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The DEFINE STRENGTH Project: Episode 2.0 — Crystal Williams

define strength, define strength videos, define strength series

“I just decided I didn’t want to be a victim. Your only competition is yourself, everything else is background noise. Blur that bullshit.” 

Everyone has shitty days. Maybe you had a terrible day at work or a blow-out fight with your girlfriend/boyfriend. Maybe your favorite SoulCycle instructor went MIA and you got stuck in a B-list spin class. Or maybe your toast came and, omg, it wasn’t gluten-free. The horror.

We love manufacturing despair, complaining, and inflating problems to make them feel significantly worse than they are. Guess what? Most of the problems we deal with on a daily basis are absolutely trivial. 

They’ll feel especially small after you watch this.

Episode 2.0 of the DEFINE STRENGTH PROJECT showcases one of the most inspirational and positive people I’ve ever met — Crystal Williams.

If you’ve ever been punched in the gut by life and had all of the energy and purpose sucked out of you—that feeling when you don’t want to get out of bed—Crystal’s story is the ultimate inspiration. She’s become a master on rebuilding after experiencing more tragedy, loss, and shock in a few years than most people deal with in their entire lives.

Despite all of the adversity throughout her 20’s, she carries herself with a radiantly pragmatic and positive attitude, lives with zest and purpose, and maintains a beautiful perspective on life, fitness, and everything in between.

It’s an inspirational atomic bomb that’ll light a fire under your ass and provide a little perspective.

Here’s Crystal’s story, including a full transcript of her interview (some information was redacted for brevity).


DEFINE STRENGTH: Episode 2.0 — Crystal Williams

A: I actually don’t know your story. That was one of my questions. What happened with your eye sight? Why were you sick?

C: Ok, when I was around 19 or 20 I started getting really bad headaches towards the back of my head and they got progressively worse through the year and I went on [an acne medication] and it just got worse. There was no warning sign. I’m someone who obsesses over medicine labels. And had I known that I could’ve developed the condition I had developed, I never would have taken it.

It was a condition called Psuedotumor cerebri. I couldn’t function. I got to a point where the doctors were just sending me home—they didn’t know what was wrong with me—and giving me Percocet. I took too much medication one night and had to go to the ER and it saved my life because I refused to leave the hospital until they ran tests on me. A couple days later they found out that I had this condition. Those next couple of days were a blur. I was in searing pain at that point, they drained fluid from my head and gave me a spinal tap.

But one day I was in the hospital, not very long after, and I was looking at my mother’s face and it went gray. Before I knew it, they rushed me to the special hospital for eye and ear surgery because I was going blind. To make a very long story short, they stripped my eyes open to drain the water. It got into my optic nerves. They were able to save the vision in my left eye, but they couldn’t save the right.

They gave me Prednisone after that which started causing facial hair growth, tremors, and made me feel crazy and unrecognizable. I was miserable and angry. It just wasn’t a good time in my life at all.

I was eventually allowed to get off the meds and my tremors stopped. You have to understand, I was 20 years old and you tell me I have a permanent cross-eye, I have a tremor, facial hair that I need to get rid of. My whole life had to stop. I had to take off from work, I needed to take off from school, I was just miserable. And I always say if it wasn’t for my mother, if it wasn’t for my foundation, I just couldn’t have gone through that alone. I had a mother who was 100% selfless. I felt like I became a child all over again. I was able to have surgery to correct my eye, but as I started to recover my mother became sick. Plus my dad was already sick.

My mother got sick right when I was getting on my feet. I’m well for like 2 seconds and now I’m the caretaker. Now I have to grow up. I had to grow up really fast. You go from being a teenager, to working, to living your college life, to being knocked on your ass for a year and a half. The minute you start getting back on your feet, start living the life you should be living, as a young girl, you have to become this responsible adult.


A: Both of your parents passed away from cancer, right?

C: Yes


A: Ok, what were their names?

C: My mother was Beverly and my father *laughs* was Dickey. I always laugh because I never know how people are going to react to that. I’ve been in the hospital plenty of times and people will ask ‘Well what’s your father’s name?”

Well, my father’s name is Dick and they look at me like I’m crazy. That’s as country as you can get. You ain’t getting any more country than that.


A: How and when did this fitness journey begin for you? Was it before or after your parents passed?

C: My father would body build. He did it for fun.


A: Yeah, so did my dad.

C: So I grew up with exercise. We had an elliptical, we owned a treadmill, and things like that in my home. But I didn’t gravitate towards it. Fitness for me didn’t really start until the latter part of my mother’s illness. Once I started getting better I wasn’t really eating right, I was angry at what happened to me, so I was just eating and drinking. I wasn’t being active.

So I got a job, job. A “jobby job,” ya know. An adult job with a salary, and my mother, my sister, and my brother-in-law (who is a fit person) planned this coup d’etat on me and they all waited for me to get home from work one day. My brother-in-law was the good cop, my sister was the realistic one, and my mother being being my mother said: “you are getting too fat you’re gonna die. You need to join a gym. Like tomorrow.” And it hurt!


A: That’s a mom though!

C: Oh my mother was straight with no chaser. That’s the type of woman she was. And I was like “you gotta be kidding me. Are ya’ll really doing this to me right now?”

I’m like, “where is this coming from?” She had never said that to me in my life, ever. In retrospect, I think she was preparing me. I was the baby in the family and I really felt like my mother held on until she knew I would be okay without her physically, financially, mentally. I think she held on for as long as she could. Because once things started turning around for me in terms of me—having a job, going to the gym—that’s when she spiraled down pretty quickly. Diagnosed as stage 4. She started saying irrelevant things.

After that coup with my family, the next day I happened to have my car and my wallet. I got home from work and I passed by a gym that wound up being down the block. Something inside of me was just saying “Crystal just go in.” So I went in and that was history. The name of the gym was Club H in Hell’s Kitchen.

I started working out, but after my mother died I kind of lost my discipline and I didn’t really care anymore. I spent 9 months wallowing and then my trainer was like “you need to come and take my bootcamp class” and I was like “okay I’ll take your bootcamp class” and I was hooked after that.

It was something new, it was challenging. It was hard, and for me to do something you have to pose it as a challenge. So he said “Well, you’re not gonna come back,” and I was like “Oh really? Okay watch me” and that was that.

I spent a year focusing on fitness, because I quit my job due to craziness. They weren’t really nice to me during my mother’s final days, so I took a year off and spent that time basically going to the gym and learning about nutrition. I would go to the boot camp class, go to Whole Foods, and pick up food. Then on Facebook I would post about my progress and what I was doing and then people would respond with great feedback saying they were inspired to go to the gym. And it just kept happening.

I was giving people advice based on what worked for me, and you know I lost about 70 pounds. I was fighting the idea of becoming a fitness instructor. I didn’t want to do it. I was fighting it for a while, but I’m a religious, spiritual person and I just feel like if God wants you to do something you’re gonna do it. There’s no sense in fighting it, just accept your role and move on and figure out how to do it. And that’s what really happened. I stopped fighting it.


A: When did you first start training people?

C: Personally or group fitness?


A: Both

C: Well I didn’t want to tell people at first. I had one friend that said “I don’t like those trainers that lose a lot weight and then try and tell people what to do.” That kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I just really have a passion for helping people. I believe in paying it forward and I enjoy it. So I didn’t really tell anybody.

I took a course called Shape Up NYC, which helped you become an instructor. Very basic macro anatomy. How to teach a class and then they set you up with a volunteer class. It’s run by the Parks Department. It’s really cool because it allows people who cannot afford gym classes to take them, because the classes are free. The program was free too. You have to apply and they accept you. I was accepted. I was actually worried because I applied late and then by luck I got it. So I thought “I was really meant to do this.” The program was 10 courses over 10 weeks. They gave me a certification and set me up with a class.

During that process I went and got certified to teach group fitness. They needed a spin instructor and I thought “oh yeah I’ll go teach spin, I’ll go do that.”  I wanted to be in my niche and I wanted to know it. So yeah that’s how that happened.


A: So you teach spin class at a YMCA, as well as your own private classes?

C: I teach at 4 other gyms. I’m at 2 Ys. Body Reserve Park Slope and Manhattan Athletic Club. I do my own class at the HIIT Life Fit Factory. I do my own hip-hop spin classes at Tribeca Health and Fitness. I’ve done one party so far, a themed hip-hop party. The series is called Hip Hop Cycle and the first one we did was one that had a Notorious BIG theme, so it was called Notorious Spin which was really successful. From there I’ll have a better idea of how I want to do it. It’s a great opportunity. I can rent a studio, charge, and run my own business. It’s just awesome.


A: I know you work at 4 different gyms, but I just wanted to know what a class was like? Paint a picture for me. If I were in a class what would I expect?

C: People have many different styles of teaching HIIT, depending on where you go. You’re never gonna get the same exact experience. My style is high intensity interval training on a bike — we do sprint drills, we do climbing drills, we use different amounts of resistance. Different positions for different amounts of time. I’m attracted to it because you’re constantly moving. I have a touch of ADD so I need to keep moving.

I need to be challenged by doing something new, always, so I’ve developed my style around that and how to actively and safely do that. That’s the workout in a nutshell, but it’s also like a hip-hop concert on a bike. That’s my personality, I love hip-hop. I love anything with a strong beat and an aggressive lyric. I play a lot of Biggie, Rick Ross, Tupac, Wiz. The other day I played RAW with Big Daddy Kane. You know, just stuff I grew up with, music I like wilin’ out to.


A: Is there one song in particular that you start off your classes off with?

C:  Not all of them but there is one song that comes to mind. Victory by Diddy. I feel like there’s such a build in the beginning and when the beat drops and Biggie starts, you’re just ready to take off at that point.

I have this thing “Start strong, finish strong.” You go in with the intention to kill it, come out with the intention of doing better than how you started. I start with a strong song and then I need to end with a strong song. Usually the first few songs are very, very aggressive. It’s hard not to stay focused when someone is screaming at you. I love called Trophies by Drake. Songs with lyrics that inspire me to be cocky and aggressive.

I don’t play anything I don’t like. Once in while I’ll take requests, which is funny because real DJs don’t take requests. You either give it your all or not. I incorporate that into my teaching. BUT the difference between that is that I’m here for my clients.

You can connect with Crystal on Instagram (@cryswillfitlife).

Filming, production, and interview by Mike LoBello.

Bryan DiSanto

Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Lean It UP
ELLO ELLO I'm Bryan DiSanto. I'm the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Lean It UP, a CPT/CSN/Fitness Coach, Chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu – Paris, NYU graduate, ex-fat kid, and all-around fitness junkie.

I also contribute to Men's Health Magazine.

When I'm not working on my abs (or somebody else’s), whipping up avocado roses and avocado toast, or running a Tough Mudder, I'm probably yelling at a Carolina Panthers game somewhere.

Come be friends with me on Instagram (@BRYDISANTO) & Snapchat (BRYDISANTO).
Bryan DiSanto
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