The love of her mentors formed the basis of how Alysha Flynn coaches beginners, she describes as a vulnerable population.
York Daily Record
Before Alysha Flynn could change her life, she had to move past her fear.
She once had been the kid feeling invisible, until someone told her she had a gift.
She had grown into a woman who had conquered language and economic barriers to graduate from high school and college.
Yet despite all that she had overcome, her dream of weaving her love for fitness into a business plan scared her.
It took a mentor in York, an MBA and, eventually, a tragedy to light her way.
Flynn was just a kid when her mother moved the family from the Dominican Republic to Long Island, N.Y. After her divorce, Jeanne Smith wanted her two daughters and son to grow up in the same community where she had been raised and attend the same schools.
Bayport, N.Y., was an affluent community, and Smith moved them into one of the apartments in a two-family home, where she still lives today.
She wanted her children to learn from some of the same teachers she had as a child. The education was a good one, but Flynn felt different than the other kids.
“When we moved here, I had a really heavy accent,” said Flynn, who was Alysha Rodriguez at that time, and her Dominican features were different than her mother’s blond hair and blue eyes. She came home from kindergarten to tell her mother that she’d been called a name.
She was standing on the outside of the school and community and didn’t see a way in, until her first mentor lit the path.
In third grade, she took a fitness test in school, running a mile in less than seven minutes. Her gym teacher, Bob Donnelly, patted her on the back and, she remembers, said, “Kid, you have a place in the world.”
She signed up for a 5k almost immediately. She was a runner. Finally, she had an identity.
“It gave me confidence,” she said. “It made me feel like I had a place.”
The high jump
“Promise me you’ll do cross country,” Donnelly asked her a couple of years later, and she did.
In eighth grade, she was invited onto the high school team. Then, she watched a pole vaulter fly over the bar and decided that she could do that, too. As a freshman, she was already among the best pole vaulters on the East Coast.
“I learned the power of visualizing what I wanted,” she said. “I would lay on my bed and close my eyes and picture this winning vault that I was gonna do. I knew I had to be patient.”
She won the state championship in 2004 and holds her high school’s record.
And Bob Donnelly, at 80, stays in contact with her. She unexpectedly reconnected with him in 2014 at Bayport Blue Points Hall of Fame Induction for Student Athletes.”
When she’s running, Flynn, 33, doesn’t listen to music. She listens to herself.
“There’s no such thing as a bad day running,” Flynn said. “You’re out there and trying to tune into yourself. I really, really always use it as a way to have a conversation with myself. It’s healed me in times of pain.”
It was where she originally found her identity, and it began to take shape as a career.
As an undergraduate, she studied health sciences. It took her into corporate health and a job in Harley-Davidson’s wellness center, helping employees learn skills that would help them avoid injuries or strains.
This is where she met the woman who would become another mentor in her life: Kelly McGhin.
McGhin worked as a Harley project manager, visiting the plant’s fitness center at lunchtime each day to walk on the treadmill, and eventually befriending Flynn and inviting her to do wellness weekends at her home: cooking demonstrations, fitness, mindfulness.
It was the type of work Flynn wanted: a business of her own, coaching people in the virtual space.
She remembers McGhin telling her: “When you do this on your own… you come to life. You’re so creative, you’re so happy. What is it gonna take for you to do this full time?”
When Flynn said she didn’t know enough about business, McGhin told her to get an MBA.
“She was believing in me, more than I was believing in myself,” Flynn said.
She enrolled at Eastern University in Philadelphia in health and healthcare management. She traveled for work – by then a corporate healthcare company – and school, and by the time she graduated, she and her husband, Brian, had a newborn, Riley.
The MBA still didn’t move her to start a business. She wondered if she’d be seen as an impostor. She had done marathons, ironmans, studied health, exercise science, nutrition and psychology. She worked with children at the Susan Byrnes Health Center to learn how to communicate with them. Had all this proven her worth? She wasn’t convinced.
It wasn’t until McGhin was diagnosed with colon cancer that Flynn found the courage.
“I got to spend the last few days of her life with her, and I just knew in that moment that something inside of me was shifting. It was the first time I wanted it more than I was afraid of it,” Flynn said. “The most precious thing you can give someone is your time. … And she had invested in me for years.”
What Runs You
Flynn operates her business, What Runs You, from the first floor of her York home.
Her first client was her own mother. She now coaches paid members (about 200, many of them moms) and has created a big following on social media: more than 160,000 followers on TikTok and another 3 million likes, a couple of thousand YouTube subscribers along with her Facebook and Instagram pages.
It’s the virtual business she hoped for.
One of her friends, Erin Azar of Kempton, Pennsylvania, known as Mrs. Space Cadet on TikTok, is training for a marathon with Flynn as her coach. She started off running a mile in an old pair of sneakers and is now a What Runs You disciple, following the daily workout routines Flynn posts for her members.
Azar understands that some people look at the petite Flynn and don’t think they could relate to her. “But if you talk to her for just five minutes, she has thyroid issues, she’s had a rough upbringing … she’s run marathons pregnant,” Azar said. “Just being in her presence, I leave so motivated.”
Now the mother of two (Riley is 5, and son Parker is 2), Flynn runs with her husband and children, pushing the kids in strollers then letting them run a little at the end.
“It’s my hope and wish that I can share running with them,” she said. “It’s my home. It’s the first thing that I ever experienced in my life that gave me a place in the world.”
Kim Strong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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