Two weeks after Holly Rilinger got to New York City, she found herself jogging along the West Side Highway, sobbing.
She’d just sold almost all her possessions and moved from Atlanta to be with a woman she’d met online. Abruptly dumped, working in a field she hated, and mourning a pro basketball career that had come and gone, she believed she’d hit “rock bottom.”
Of course, she still made sure to work out, even while broke and broken-hearted. That’s because Rilinger, whose laser-focused dedication to fitness is a force of nature, never gives up.
Ten years later, the Nike Master Trainer and Flywheel celebrity instructor is one of New York’s most in-demand trainers. She is currently starring on Bravo’s Work Out New York, a reality show that delves behind the scenes into the sexy, competitive world of elite fitness, airing Sunday nights at 9pm. She travels the world to host her signature Training Camp and to lead massive group workouts, like one for 400 women on Ellis Island. She developed a physical education curriculum for a girls’ school in central Africa. She is an aspiring motivational speaker and a respected athlete. Her private training sessions run $300 an hour.
Back in 2005, Rilinger had no idea she would come so far. “I would run down the West Side Highway because it was the only place I could cry privately,” she says. “I would look at the city, and think, ‘There’s no fucking way I’m going to make it here.’”
A dream cut short
Rilinger had faced challenges her whole life. Since she was six years old, the Nebraska native dreamed of playing professional basketball, but at 5’4”, she wasn’t exactly built for the game. She used her size as her motivation. “At my height, you have to be faster, quicker and stronger than anyone else on that court,” she says. So, she trained. And trained.
“Holly was always competitive,” her father says. “As her parents, we could see from early on that she was made of something very special. We always encouraged her in athletic activities, but her real power came from inside her.”
It wasn’t just her body she needed to train but her mind. She plastered her room with pictures of players she respected and shoes she wanted. It was the beginning of a “dream board” she still has in her apartment. It’s grown into an “epic piece of artwork that has so much power,” she says. “When you put your dreams in front of you, when you wake up and face your dreams every day, then you have intention, you have purpose and you have passion in the morning. So it works.”
It took two decades of unbridled commitment before her dream came true. She played for teams in New Zealand, Germany, France, and briefly, for the newly formed WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury. “Call it a cameo appearance,” she says.
A “consummate underdog,” her pre-season stint was cut short by a career-ending injury caused by plantar fasciitis and a stress fracture. At 28, her pro-basketball dream was done. She took it understandably hard. “I was really depressed,” she says, “because I had spent 20 years waking up every morning excited about what I was doing, and I was just so lost. I remember for probably a year or two people would come up to me and would introduce me as Holly, and say that I used to play professional basketball, because that was the only identity I had.”
She started working with personal training clients, but “felt zero passion for it,” because she had only ever known how to train herself. “Up until that point, everything had been about me, and now suddenly, I was no longer the player; I was the coach. I was such a serious athlete that I would train somebody, and I remember them being like, ‘I can’t do another one,’ and I’d be like, ‘What the fuck do you mean you can’t do another?’ I didn’t get not having this intense drive.”
So Rilinger left sports and fitness altogether and got a job selling real estate, “and again, just hated every second of it.”
From the court to the bike
The corkboard in Rilinger’s Chelsea apartment is covered with make-believe magazine covers and TV ads. “America’s #1 Trainer,” she wrote in black Sharpie above a photo of herself in an orange sports bra. “Why me? 1. I’m REAL. Relatable. Vulnerable. 2. My Journey. – underdog. – FOUGHT HARD!” Below that is an ad for The Biggest Loser, with a circle around the face of famed trainer Jillian Michaels. “What’s next?” Rilinger wrote. “Holly R.”
In fact, she came close to replacing Michaels on the TV weight loss competition twice, but didn’t make the final cut. It was another blow to her career, but Rilinger has learned how to bounce back from disappointment like a pro.
She was in New York, still recovering from her breakup, struggling with her real estate career, and contemplating moving back to Atlanta, when a friend offered her a ticket to see motivational speaker Tony Robbins. She didn’t have the $500 it would cost to attend, but she went anyway.
Robbins’s main message was that “we all have a special gift, and there’s something that we should do,” Rilinger recalls. “And if we sit with ourselves long enough, and we’re honest with ourselves, we know what it is.”
Soon after the course, she took that message with her to a spin class in the Hamptons. “In that class,” she says, “I looked up at the instructor, and I thought, this is the feeling I used to have as a point guard, when I used to lean on my team. It’s championships, and we’d be in the huddle, and I’d be like, ‘Listen you guys, we’re down five points, we got a minute left—we can do this.’” Suddenly, everything was clear. This was what she needed to be doing with her life.
She started teaching a spin class at 7am. At times, there would only be three people in the class. It wasn’t exactly what she’d envisioned, but it was a start. She knew she’d found not just where she belonged, but how she needed to do it. This time, training would be different, because she would be leading groups, and she would be imparting 20 years’ worth of wisdom and inspiration she’d learned on the basketball court.
Her clients have nothing but raves for her teaching style. “Taking classes with Holly is better than therapy,” one client says. “She helps you tap into your personal joy, and let go of things you no longer need to take with you, all while burning a zillion calories and toning your body.” Another client appreciates Rilinger’s team spirit. “When you ride with Holly, you join a team of strong and happy people, all working together to become their best, with Holly leading the way, encouraging you and riding with you every pedal stroke.”
Rilinger’s goal is to be “the Tony Robbins of fitness,” to motivate others to find their true selves, just like he did for her. “There’s nothing else I’m put on this earth to do—not necessarily to be a trainer, but to inspire passion in other people. To bring it out in them.”
The ‘pied piper’ of housewives
Work Out New York is a sequel of sorts, a follow-up to Bravo’s Work Out of 2006–2008, starring Jackie Warner, an elite trainer in Los Angeles. Warner, a lesbian, guided viewers through the rigors of running a business and let them peek into the emotional moments when she helped clients achieve their fitness goals.
The new show is set in New York City, and focuses on a group of trainers, many of whom are friends, some of whom are gay. It is as much about their social lives as it is about their work. On screen, the trainers seem to spend more time gossiping and going out than they do in the gym—except for Rilinger.
At 41, Rilinger is the oldest trainer in the bunch and clearly the one with the most experience. She is shown abstaining from gossip, and acts as a peacekeeper amid the other trainers’ drama. “At times I’ll think I’m too quiet,” she says, “but I think my face will probably say it all.”
In the premiere episode, we are flies on the wall at Rilinger’s spin class at Flywheel, which she runs like a magnetic combination of drill sergeant and emcee. Attendees—groupies, really—show up wearing “Holly Rilinger” t-shirts. After class, they give her sweaty hugs and kisses on the lips. Courtney Paul, a fellow trainer on Work Out New York and a good friend, calls her cult the “Hollyites.” “Holly’s like the pied piper of New York housewives,” he says on the show.
Her fans call her “a gift. A beautiful, happy, strong woman who helps you become your best self.”
The other trainers featured on Work Out New York obviously revere Rilinger. She is “just the wizard behind the curtain,” says Noah Neiman, one of Rilinger’s protégés.
Rilinger chose to be on the show in order to give viewers a sense of the human side of trainers, to show that they’re not “gods,” as another castmate refers to them. “At the end of the day, we’re just like everyone else,” Rilinger says. “We have our weaknesses, our flaws and issues.” She admits she’s not an all-knowing fitness beast all the time. “The person I am on that bike isn’t necessarily who I am in my living room. I’m not positive 100 percent of the time. I’m not always spouting out inspirational phrases as we sit on the sofa and have dinner, you know?”
That misperception has made dating a little harder than usual for Rilinger, who is “completely” single. “I think, ideally, I’d love to meet somebody that doesn’t even know who I am or doesn’t know what I do,” she says. That won’t be so easy, now that Work Out New York is on every Sunday night. But access to a whole new audience was too good to pass up for this aspiring Tony Robbins. “I wouldn’t have done this,” she says, “if I didn’t think that this could give me a platform where I could change hundreds of thousands of people’s lives.”
The ‘aha’ moment
Rilinger was 20 when she came out. It had to be something of a utopia a few years later when she began to play women’s professional basketball, where 70 percent of the team was gay. But it wasn’t all debauchery. “There wasn’t a lot of team dating,” she says. “We would all pile up in a car and go to gay bars in D.C. Those were the formative years for me. Years of self-discovery. Some of the best times of my life.”
Sexuality is more mixed among trainers than it was in basketball. But being gay has never held her back from her goals. “I’ve always been out at work,” she says. “I don’t necessarily go around announcing my sexuality, but I have never lied or hidden it in my professional life. I’m open in interviews. I’m open with clients. I’m just open.”
The only people she ever hid it from were her parents. “I had a hard time coming out to them, and they had a hard time accepting it,” she says. “We’re all good now.”
Coming to terms with her sexuality allowed her to fully realize her true self, she says. “My god, it was like a rebirth. Like, I started to see in color. Because I didn’t understand why I didn’t want to do the same things the other girls did, and I wasn’t interested in prom, and I really didn’t want to wear a dress.”
She was then able to turn that self-awareness into additional motivation. “I think when you can take that ‘aha’ moment and apply it to all parts of your life, you’re just going to be more successful,” she says. “If I wasn’t able to express myself or if I constantly felt like I had to hide something, I don’t think I’d be able to reveal the sincerest, most authentic parts of myself in fitness and as a trainer.”
As for romance, that’s taken a back seat to her professional goals. But make no mistake, she is a romantic. She and her ex-girlfriend Lisa got tattoos that match up when they put their hands together. “The most beautiful part about it is that we got them after we broke up, because we knew we were an important chapter in each other's lives, and that it was time to move on,” Rilinger says. “She’s my best friend even now. I talk to her every week.” For the moment, though, there’s not much time for dating. “Chasing down my dreams is more intoxicating than dating for me,” she says. “It has been for the last five years. And that’s been my drug. That’s been my sex. I eat it, I breathe it, I sleep it, and I love it.”
‘Breathe and let go’
Rilinger is showing no signs of slowing down. Her fortitude is a marvel even to the people closest to her.
“Even as a child, she exhibited incredible drive and determination,” her dad says. “She grew better with time, because she listened to the right people, learned how to set goals and, above all else, was focused on success. Even so, there was something more than just being driven. We still don’t know exactly how to explain what we witnessed in our little girl growing up to be one of the best basketball players in the whole world.”
In August 2012, the Georges Malaika Foundation invited Rilinger to develop a PE program for its girls’ school in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She teamed up with a local teacher and created a curriculum for 150 girls, kindergarten to second grade. “Hands down,” she says, “it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I realized that we didn’t have to speak the same language. That we could play games and through movement get to know each other.”
She also realized how lucky she is to have all she does. She visited the home of one of the girls and saw the conditions: a dirt-floor hut, a bucket of water for bathing. “These girls have nothing,” she says. “I was in tears daily over the amount of joy they still experience on a daily basis.”
Now, as one of only 50 Nike Master Trainers worldwide, Rilinger auditions, vets and trains local trainers in cities across the country. She is currently mentoring the entire East Coast trainer network to launch new gear, highlight the Nike Training Club app and celebrate major sports events like the All Star Weekend and the U.S. Open. “It’s a huge honor,” she says.
Between her humanitarian interests, training responsibilities and foray into reality television, Rilinger still has to find time to work out—hard. She teaches 11 spin classes a week at Flywheel and rides every minute with the class. “I like to be shoulder-to-shoulder with them,” she says. “I tell them that I would never ask them to do anything I couldn’t do, and it makes them work harder. We’re a team in that room.”
The riders in her class say it’s a “different” experience training with Holly than with anyone else. “She is with you every step of the way,” one client says, “supporting you and helping you be your personal best.” Another says, “Taking a class with Holly is not just about burning calories. It’s a transformative journey that helps you ground and find your center.”
Rilinger also does weight training, both on her own and in group classes. In the summer, she surfs “as much as possible.” Her passion for surfing led her to create a workout called BeachFIT, which is designed to help aspiring surfers get in shape—and get a killer surfer’s body. “There’s nothing like being out in that water,” she says. “You can’t force anything. You have to wait for the right moments. You have to breathe and let go.”
If anyone knows how to breathe and let go, it’s Rilinger, who has bounced back from disappointment repeatedly as she has continued down the path toward her dreams. It’s that resilience, that experience of being faced with the possibility of failure and holding on, that makes her one of New York’s favorite trainers.
“I know exactly when you are going to want to quit. I know the thoughts that will go through your head. Why? Because I’ve been there, time and time again. I didn’t let myself quit, and I’m definitely not going to let you quit, either.”