As a trainer on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” Jen Widerstrom’s work involves supporting and pushing contestants to achieve their goals. Now in her second season with the program that is part weight-loss competition, part reality television show, Widerstrom – a former hammer thrower on the University of Kansas track and field team – thinks of her job as a way of sharing the story of the human condition. Last season, this lifelong competitor even got to the top of the podium, coaching Toma Dobrosavljevic to a first-place, 171-pounds-down finish.
Starting with a team of eight, Widerstrom motivates her contestants to reach their potential as they share personal stories with millions of viewers. With a social media audience of nearly a quarter of a million on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, she gives followers a front-row seat to the genuine love she seems to have for the contestants. On her weekly blog, she even refers to Team Jen as “family.”
That idea – that you form a kind of familial bond with your teammates – took root when Widerstrom was a college athlete.
Rock Chalk Foundation
Following a brief stint on the Kansas rowing team, Widerstrom joined the track and field program. A throws coach discovered her raw strength in the weight room. He pictured Widerstrom having the natural athleticism necessary to spin multiple times, maintain balance and launch a heavy object as far as possible, all while staying within the 2.135-meter-diameter hammer circle.
“I owe it all to my track coach, Doug Reynolds,” Widerstrom says of the former Kansas throws coach. “He believed in me well before I did. He was relentless, and people often don’t realize the power that a workout can offer someone as far as their confidence.”
A walk-on who developed into the Big 12 Conference runner-up, Widerstrom placed 19th at the NCAA Division I Women’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 2005. She ended her Jayhawk career with a bachelor’s degree in sport administration and as the school record-holder in the hammer throw with a mark of 191 feet, 11 inches.
Widerstrom fed off the culture Reynolds and the entire athletics department created. She also took note of the community involvement that was embedded within the Jayhawk student-athlete experience. From volunteering with organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Read Across America, Widerstrom recalls many opportunities to make a difference in the Lawrence, Kansas, community.
After graduating from Kansas in 2005, Widerstrom doubled as a bartender and fitness model, posing for companies that advertised with Oxygen and Muscle & Fitness magazines. Much like the throws coach who discovered her in the weight room, the casting director for “American Gladiators” noticed Widerstrom during a photo shoot and asked her to try out for the show.
At 24, Widerstrom was thrilled to earn a living playing games. The native of Lisle, Illinois, was primped each day in hair and makeup before dominating contestants with her physical prowess. Embracing the nickname “Phoenix” and donning hot pink hair, Widerstrom outmuscled and outperformed opponents brave enough to enter the Gauntlet or climb the Pyramid with her.
“‘Gladiators’ showed me a glimpse of what (fitness) can do,” Widerstrom says. “Children would come up to me on the street and say, ‘It’s Phoenix! I want to be strong like her one day!’”
By simply being a 5-foot-6, 155-pound physical force, she inspired. But Widerstrom wanted more than a show that based her value on her appearance. “American Gladiators” lasted just one season – which, Widerstrom says now, forced her to think about the next step in her young career. “The best thing that happened to me with ‘Gladiators,’” she says, “is that it went off the air.”
On to Training
At 25, Widerstrom had some fame but not a lot of direction for her career. She moved to Los Angeles, where working one-on-one as a fitness trainer helped her discover the power of health and fitness. She started using fitness as a vehicle for deeper conversations.
Widerstrom began teaching private and group classes along with programming and starring in fitness videos produced by Men’s Health and Women’s Health magazines. Building relationships and becoming certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, she quickly became a go-to trainer in the industry. Seven years after moving to Los Angeles, she received an important phone call.
“So lo and behold, ‘The Biggest Loser’ knocks on your door,” Widerstrom said. “And here’s the opportunity to be exactly who I am.”