If someone sees me or meets me and maybe they had a different idea about me (even subconsciously) I would like to change their mind on what it means to be strong as someone who is Asian and a woman.
Shawn Axelbank is a friend of a friend. Our mutual friend is Demi Ward (who’s beautiful shots accompany Shawn’s interview). She just happened to be working out at the Lower East Side F45 studio when she came across Shawn. Unpromptedly, Demi approached her after class with a specific question in mind. After shooting in the fitness space for a couple of years, Demi recognized that Asian Pacific Islanders were underrepresented. Knowing that we were looking for a model for our photoshoot, Shawn was ready to go in WOLACO women gear the next day.
Shawn’s active life started in gymnastics after her parents recognized her talent for climbing over couches. She was adopted from South Korea as a baby, and her Korean identity has always been important to her (she spent a year after college in Seoul teaching English). Originally a hospitality administration and management major, once she received her personal training certificate, she knew she had found the right career path in fitness helping people stay active throughout their lifetime. Today, she just stepped into a new but familiar role as an assistant manager for Flywheel in TriBeCa.
It didn’t take us long to realize we wanted to work with Shawn beyond just the photoshoot and WOLACO Wednesday. Immediately, we felt comfortable and inspired by her. Her passion is so genuine it’s easy to get excited about what she is excited about - like the changing attitude women have towards how working out makes them feel rather than look - especially Korean women. She’s just at the start of something big, and we look forward to letting this interview be one of the first of many spotlights shined on Shawn.
WE START OUR INTERVIEWS LIKE WE DO OUR WORKOUT, WITH A WARM-UP.
My active Way of Life is varied. I love keeping active in all types of ways. Growing up I did a lot of different sports. I started with gymnastics. That really helped build a strong foundation of knowing my body. As an adult, I love trying new things. I tend to get bored of routine in a lot of aspects of my life. I box, cycle, lift, yoga, and even cardio dance. Which, unfortunately, my coordination does not translate in that department haha.
In the morning you can find me drinking coffee on the way to the gym or studio! Listening to some music or a podcast.
At night you can find me cooking dinner at home. Relaxing. Eating. Getting ready for bed. Probably watching re-runs of New Girl (I tend to leave light tv that I’ve already seen on in the background). My brain needs time to decompress before bed and anything too serious is too much.
What time do you wake up in the morning? I usually wake up at 4:45 AM. And this is the only part of my day that has been a routine. Because I wake up so early, I prepare my coffee, food and clothes the night before. I hate being rushed or have a panicked feeling before leaving the house so I always make sure I’m ready to go.
What gets you out of bed in the morning? Knowing that there are people waiting for me to workout! I’m motivated by their motivation! It’s literally my job to get up. They’re getting up for a 6am class completely by choice and that’s amazing.
Do you have any routines? And if so, what is your favorite? Other than my evening into morning routine, not really. Right now I have some job changes, and I think I’ll start some new smaller routines as far as when to fit in my own workouts and the types of workouts I want to do during the week. Being in New York and commuting all over you do have to plan a little or else you can waste a lot of time, and no one has time for that.
Best workout you’ve ever had: Ohhh that’s a hard one. I’ve had some challenging workouts in my life. Well, it’s not exactly a workout. But I’ve gone on some challenging hikes. When I can, I love to get outdoors, and I really enjoy hiking. Last summer I hiked Mount Washington with my younger cousin - and we did the hardest trail. And it definitely was hard! That kind of exercise that is slow but long just wipes you out at the end of the day. But it was amazing. We even saw a moose.
What’s a goal would you set for yourself tomorrow? Drink enough water! It’s been really hot, and I’ve been bad about hydrating enough.
What was your last “epiphany” or moment of realizing something impactful to you? I realized this a while ago but still something that resonates every day for me. The energy you put out is the energy you get back. Whether in your personal or professional life, even the energy you put into yourself will be reflected. You’d be surprised at how much of what you receive is a reflection of what you are putting out. So once you become aware, and you can recognize and own that energy then if you want or need you can start changing it. And hopefully, make changes that will better you and those around you.
The energy you put out is the energy you get back. Whether in your personal or professional life, even the energy you put into yourself will be reflected...once you become aware, and you can recognize and own that energy, then if you want or need you can start changing it.
What’s one way you like to care for yourself? I’m a sucker for a good face mask.
NOW FOR THE ENDURANCE ROUND - LET'S GET PERSONAL.
WOLACO Women: You mentioned that you were adopted and grew up in the Bronx. What is your family’s relationship with fitness and how did they nurture your passion for fitness while you were growing up?
Shawn Axelbank: My parents knew from the time I started walking (which was early, around 2 years old I believe) that I needed to run and move around. I was constantly climbing all over the furniture. My dad had a friend who recommended gymnastics and so they put me in. It was a perfect fit. I was able to tumble and run around and get out all my energy. My brother is 6 years older than me and he was put into little league. We grew up in a baseball household (big Mets fans - in the Bronx I know! Not common). He played all kinds of sports as well, mostly baseball and hockey. My parents were very supportive and encouraging in our household. My mom did not grow up playing sports because society at the time didn’t encourage it the way they do boys. But she knew it was very important and wanted a daughter who could do all those kinds of things. My dad was my little league coach growing up - as well as my brother’s.
WW: You were born in South Korea - have you gone back to visit? And how have your roots in Korea impacted your life?
SA: I did go back several times. Once in high school with my parents on a trip organized by the adoption agency. Then I returned for the summers following my freshman, sophomore and junior year of college. After I graduated I went to teach English in Seoul for two years. Being Korean was always part of my life in some way. Although my family is not, they made sure I was exposed to the culture and knew enough about where I came, so that when it came time that I wanted to know more, they were extremely supportive. Also, growing up in New York City, you are fortunate to be around so many different cultures and backgrounds.
WW: Your positive spirit seems almost effortless. Have you ever had a really difficult experience that tested this for you?
SA: Thank you! I definitely try to maintain a positive outlook on life. I actually had major surgery my senior year of college and my mouth was wired shut (nothing bad happened! No accidents or anything like that) but I did have my mouth wired shut for 6 weeks. That was extremely difficult. I think the way I looked at it was that it simply had to be done and once it was over, it would be over forever. If I know there is a light at the end of the tunnel and I can see it, I have a strong mental capacity to push through uncomfortable times. I think everyone works in more or less the same way, some have higher tolerances than others. But if you truly believe and know that in the end it will be worth it, whatever uncomfortable or difficult thing you may go through is doable.
WW: NYC is not the place most people think of when it comes to being around nature and the outdoors. How have you been able to include nature into both your personal and active life since your move back to NYC?
SA: That is true and it has been a challenge! To be honest, I have not done as much as I’d like in that area. But, what I have found as far as trying to get the peace and quiet aspect, is that working in the fitness industry, if you’re teaching those 6am classes, you get to see New York at its quietest and most peaceful times. And I do actually enjoy those moments very much. I also like to ride my bike as much as I can. I generally go short distances because but I live near Prospect Park, and I have taken it around the loop and that has been enjoyable!
as far as trying to get the peace and quiet aspect, is that working in the fitness industry, if you’re teaching those 6am classes, you get to see New York at its quietest and most peaceful times.
WW: Since you cite others’ success as your primary source of motivation, do you have a particularly touching/impactful story of a client that inspires you?
SA: To be honest, I can’t think of just one off the top of my head. There are clients who come in consistently and regularly where I can see the difference in strength and appearance, and that is always amazing to witness. But I always ask how they feel because how they feel is the important question. I try to emphasize that as much as I can as a trainer. We all want to look good, of course, but feeling good is THE thing. So, any client who can tell me that since they’ve started, that they feel better, is inspiring to me.
WW: Your background in hospitality and restaurants shows that you’ve always had a passion for people and elevating others’ lives. What’s one thing you think you bring to the fitness world that’s wholly yours and unique to you?
SA: I think at the end of the day, I don’t take myself too seriously. I try to have fun, I try to make it about the personal connection as much as I can. Fitness can be so intimidating to people, and if you can just peel back a layer for them to see, “hey look I’m a regular person, but I just happen to be in a minority of people who really, really enjoy working out and being sore haha”, it helps make it enjoyable and attainable.
WW: We’re fascinated by the topic of diversity as it relates to all fields of life. Can you elaborate on your experiences as a Korean woman in the fitness industry? What challenges have you faced, overcome, and continue to struggle with now?
SA: I am happy to say that I have not had any outright negative or offensive experiences with being a Korean woman in the fitness industry. I think now that I’m in the industry I can really see there is a lack of Asian women (and men) in the industry. And that is a challenge in it of itself. I know from living in Asia, that generally, Asian women are still afraid of putting on too much muscle and becoming “bulky.” I think women everywhere are still getting over that. So, it’s hard to say if Asian women aren’t being represented because they’re being overlooked, or if they haven’t hit the scene yet? Although I did not grow up in an Asian household, I know some of the stereotypes of pursuing certain careers and the standards of success can be measured differently. Perhaps culturally it is still not seen as a viable career path. But, the more people see something, the more they get used to it right? That is what I have in the back of my mind, I am aware of my Asian-ness and I do think about that when I work out or coach. If someone sees me or meets me and maybe they had a different idea about me (even subconsciously) I would like to change their mind on what it means to be strong as someone who is Asian and a woman.
BEFORE YOU GO, HERE’S A QUICK COOL DOWN
WW: What is one message, if any, that you would share for women with intersectional identities?
SA: I believe that you should be who you are. You shouldn’t take yourself too seriously (because we all need balance), but if you do happen to have a platform, be cognizant of the message you may be putting out to the world. The world we live in is definitely struggling in many ways, but I actually think our capacity for empathy and understanding is very high, we’re just not using it well overall as a whole. I know so many strong and impressive women personally and professionally that I believe women are leading the way in many ways, and I hope we can see more of it.
Interview by: Linley Shaw + Anne Kramer