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How Powerlifting Taught Dana Rygwelski to Be an Entrepreneur

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MassChallenge Texas’ Dana Rygwelski shares how her accomplishments as an athlete in the sport of powerlifting enabled her—and the entrepreneurs she helps—to achieve more in the tech world.

By Dana Rygwelski, Photo by Michelle Baillio

The unexpected occurrence of training as an athlete for a completely unreasonable goal is that you learn a lot about life—and business. But you learn more from the bumps in the road than you do from reaching the goal itself.

A little more than two years ago, I accomplished my biggest goal as an adult: achieving the heaviest squat of any woman in the sport of powerlifting anywhere in the world, regardless of weight class or equipment. I did it: a 705-pound squat to top the charts in 2016.

Achieving that goal consumed me for nearly 10 years. The closer it got to the big day, the more focused I became, eventually going as far as reducing my full-time role to part time so my main focus was training.

The time between December 2016 and December 2018 included four abdominal surgeries, surviving renal cancer, total burnout and a new job in an old career. In August 2017, I decided to move on from powerlifting and get back to my work on the cutting edge of technology and business: building startup accelerators.

Like I do, I went all in and accepted a role as director of communications and ecosystem on the launch team for MassChallenge Texas. At the time, we were the newest region for MassChallenge, the world’s largest nonprofit no-equity startup accelerator.

Since our launch, we have accelerated 84 startups, whichhave raised more than $30 million, generated more than $20 million in funding and created 524 jobs. We launched programs in Austin and Houston and are working fast toward our goal to make Texas the best place in the world to innovate. Through this new chapter of my life in a fast-paced and high-impact career, I started to recognize that what I learned as an athlete is applicable to me now and to each entrepreneur I interact with today:

Athletes believe in themselves more than anyone else. When you decide to step into yourself and be seen as the first or the best, you need an unshakable belief that you are “the one.” Those who you think will be your biggest supporters will be some of your biggest haters. When I was training, I hoped my family would be the ones to support me through it all. They were not, and they let it be known they did not support my goal. This is when I learned nothing matters more than how important the goal is to you. Those who are crazy enough to believe they can will.

Athletes know how to navigate chaos and get s–t done. When you’re working toward a big, crazy, audacious goal, nothing but the goal matters. On the days I trained, life didn’t stop. Small injuries happened. Exhaustion set in. It hurt! Regardless of the pain, the only thing that mattered was that every time I successfully completed a training session, I was one step closer to achieving my goal. Step by step, brick by brick: That’s how goals are achieved. Whenlife gets in the way, reset, reframeand get back to business. No one can stop you but you.

Athletes know how to build a team. No one achieves anything alone; it takes a village. When I was training, there was not one workout where I was by myself, and I was usually surrounded by men. I found the best way to build my team was to find other women powerlifters that wanted to achieve similar feats of strength. Thanks to Austin SimplyFit and social media, I built a tribe of strong ladies to lean on and celebrate with. Without them, achieving this goal would have been lonely. In my career, it’s the same. I’ve connected with so many women who are passionate about helping each other win, and through our friendship, we are creating tidal waves to float all boats.

In both of these phases of my life, it was the community with which I surrounded myself that made success possible. It is the community that taught me being an Austin woman means having the freedom to recreate yourself whenever and however you want. Whether you want to be an elite athlete or a businesswoman—or both—we each have the ability to create our own lives and we don’t have to be alone to succeed.

When life gets in the way, reset, reframe and get back to business. No one can stop you but you.

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