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Your Neighbor/Fitness Star

Your Neighbor/Fitness Star

Jeni Ruisch

We can see why Women’s Health was as taken with Darcy Wion as we were.

This month, the Upper Arlington native will find out whether she made the magazine’s cover as potential winner of the fifth annual Next Fitness Star competition. In the meanwhile, we focused a local lens on the System of Strength trainer and how she channeled a lymphoma diagnosis into a new career path—one centered on fitness of self and of community.

Six years past her initial diagnosis, the 30-year-old has had learn how to be patient with her body, according to her contest submission,  inspired to become a trainer by battling the physical and mental hurdles that were out of her control. “Working out is about enduring discomfort,” she told Women’s Health. “I fully believe that if you can survive the struggle in the gym, you’ll be stronger outside of it too.

What does the week look like for you in workouts?

I believe cardio, strength, stretch, and recovery are four pieces of what you need in a week so without one of those you aren’t going to get your body everything you need and so I think that’s a unique approach to how some trainers look at it. They may specialize in the spinning aspect, the strength aspect and they kind of saddle themselves into that. I think it’s all of those that you need, so incorporating the high intensity training to get your heart rate up, and then the strength to build your muscles, the toning to work those smaller muscles, and then the recovery yoga to really stretch your body out and recover from a week’s worth of hard work. In any given week I’ll be doing all of those.

What does your diet look like? And other aspects of wellness for you besides working out?

I will say the other fifth piece of that is nutrition. I truly believe you can put in hours and hours in here but if you go home and you eat bad it’s going to reflect what you look like. I mean 98% of how you look and how your body changes and what you’re able to do when you work out is because of what you eat, and I really believe that. Lots of times I think people struggle and that’s the missing piece. They feel like they’re doing so much and everything right and they just don’t have that in line, and so food wise: proteins, fruits, veggies, whole grains. I really move toward eating 3 meals a day versus snacking just because if you keep busy and truly eat solid meal, you’re not really hungry. Sometimes people do five smaller meals a day, it just depends on what works with your schedule.

Everyone in this issue keeps saying that same thing: You can work out all day long but if you don’t have a balanced diet it’s not going to do anything for you…

You can’t out-train a bad diet. Everything is about balance. Like, I love donuts and every Sunday I eat donuts and don’t workout. That’s what I look forward to all week and I can do that because I know it’s coming. I don’t believe in any sort of super restrictive diet because that’s not manageable long term. I think it gives you the results quickly but then you can fall out of it very quickly, too.

You mention “deposits” and “withdrawals.” Can you explain that?

We set it up as think of your body as a bank. So, everything good I do, I’m putting in deposits and getting myself in the green and everything else is stuff I withdraw and take out from the bank. Our program sets up as you get two withdrawals a week—whether that’s two drinking nights or whether that’s two cheeseburgers and then a cupcake and then the rest of the week you’re following your proteins, veggies, fruits, grains. Those are kind of free-range for the most part.

Were you really active growing up?

I think a lot of where my mindset comes from is from my family. I was raised in an active family where we went on walks instead of watching TV. I could probably count the number of times we ate McDonald’s on one hand. My mom is the athletic director at the high school I went to and my dad was a college athlete, so it’s kind of just our mindset. I was a swimmer in high school and then going into college I just kind of kept those habits with me, incorporating fitness into my life, eating healthy. It always was something I get to do and not something I necessarily have to do.

So part of your story is you talking about your diagnosis… when did that happen?

I was 23 when I was diagnosed, so that was right after college. I had been talking about liking to eat healthy my senior year. I stopped and gained a little bit of weight and then after college I was increasing my workouts trying to lose the weight, started to eat really clean—low-grain diets—so I kept attributing all these symptoms such as fatigue and headaches to working out harder. Since I was working out harder, it was probably okay that I was tired. I was experiencing some blackouts. So after like three or four months of that I was in a spinning class and I truly blacked out—almost fell off the bike—so I left early, which is something I never do and I called my mom crying and said something is wrong for real… We went to the doctor, did a chest x-ray and I guess in terms of having lymphoma I was diagnosed and pretty much from there everything was a blur.

How did your diagnosis play into your current career path as a trainer?

I looked at why I put off going to the doctor for so long—I was [working out] because I hated my body, because I wanted to lose weight. I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I’ve grown up my entire life doing it because I liked it—because I wanted to do it.

Now, I want to portray in every class to live a fit lifestyle because we love our bodies—not because we hate them. [Think about] how much more this life has to give than a number on a scale and how you look in a dress. The second you stop worrying about those things—when you incorporate this into your life—the endorphins you release, the toxins in your mind … I mean this can become your sanctuary.

I can imagine that sanctuary being extra important when you’re also battling a potentially fatal disease.

Maybe it’s the only time you get to yourself—that 60 minutes to workout. Just tune into yourself. It’s not selfish. Going through chemotherapy and radiation, I was frustrated because I was at a really good point physically and trying to work out more and eat healthy and lose the weight I gained. So I felt like I was getting stronger and then to experience having to go through chemo and radiation and not being physically able to do things, it was very hard during that time for me to not be hard on myself. When I went to workout and I was super breathless; the radiation made it so I couldn’t hold weights; the chemo in my veins, totally messed up my grips. When I was really going through it, it hurt to touch. Now, I know one more burpee or 10 more seconds in a plank—all of that is manageable because I’ve been at the point where physically I couldn’t.

If you could speak to the average reader, who isn’t extremely fitness-minded, what would you say to them?

The majority of people want to [work out] but don’t know where to start. This life of fitness is for everyone, no matter age, modifications needed, or where you are in your fitness journey. If you’re starting or you’ve been in it for 10 years and you’re looking for a change, I truly believe it’s for everybody. Even if something like System of Strength is intimidating to you, go out and find anything that may be physical, just to get your feet wet. Columbus, in general, has become such an amazing fitness community. I mean there are studios popping up everywhere and so I feel like just getting out there and trying a couple things— a cycling class, all the Metroparks do free yoga—there’s so many options just to do things for free to see what you like and what you don’t like. The story I wanted to tell through Women’s Health was “What’s Your Why?” In general, I just want to be a motivation or inspiration for people that are going through or may go through a struggle. Unfortunately, struggling is part of our journey and it’s really what you make of it and how you come out stronger on the other side. This is the only body that you’re given and if you’re not making the most of it—you’re not going to be able to help anyone else with what they’re going through.

Voting for Next Fitness Star ends 8.4, with finalists will gather for a winning announcement on The Insider 8.22. For more, visit


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