For over a year, Olivia Cotton ’19 has operated Resilience Through Strength, a successful health, wellness, and fitness business.
After graduation, she began working in a PR firm, but soon found her calling somewhere else. “I hated being behind a computer,” she said. Through her job, she had a gym membership, and going to the gym ending up being “the highlight” of her day.
She always wanted to help people and realized she could—in an area she was passionate about. She quit her job “cold turkey” and went to work completing necessary certifications to help people with fitness training, nutrition, and sports performance.
Within two months, she had made a complete career shift. She worked out of gym as an independent contractor under her own LLC.
“It was 100% … scary in terms of avenues to understand what it meant to be an entrepreneur,” she recalled. “But I just knew that I loved what I was doing, what I was getting myself into. And so, it was scary, but also very, very exciting because for the first time, I felt like I was doing the right thing for … myself and … as a career.”
Resigning from the safety of day job isn’t something most people do—even if they dream of a different life and career. Going through four years at VMI equipped Cotton with some values and habits that have helped her current success. Her soccer scholarship was instrumental in her choosing VMI over another school, but the near-universal drive she saw at VMI sealed the deal. Going to VMI, she surrounded herself with “like-minded,” focused people.
“You know, it was obviously not easy, it’s not easy for anyone. And it had its ups and downs. And especially being injured there all those years was definitely not easy either,” she said, recalling navigating VMI’s stairs and hills on crutches. “But it definitely was an experience that is unforgettable and definitely instilled certain values or even just habits that I think have made me successful.”
Cotton suffered multiple injuries during her collegiate athletic career. She translates that experience, and empathy, to her clients, as well.
Dave Lawson, VMI director of sports performance for Olympic sports, “taught me so much in the strength and conditioning room,” Cotton said. “Not only just like in terms of … how to train athletes, but also he taught me a lot about how to train injured athletes or how to build a program around someone that does have, you know, some sort of injury or some something that doesn’t allow them to do everything.”
“But I just knew that I loved what I was doing what I was getting myself into. And so, it was scary, but also very, very exciting because for the first time, I felt like I was doing the right thing for ... myself and ... as a career.”Oliva Cotton ’19
Cotton had surgery for a torn ACL while at VMI. Post-surgery, she was on crutches but “still wanted to be in the gym.” Lawson gave her a program of “everything that I could do,” Cotton remembered. “[He] didn’t really make it feel like I couldn’t do things, it made it just feel as though I was just slightly limited at the time.”
She applies a similar philosophy with her clients, helping them focus on what they can do. “There’s really no limitation that would prevent me being able to help someone, because there’s always something that they can do. And there’s always a way to make it exciting as well.”
Her clients vary widely, Cotton explained. She’s helped elementary school-aged children, people in theirs 50s and 60s, people in wheelchairs, and many others. When she first meets a client, they take some time and talk over goals. Cotton always asks about nutrition, which is a big part of reaching physical goals. She looks at the client’s mobility, flexibility, and any injuries that affect them.
Different from other types of entrepreneurs and businesses, Cotton doesn’t aim to keep clients “forever.” Her goal is to teach her clients lifestyles and habits they can use in their daily lives.
“The point is, you know, you help people, get them to where they need to go, and then you set them free,” she said.
Many people seek out personal trainers to lose weight, gain muscle, or transform their body.
“Even though that’s awesome, I also want them to … leave our training in a better position, also in terms of movement, pattern, and body wise,” Cotton said. She’s also very thoughtful about not overwhelming clients and puts a lot of time into making her training plan fit the client’s life.
Aside from letting her do what she loves every day, Cotton’s business also has the benefit of being both flexible and transferable. Last spring, when gyms shut down for a few months, she met with some clients virtually, and with some outside. Because of COVID-19, she began looking for ways to diversify her income.
An opportunity came in the form of mistaken identity. While working out, someone thought Cotton was a recently-drafted women’s football player. The encounter sparked Cotton’s interest. She contacted the Los Angeles team, tried out, and signed a letter of intent. She’s excited to play a different sport and to be part of a new, historic arena in women’s sports.
“I love playing sports. I love contact sports,” she said. “I’ve always, always wanted to play football.”
She’s working on moving her business from the Atlanta, Georgia, area to Los Angeles and will begin practice in February 2021 with the Los Angeles Fames in the Women’s Football League Association.
Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist
The editorial specialist assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication.