wants those things to inspire others. He wants people to know that whatever your goals are, you shouldn't let anything, including a near-death experience, stand in your way.

Everywhere Andrew goes, he carries a backpack. Inside it is the machine pumping blood through his veins and keeping him alive. The literal weight on his shoulders is a constant reminder of how close he came to losing everything.

"Tomorrow's not guaranteed for any of us," Andrew said. "For someone in my situation, it’s guaranteed a lot less. ... Two and a half, three years ago? I probably would've taken waking up in the morning for granted."

Now, he says, he's grateful for every single morning he gets.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Jones.

Andrew knows that everyone has goals. Whether it's starting a business, paying off bills, or writing a book.

"If there’s something that’s on your mind 24/7 that you can’t stop thinking about, you need to act on it," he said.

Andrew uses his body and his mind to inspire people all over the world. On his Instagram, he spreads messages of hope and acceptance, calling on people everywhere to embrace the hand they were dealt and push forward. 

"I want people to leave with a little more motivation than they came in with," Andrew said.

In all of his photos, scars and medical equipment are on proud display.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Jones.

They remind people that no matter what you're up against, you can achieve incredible things. 

Andrew has also started a foundation called Hearts at Large, which raises awareness for organ donation and collects the stories of people whose lives have been saved by it. 

For Andrew, paying it forward is not just a thing he occasionally does, it’s a mantra for his life. 

It's only been out for a few days, and Pokémon Go is already an international phenomenon, with players around the world doing what they can to "catch 'em all."

One of the more interesting stories, however, comes from Topeka, Kansas, home of the Westboro Baptist Church.

In the real world, the Westboro Baptist Church is known mostly as a hate group. But in the world of Pokémon Go, the church is listed as a gym, meaning it can be "fought for" by nearby players. Locals looking to troll the notorious church jumped at the opportunity.


Over the weekend, someone with a Clefairy Pokémon nicknamed "LoveIsLove" took control of the gym:


Amazing, right?

The church responded with its usual brand of cartoon-villain-like hatred.


I was interested in finding out who was behind the "LoveIsLove" Clefairy, and I had a pretty good idea of where to start.

I had a hunch that Davis Hammet, director of operations at the organization Planting Peace, might be the human behind the Clefairy.

Planting Peace is a nonprofit best known for the Equality House, a rainbow-colored house located across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church. Equality House bills itself as a symbol of compassion, peace, and positive change, and it serves as a resource center for Planting Peace's human rights and anti-bullying initiatives.


All screenshots courtesy of Davis Hammet.

In other words, Equality House strives to be Westboro's polar opposite — and it does a pretty good job.

Interestingly, Equality House is also included in the game as its own Pokéstop, a place where players can refuel on potions, Pokéballs, and other items.

In contrast to Westboro Baptist Church being a gym — a place of battle — it all kind of makes sense in its own way.

I reached out to Hammet, who told me that while he could confirm the person behind the "LoveIsLove" Clefairy was a teammate who helped take control of the WBC gym, he didn't know their identity in the real world.

In the days since "LoveIsLove" took control of the Westboro gym, its ownership has changed hands several times.

Hammet had an idea: He would win the gym back.

He hung up the phone and headed across the street to reclaim what was once his.

Along the way, he ran into a Staryu and sent along a photo of the the wild Pokémon with one of Westboro's hateful signs looming close behind.

It was certainly a sight to behold.


There, he and his Pokémon, which he nicknamed "Stop Hate!" won back control of the church. It was a symbolic victory, declared in the name of love and trolling.

Neat, right? All in a day's work, Hammet said.

"Planting Peace counters major messages of hate wherever they are, from Pokémon Go to the Republican convention."

Equality House attracts around 150 visitors per day, and with its new status as a Pokéstop, it's only seen traffic increase over the past few days.

The game may seem silly to some, but for others, it's having a big effect on their lives.

The Westboro Baptist Church battle is just one of many interesting narratives that have emerged from Pokémon Go's release.

Others include stories of strangers becoming friends and people claiming that the game's structure has helped them cope with depression.

More than 20 years since the Pokémon brand hit the U.S., it's still going strong.