By Holly Rilinger
Holly Rilinger did not set out to be multi-directional in her fitness career. From a very early age, she was hyper-focused toward playing pro basketball, extremely determined, with her eye on the prize. She did make it to play on a pro basketball team — but it was a long and winding road to that day, and a long and winding road each day afterwards, deciding what to do when her short WNBA career ended in injury. Through it all, Holly has stayed flexible and true to herself. Today she is a Nike master trainer, a Flywheel master trainer, runs her own personal training business, and is a contributing editor at publications like Fitness and Self magazines. Here, Holly explains how she has been able to succeed by staying flexible and keeping it real.
Your dream was always to play pro basketball, but you were challenged by your shorter height. How were you able to be flexible and find ways around that, and what kept you determined?
The funny thing is that I never saw my height as an obstacle. Everyone else did. I knew for a fact that I would play professional basketball, and that was all I knew. As I got older, I began to understood how height could have worked in my favor, but I just made sure I worked harder than anyone I came head to head with. So it just didn’t matter. I looked at everything as possible and nothing as impossible. It’s easy to lose that mindset as we get older, but it’s the magic that makes everything possible and dreams come true. We should never EVER lose that perspective on life — it’s the single most important ingredient.
What did it feel like to finally play a game for the WNBA?
Amazing. Surreal. Scary. What a long road it was to get there. My journey to the pros is not a fairytale story, it was full of disappointment and failure. I am amazed with myself when I look back and see how much FIGHT I had to have to make it. I just didn't see my life going any other way though, I WOULD NOT accept another road.
When I graduated from college, the WNBA had not formed. My father had a friend who played in New Zealand. He handed me a list of contacts, and I called every last one until a coach in Taranaki agreed to sign me — for a plane ticket, a place to live, and a car. I said YES, and shared none of those details with friends! I took that team the Championship. The next day, I was signed by the agents who passed me up the year before, and finally had my first paid contract. I had a legit pro career. The WNBA invited me to a combine 3 years later. Draft day came and my name was not called — that may have been the worst day of my life. Two days later, my agent let me know Phoenix had picked me up as a free agent. Riddled with injury that would ultimately end my career, I didn't last long with Phoenix. I learned a lot and went on to play in France. I’ll never forget playing in that uniform, though — it was 20 years of hard work, all coming together in a moment. I got the shit knocked out of me, missed a shot, and got put right back on the bench. Looking back, it was the journey that taught me the most. I am who I am today because of the poise, determination, and courage it took to pick myself up time and time again.
When did you know it was time to make the transition from basketball, to sharing your talent and drive with others in the form of training clients?
Injury ended my basketball career, and I was depressed and lost for years. I had no idea who I was outside of basketball, and had a hard time transitioning from being a player to a coach. I couldn’t see the big picture at that point, and I didn’t understand that my life had prepared me to be a great leader. I had to grow into that role, but I see it very clearly now. My dad says I have a great gift — that I know exactly what to say, at just the right moment, to inspire change in others. It’s true, but its not because of anything that I’ve rehearsed or read in a book or studied. It’s because I’ve had those moments time and time again, and I’ve wanted to quit so desperately. And because I didn’t, my life was infinitely better. I never gave up the fight, and it’s my responsibility to share that fight and PASSION with others. It’s the ONLY thing that matters.
You are a Nike master trainer and a Flywheel master instructor, as well as a personal trainer. How is your body flexible to all these different roles?
When I started my fitness career, I had no idea who I was. People told me that I needed to find a niche, to define and separate myself from the pack. I guess in a way that’s true, but I started looking to things that weren’t me, like current trends. You know what people want? Authenticity. They want something REAL. I didn’t have to produce the next cool workout — I needed to remember who I was and what made me special, because everything I needed was right there. I bring that STUFF into everything I do. It allows me to do different things, and still be ME. No matter what I do, I bring me into the mix.
How have you had to be flexible/ open to change to make all these steps in your career happen?
I want things to happen NOW — it’s a problem! But someone once told me to “trust the process” and it really hit home. I’ve had to be patient and believe that things will unfold just the way they should. Disappointment is something I’m very familiar with. Passion is also something I’m very familiar with. It’s patience and belief that keep that passion burning bright in the face of disappointment. And I remind myself everyday that it was the JOURNEY that was so sweet, even though I thought it was the prize that would bring me the most happiness. Without that journey I would not be here today. I would not have been the player I was, and I would not be the trainer I am today. Here I am, in New York City, living the life of my DREAMS. Here I am on another journey. I continue to strive for bigger and better, but I take time everyday to appreciate how wonderful and fulfilling my life is. I LOVE MY LIFE!!!
Holly Rilinger is a certified personal trainer, master trainer at Nike, and Master Trainer at Flywheel.
Picture a childhood bedroom: posters of Michael Jordan, motivational quotes plastering the walls, sneakers and gear piled everywhere, and a young girl lying in bed, tossing a basketball into the air. Picture the chart this girl pinned to her garage wall to keep track of her daily workouts, percentage of shots made, and areas for improvement. Now, picture this young girl as an adult, one who turned hesitations about her 5’4” frame into fuel for making her basketball dreams come true. But this is not a story about dreams – it is one about reality. This is the story of Holly Rilinger.
Holly came to be named the #1 Freshman Pointguard by USA TODAY, the All-Time Leading Scorer at James Madison University, and a Strength and Conditioning All American. After all, her talents on the court were undeniable. However, things took a turn when reporters and coaches wary of her height aired their doubts about whether she could “wow” in the pros. After being turned down consistently by US agents, Holly discovered a New Zealand coach who had watched her game tape and wanted to give her a try. Holly drove his team to the National Championship that year. Finally attracting the attention she deserved from agents, Holly was quickly signed for her first pro gig in Germany, and subsequently for a cameo appearance on the WNBA team Phoenix Mercury.
Today, Holly channels the same drive, discipline, and heart it took for her to make it in the pros into every one of her clients. “Sharing the hope,” Holly says, “that is where the magic lies.”