You may have heard of fitness changing someone’s mindset, or improving their self-confidence. You’ve probably even heard of fitness changing the quality of someone’s life by having a huge impact on their health. But saving someone’s life? That’s a whole different ballgame.
For former American college football player, wrestler turned half-ironman competitor, and strength coach, Alexa Towersey (you may know her as Action Alexa on instagram), and ex-competitive gymnast, BMX racer and now multidiscipline high-performance athlete and coach, Jenna Louise, the latter couldn’t be any more literal. Experiencing situations and accidents that would be the undoing of most of us, these two power woman have stories that are nothing short of inspiring.
Here, they share with us their stories of surviving and thriving, just in time for the launch of their new podcast – How Fitness Saved My Life – where Alexa and Jenna invite a guest in to share their incredible story of recovery, from surviving life-threatening situations, to recovering from terrible accidents, to using trauma to drive their success, and how they’ve rebuilt their minds and bodies after this event to achieve something they never thought would be possible for them.
Alexa Towersey battled through significant health issues having died on an operating table four times and she credits fitness with turning her life around after overcoming alcoholism and addiction. Her own personal struggles have inspired her to become a passionate advocate for positive physical and mental health. She now trains some of Australia’s top businesspeople, athletes, and Hollywood stars. Here is her story.
I was a military brat growing up – both my parents were in the British Army. My Dad was a major and my Mum, a medic specialising in gun shot wounds. They were away a lot – my Dad fought in the Faulklands war and my earliest memory of him was me sitting on his foot begging him not to leave. Consequently, I was left to entertain myself in the mess. I used to stay up late watching The Twilight Zone, scaring myself half to death – that could be where my love of horror movies began.
Dad played semi professional football and cricket for the army, and often I wonder if he would have preferred a boy as he basically tried to immerse me in all the sports that he loved. Turned out I was a terrible cricketer (he took me to Lords to watch a game and all I did was run around and around the pitch until we left), but I could get by in soccer because I was little and quick. I was an active kid, but I think if you had asked me then what I wanted to do with my life, it probably wouldn’t have involved the health and fitness industry. I always thought I would be a vet until I realised that euthanasia was a real thing.
My true journey within the fitness industry began when I was 15, and this is when two things happened: First, I was bullied at school for being too skinny – my nickname was Alexa Anorexa. And secondly, my Mum was diagnosed with Manic Depression (bipolar).
I started going to the gym on a mission for muscles, and I got them. But along the way, the gym – more specifically the weights room – became my sanctuary. The place where I felt safe. The place where I felt in control. The place where I felt empowered. And it was here that i first discovered the connection between developing physical strength and the mental toughness and resilience that came with that. I realised that when I feel physically strong, I think strong thoughts.
I’ve had some pretty big pivot points in my life, but I think the true turning point was my dad dying of alcoholism. Following my Mum’s mental illness diagnosis, she tried to take her life. I intervened, but while she may have survived, i think something in our relationship died. And if you asked me what my Dad thought about the situation, I have zero idea because we never spoke about it.
Back in those days, there was no awareness or education or support networks around mental health or suicide, and I don’t think either Dad or I knew what to do or what to say. Dad’s coping mechanism was to drink, and he was an alcoholic from the time I was 16.
He was a functioning alcoholic until he wasn’t. And the full extent of his addiction was revealed to me one day at uni where he asked me to drive him to the bottle store to get him more whiskey, and I refused. I didn’t want to be an enabler. But, he just told me that if I didn’t take him, he would just drive drunk. I cried and I screamed at him: “didn’t he know he was killing himself?”, “didn’t he care that he’d probably never walk me down the aisle or give a speech at my wedding, or see any grandkids?”
He turned to me and said “Alexa, i wish i could tell you that I loved you enough to stop, but I can’t.” He broke my heart that day. And I realised that when it comes to addiction, you can’t love someone out of it, and you can’t guilt them out of it either.
I was 29 when he died of liver cirrhosis as a direct consequence of being an alcoholic. I flew back to NZ from HK, but by the time I got there, he had deteriorated and was already unconscious – I stayed by his bedside hoping that he’d wake up so I could tell him I loved him just once more, but he never did. It’s funny, I spent the whole of my later 20’s just waiting for that phonecall, but when the moment finally arrived, it didn’t make it any easier.
I went to his funeral, I drank his last bottle of whisky, I danced on the tables. I then fell off the tables, threw up all over myself, fell in a ditch and missed my flight home. I woke up in the morning and said to my then partner “I’m never drinking again”. He laughed and said “yeah yeah, until next weekend”. I flew back to Hong Kong and I never touched a drop of alcohol again. It’s been 14 years.
I have no doubt that if I had continued to drink, I would have killed myself just like my Dad.
They say that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety – it’s connection. I found my first sense of connection when i found the gym, but I found my second sense of connection when i found my Dad’s whisky bottle. And I’d have to say that I led a dual life from the time I was 15 – during the week I went to the gym to feel strong and during the weekend I got drunk to feel like I fit in. I used alcohol as a crutch. I didn’t enjoy the taste, i just enjoyed the feeling of being drunk. I used alcohol to mask insecurity. I used it to bury emotion. I used it to bolster self confidence. And being an all or nothing type of girl – I didn’t have an off switch.
When I was 15, I drank my first hip flask of rum. I was so ill, I was never able to drink it again.
When I was 17, I got so drunk at the pre-drinks to my school ball that I passed out and had to be taken home. I lied to parents and said my drink had been spiked because i was terrified of what they would do.
For my 21st birthday, I drank 21 tequila shots. In a row. Before I sat under the bar, threw up and then left my own party to gatecrash a rugby function upstairs by telling them i was a cheerleader. I was so drunk, one of the cheerleaders had to take me home.
When I was 23, one of my best mates’ boyfriends told me that my friends adored me but I was really hard to love when I was drunk. I cried and drank some more.
When I was 25, I got so drunk that when I got out of a cab, I fell over, hit my head on the curb and knocked myself out. Two people passing by found me and called an ambulance. I woke up in hospital on a drip.
And still it would take me another few years and the death of my Dad to get me to quit. Getting Sober was the best albeit the hardest decision I have ever made. It’s still amazing to me how confrontational it can be for other people, when the choices you make about your own life seem to indirectly challenge their own lifestyle choices. For lack of a better term, it was almost social suicide for me. I lost entire groups of friends overnight because who was I to them outside of a drinking buddy. And it was the beginning of the end of my relationship – apparently a lot of what we had in common was being drunk on the dance floor.
I was lucky that when I first made the decision, a friend of a friend had been through drug and alcohol rehabilitation and had been sober 4 years.
I remember going to her and saying “how the f*ck do you do this? What’s your outlet? I’m so angry and frustrated and I don’t know what to do with myself?”
Her answer: “You have to find a hobby. You have to find something to do that gives you purpose. You have to find something bigger than yourself.”
Her partner and her had been doing some fun triathlon training so I went on a couple of Sunday rides. I ended up joining the triathlon club, hiring a swim coach (I’d never been taught to swim), and signing up for some races. riathlon training gave me purpose, it gave me something to do in the weekends so I wasn’t sitting at home by myself with FOMO while everyone else was out partying, but more importantly, it gave me an entirely new community of people who understood exactly what it was I was trying to do, and absolutely supported me to be the best version of myself.
Within two and a half years, I’d transitioned to half Ironman, and managed to qualify for the World Champs. I guess initially you could say I traded one addiction for another, but eventually I didn’t need either.
I always get asked “how to stop” But there is no one size fits all solution or easy way out. There is no right time. Many people don’t have that final event that tips them over the edge, or that confronting conversation. Many people don’t experience consequences bad enough to have to change. And we talk about rock bottom, but some people have a black hole. People love this romanticized Hollywood notion where the hero hits rock bottom, has a lightning bolt epiphany and goes forth to never drink again. But it’s not like that, getting sober can be a long and messy process and you don’t need to be an ‘alcoholic’ to need to do it.
In Australia, one person dies every 90 minutes because of alcohol and that is terrifying to me. But at the end of the day, it’s not necessarily the drinking that’s bad, it’s the way in which we’re drinking. To enjoy a social occasion with mates – awesome. Enjoy. But to escape your reality? Not so great. Address it.
Today, life is amazing. All of those lessons I learnt early on – I’m getting to share them. I get to empower people through their training, I get to encourage people to normalise talking about their mental health and asking for help, and I get to enjoy EVERYTHING that life has to offer.
I think as you get older, you really learn who you are, what you stand for and what’s important to you. You learn how to better ask for the things you want,and get more comfortable saying no to the things you don’t. Since I stopped drinking, I don’t have hangovers and there are no wasted days.
A few years back, I read a book called One Hundred Things by Sebastian Terry. He wrote about turning 28 and losing a friend to suicide and through that experience, coming to realise that there’s more to life than going to work just to pay the bills. He created a bucket list and found that the more items he ticked off and the more people he met through those items, the more opportunities that he managed to create indirectly. It really reminded me how much I love adventure, being outside, pushing boundaries and facing fears. Since then I’ve made sure to satisfy my inner adrenaline junky – I’ve done the highest bungy in the Southern Hemisphere, been skydiving at 15,000 feet, ran off a cliff to go hang gliding and went cage diving with sharks.
I’ve now signed up for The Mongol Derby – the longest and toughest horse race in the world based on the messenger system of Genghis Khan. In July, 35 of us from around the world will fly to China where we will attempt to race 1000kms across the Mongolian Desert on semi wild horses. Fingers crossed I survive the wild dogs, wolves and drunken nomads.
Jenna Louise: “It took a good 8 years for me to reach my turning point.”
When a back injury stopped her Olympics gymnastics dream in its tracks, Jenna Louise found new ways to challenge herself, becoming a qualified master trainer as well as nutrition coach and mentor. The self-confessed fitness fanatic has wowed viewers with her strength and agility on the Nine Network’s Australian Ninja Warrior and Seven’s Ultimate Tag. This is her story.
For as long as I can remember I had focused on my fitness but I can’t say the same for my health.
I knew I was good at everything physical, and when I’m good at something I take it as far as I possibly can and generally neglect the rest. Being a young athlete and super active from BMX racing, trick blading, athletics to competitive gymnastics I had created a version of myself that bred success, discipline and determination. I had the competitive edge wired deep within and there was no slowing me down.
But despite the smiles through all of my success, I was living with a crippling health challenge: Bulimia. For years the battles were all internal, the dialogue was on a looping repeat. Same mind bashing day in day out. I might have come across confident but remember how much I disliked myself. I remember how much the Bulimia controlled EVERYTHING I did. My eating disorder impacted my entire life for 8-10 years and I was in constant negotiation with myself multiple times a day, making and breaking self-agreements and I used my fitness as an element of control and as an outlet to escape the head-talk.
In saying that, it took a good 8 years for me to reach my turning point. The need for betterment in my performance and abilities was at the forefront of my mind. I was fuelled with drive, hunger and will to be the best version of myself but I knew there was one major element that was holding me back from reaching my full potential. My health!
So I begun educating myself in anything I could, I had no limits because I wanted to do it all and I wanted to be in control of my life. I owned my own dog grooming business for 10 years, spray tanning business and i studied graphic design in my spare time, all while I worked full time in the public service.
At the time my full-time desk job was a major challenge for me as I was being bullied at work by a co-worker and experiencing verbal abuse from her partner outside of work so this gave me the extra motivation to strive towards leaving the Government and creating the career I’d always dreamt of within the Health & Fitness Industry.
My 10 years within the Government approached and I took my long service leave to study my Master Certification and Nutrition Coaching at the Australian Institute of Fitness full time while on long service leave.
But leaving wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped. My relationship at the time dictated and controlled my direction in life and altered my vision I had for myself. So once again I was faced with another challenge. I needed to take back control of my life.
Another 3 years and the penny dropped!
Everything became about how others wanted me to live my life rather than how I wanted to live my life. So I had to tap into the hardened version of me, the resilient and independent Jenna I had created over all these years of disciple, dedication and commitment through my training. I realised everything I ever needed I already had within!
I found my voice, I began to take charge of myself and the direction I wanted to take my life. This was incredibly self-empowering and made me realise how much I missed my independence.
It didn’t take long before I started taking back control. I became happier, I became more fulfilled and driven, I began to see things from a completely different perspective like I had a second chance at this thing called life.
But the biggest reward of all was the feelings of needing to act on destructive behaviours with my Bulimia gradually became less and less. The distance between purges became longer, the more food I was holding down, the more I was nourishing my body, the faster and stronger I became and more I noticed the adaptions in my performance. I was creating a healthier, happier and fitter version of myself from the inside out! I was healing!
It didn’t happen overnight, It took years of consistency, fails, self-love, more fails, patience and inner belief and did i say self-love, in fact an ABUNDANCE of self-love to recover from not only the eating disorder but more so the head talk that TRIGGERS you to take action on those destructive voices. Fast forward to now. I still have those voices, but they are now whispers that I don’t take action on. I value myself, my body, and its abilities.
I can safely say now that my physical abilities and my headstrong attitude has lead me through a highly challenging yes very successful and extremely gratifying 36 years…. especially since taking the leap of faith 6 years ago to leave everything I ever knew to pursue what others considered just a hobby and make it my full time career. A career that I love so much and one that I am so passionate about. It’s evident that I am on a mission to not only better myself but to do what I can to better the world.
I am always on the improve. Always doing the work to understand why I have certain programming and how to alter it to move me beyond the sticky parts of life. Personally, I’ve invited external guidance from professionals from; Reiki to help with energy healing; Hypnosis to help shift old beliefs and habits; Kinesiology to help with biofeedback and imbalances in the body (stress, nutrition & injuries) to name a few to help me navigate my inner world.
For me, there is no finish line. The process is forever. Always becoming. Forever evolving, endlessly learning.