Short Work

The owner of the Athletic Club of Vermont wants to help people see fitness as a lifestyle instead of a New Year’s resolution

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon 

Kelly Short has been involved in fitness since her youth, but it took an automobile accident in 1982 to challenge her to pursue strength training. Now a champion body-builder, Short owns the Athletic Club of Vermont in Essex Junction.

Working out; getting fit; losing weight: the stuff of guilt, right? Not if it’s Kelly Short speaking. Hearing her talk about fitness is like being drenched in inspiration, not perspiration. She likes to push boundaries.

Short is the owner of the Athletic Club of Vermont, a fitness center on Pearl Street in Essex Junction. There has never been a time, she says, when she wasn’t interested in fitness. 

After studying business law at a community college in Palm Beach, Fla., near Lake Worth, where she grew up, Short worked as a legal assistant. “All the while, though, I was a member of a gym; all the while leading those aerobic classes.”

Back then, says Short, the classes were what most women did. The weight room was a male environment, she says, and “I really wanted to be in there. It’s a much different atmosphere today, although some people still have the misconception of its being like it was back in the ’80s. Working out now is no different from sharing the grocery store,” she says, grinning.

She had, she says, “a hankering to compete in body-building. I saw the magazines and thought, ‘I want to do that!’ I was overweight — I weighed about 180 pounds — and it wasn’t healthy.” 

As unlikely as it seems, her trigger was a very bad car accident in 1982. “I was in a lot of pain, had nerve damage, lost the use of my arm. I would work at my desk and have to lie down every 20 minutes. It was horrible,” she recalls.

Short pursued strength training to work through her disabilities. “It took a couple of years to recover and get into a decent condition,” she says, “but it really got me my wish.”

From there, the flame of passion grew. Short became certified as a group exercise instructor. She took continuing education classes in nutrition and kinesiology at Florida Atlantic University and started teaching classes, all the while maintaining her day job.

By 1989, Short was ready for her first body-building competition, the Hawaiian Tropic in Fort Lauderdale. “I took second in my weight class,” she says. “I didn’t know enough to be nervous.”

Not too many years ago, there were very few women in the weight room. That has changed significantly. Stacey Mercure, an instructor, and Elton Booker, a staff member, take a break from the free-weight machine.

Inspired, she continued teaching and training, and in 1991, she entered the Sunshine State competition, a much larger show. “There’s very stiff competition down there,” says Short, “and I got some assistance from the reigning Mr. USA, John DeFendis. I asked, ‘OK, this is what I’m doing, what I did for the last show. Am I doing this right?’ and he said I was right on the money.” Short again placed second in her class.

By this time, Short had realized that her career as a legal assistant wasn’t taking her anyplace — “Unless you’re going to become a lawyer, you’re kind of stagnant” — but she still saw body-building as an avocation.

Having obtained four of her securities licenses toward becoming a financial adviser, she went to work for a mutual fund company doing marketing and event planning. “The goal was to be groomed out as a financial planner,” she says.

A year or so later, in 1992, she met her future husband. “He was from Vermont, and he wanted to come back,” she says. “I’ll tell ya, I fell in love with Vermont and was completely content with moving up here.”

Still aiming for a career in financial planning, Short landed a job with National Life. It was short-lived, because what Short thought was a case of car sickness on the drive north turned out to be morning sickness. Their son Clark was born in 1993. Short left National Life to raise their son and help her husband open a fitness center.

Mike Picard (left) of Picard Fitness Consulting is one of two independent certified trainers working with Athletic Club of Vermont clients. David Holton, the owner of the Essex Agency, works out five to six days a week, and meets with Picard one day a week. He’s pictured on the Atlantis chest press.

Eight months after Clark’s birth, Short entered the 1994 Vermont State Body Building Championships and won, also taking the title of best poser. “It was no cake walk, believe me,” she says. “Everybody thinks you bounce back, but I think I spent six hours a day getting ready for that. I was a big pregnant woman. I look back now and say, ‘Were you mental?’ It was fun, though.”

Fitness was no longer an avocation for Short. “I was in this industry from that point on,” she says.

Her second son, Grant, was born in 1995. In ’97, she entered the Women’s ESPN Extravaganza body building contest, taking second place.

Her marriage didn’t last. After a divorce in 1999, Short considered several business ventures, but realized two things pretty quickly: “First, I have a passion for this; and second, it was important for me to be with my kids when they got out of school. If I had to work, I wanted to bring them with me, so there was no answer but to open another health club.”

Athletic Club of Vermont opened in October 2000.

Securing the right equipment was important to her, and she had done her homework. She went to trade shows, visited vendors in Boston, New Jersey and Canada, checked out warehouses, and talked to a lot of club owners about equipment. “I narrowed it down to two, and the bulk came from Atlantis up in Canada,” she says.

Short liked the Atlantis equipment because “it was almost medical grade. There are safeties intact — places you can adjust that will keep you from going too far. Some machines lock into both sides, but if I needed someone from rehab to work just one side, say an injured shoulder, these machines can do that,” she says.

 “Starting a new business, you work from the time you wake up, and you go to bed with it,” says Short, who confesses there were days early on when she made sure she was on-site at 4 a.m. when the club opened up, “just promoting the business, making sure everybody was happy, creating a good atmosphere where everybody feels welcome.”

Pat Benjamin of Williston, an assistant at IBM and a member and friend for more than 10 years, loves the atmosphere Short has created. “She literally poured herself into that place, and I just watched her take this huge, empty room and turn it into the business she has today.”

“That huge, empty room” is now 9,000 square feet, divided into several rooms. Mirrored walls allow members to evaluate their work. With 24 pieces of cardio equipment, 33 strength trainers and 33 free-weight machines, the wait is seldom long. A tanning salon sits behind the reception area. A separate room allows privacy for those on spinners or practicing yoga and kickboxing. The massage room is being redone.

Short employs six staffers who cover customer service, maintenance and membership information. “The staff are like my tour guides,” she quips. “They direct traffic.”

Eight group instructors teach exercise classes, and two certified trainers, Caroline Perkins and Mike Picard, work with individuals. The trainers are independent contractors with whom Short has developed partnerships. “Caroline does board-specific training at UVM as well as her own clientele here,” says Short. “Mike is here all the time, doing a weekly group, Women on Weights, and Youth and Weights, as well as his own clients.”

A certified trainer herself, Short says she does “pretty much everything.” That includes the hours of administrative work any business demands, such as scheduling, payroll, bookwork and marketing, as well as instruction and personal training. “Most important, I need to be home at 3 to see my kids. They’re in fourth and sixth grades now.”

Short’s guilty pleasure is riding her Harley. “It’s not a little one, either,” she crows. She confesses, though, that most of her spare time is spent with her children, “mostly on their sports — hockey, basketball, football — taxiing. Any minute spent with them is worth millions.” 

A few years ago — 2003 to be exact — Short was again bitten by the bug to compete, and she entered two competitions a week apart. “By that time, I was the oldest one in both cases,” she says. 

The World Championship in Dallas, called Nova Fitness, required contestants to run an obstacle course, exhibit fitness skills, go through a physique round and end with an evening gown competition. It was different from the competitions she’s tried before, and that’s why she did it, she says. “I think it’s really tough to go into those kinds of things and simply get judged. I went to inspire women.”

One week later, she flew to New York City to the Eastern USA bodybuilding match, where she took second place in the Masters division and was fourth overall.

Now Short is looking to the future, amazed by the mix of clients she’s attracted. While she hasn’t marketed specifically to older people, she says, “Doggone it, I’ve got a whole big retired crew here — my rowdiest members — and I want to offer services specializing in these groups. 

She hopes to direct some training for seniors. “I’d like to be a go-between for physical therapy. Right now, there’s no gray area — people in PT are dropped off into the abyss.”

She’d also like to guide people into the mainstream of fitness and “make it more of a lifestyle rather than a New Year’s resolution.”

Typical of her, she’s all in favor of pushing buttons. “People need change,” she says. “If they’re stagnant, they need to get uncomfortable; they need to mix it up.”