Fitness mogul Ally Davidson breaks down how she got from point A, a spontaneous audition for American Gladiators on the morning of her wedding day, to point B, the rapid rise of her own outdoor-workout empire.
By Rachel Rascoe, Photos by Rudy Arcocha
Just hours before saying “I do” to her husband and now co-CEO, Ally Davidson took on the trope of the runaway bride, with a Hulk Hogan-hosted fitness twist.
On the day of Davidson’s wedding in 2008, her sister and maid of honor, Amanda, hatched a secret plan for the bride to audition for the 1980s revival of competition show American Gladiators.
“She was like, ‘Ally, I know you want to do one last crazy thing before you get married. You should do this,’ ” Davidson recalls of the momentous occasion. “I’ve always loved that kind of really spontaneous, adventurous stuff.”
The sisters arrived at the Austin tryouts to find more than 1,000 people standing in line. Cutting it close to her call time at the altar, Davidson threw on her vail and garter, and ran to the front, begging the producers to let her cut the queue.
Fast-forward to later that year and the impulsive plan had worked, propelling competitive titan Davidson all the way to a victorious finale on American Gladiators.
The on-screen triumph and prize earnings fueled the founding of Davidson’s Austin-based fitness empire, Camp Gladiator. The outdoor boot-camp-style exercise groups blend the challenging excitement of the TV show with sports-style conditioning and team spirit, straight from Davidson’s devoted athletic background.
The formula of fun, fitness and community has thousands of “campers” hooked nationwide.
Her TV Victory
After her last-second American Gladiators tryout, Davidson raced to the wedding ceremony, tied the knot and didn’t give much further thought to warrior fame. But after returning home from her honeymoon, she got the call.
While out in Los Angeles preparing for her red-spandex-clad debut on national television, Davidson talked up the athleticism of her new husband, Jeff Davidson. The show’s producers liked the idea of a competing couple so much that Jeff Davidson, who was working in Dallas at the time with AXA Advisors, was added to the lineup for season two.
Branded as the honeymooning lovebirds, the duo began the intensive filming process for the strength-and agility-stretching production. While Jeff Davidson made a solid stand until the semifinals, Ally Davidson climbed her way to the finale.
“I trained hard for every event and wanted to win, but I also wanted to have a good experience,” Ally Davidson says of her gladiator strategy. “I think if you focus only on the winning, then you get too nervous, but if you focus on trying to soak in the experience, you can relax a little more.”
The lifelong sportswoman’s seemingly unlimited supply of buzzing enthusiasm shines through in the now decade-old footage, in which Ally Davidson swings, darts and scurries at light speed through the show’s grandiose obstacle courses. Propelled by her own magnetic athleticism and competitiveness, Ally Davidson emerged victorious as the female grand champion.
A born and raised Austinite, Ally Davidson grew up in healthy rivalry with her five brothers and sisters.
“I was very competitive as a kid, probably too competitive,” she confesses. “I grew up with a lot of siblings, so we would always be playing outside and compete against each other.”
Ally Davidson credits her parents with implementing the importance of a healthy lifestyle early on through family outings to run at the track.
“I think it was so cool that they had us be a part of fitness with them,” Ally Davidson says. “From a young age, it was like, ‘OK, you go workout. That’s just what you do.’ ”
By high school, Ally Davidson was taking on every sport Westwood High School had to offer, from basketball and cross-country to softball and volleyball. She went on to play college basketball at the University of Mississippi and later at Texas State, where she graduated with a degree in exercise and sports science.
Athletics also fittingly brought the co-CEO couple together. Before heading off to college, Ally Davidson played on a summer basketball team and met her husband, who was helping out a friend as the assistant coach. They dated long distance throughout the course of Ally Davidson’s studies.
Her Big Idea
Returning to her sales-representative job in Dallas with $100,000 in American Gladiators prize money and a new car, Ally Davidson had to keep her mouth shut for the next few months while the show aired.
“After we filmed the finale and I won the show, they literally flew me home and the next day, I’m back at my normal job,” Ally Davidson remembers. “I just felt something tugging on my heart saying that I’ve got to do something with this opportunity.”
She and her husband immediately began developing an idea for a fitness company, drawing on Ally Davidson’s passion and background in sports.
As for the new venture’s exercise routine, Ally Davidson wanted to recreate the enthralling group energy of her past athletics teams.
“My whole life, I had stayed in shape by playing sports and doing all the practices and conditioning drills. When I finished playing, I was kind of lost,” Ally Davidson says. “I got bored and lonely because I wasn’t on a team anymore after I graduated.”
After college, the conundrum sent Ally Davidson on a search for the perfect workout, testing out gyms, camps and classes to no avail.
“They were good workouts, but I always felt like there was never anything more than that,” she says of her past exercise explorations. “I was like, ‘What if I put on a great workout, but I also made it feel more like a team and a community where we live life together?’ ”
The goal manifested into Camp Gladiator’s chief mantra: better together. The group classes, meeting multiple times a week with the same trainer, use healthy competition and group challenges to motivate campers. Positive vibes dodge any boot-camp stereotypes of a lone drill sergeant barking orders.
“They hold each other accountable and they form that community,” Ally Davidson says of the campers. “It’s not just a one-on-one session with a trainer like in a gym. It’s this amazing family that gets the most out of you.”
Her Gladiator Workout
In 2008, Ally Davidson led her initial group of Dallas campers.
“The first camp, I had 40 campers, then they loved it and they brought their friends. The next camp, I had 60 campers. The next camp, I had 80,” she recounts of the business’ quick momentum.
Ally Davidson describes the hour-long Camp Gladiator experience as a “full-body, functional workout, like a combination of a soccer practice mixed with a basketball practice and football.”
“It pulls from that feeling of being on a sports team,” she says.
Today, the athletic-conditioning-inspired classes run on a monthly cycle, with different themes for each week, ranging from endurance to high-intensity workouts. With no two workouts exactly alike, Ally Davidson hopes to banish boredom with exciting variety while also breaking out of the confines of the traditional gym.
“At 5:30 a.m., there’s no one in the Arboretum shopping-mall parking lot, so we’re there,” Ally Davidson says of the North Austin center, one of her program’s varied open-air locales.
Camp Gladiator devotees can be found doing bear crawls and burpees at school fields, city parks and churches in more than 300 cities throughout the country, from the wee hours of the morning to evening meetups.
Another founding goal for Ally Davidson was to keep the workouts inclusive for all fitness levels. Campers can push themselves at their own pace, with workout modifications available to challenge athletes of varied experience.
“Everybody has an inner gladiator. It’s your inner athlete that wants to compete,” Ally Davidson says. “It’s cool that we get to pull that out of people and create an environment where they will be challenged but also do something really amazing and feel accomplished.”
During Camp Gladiator’s early days in Dallas, Ally Davidson says she figured out the business side of the growing workout program as she went along. At the helm, the new CEO juggled her roles in sales, marketing and customer service while also serving as the sole trainer for every camp.
“In the beginning, you literally wear every single hat,” Ally Davidson says of starting her own business. “That’s when I was working 18- to 20-hour days every day. Most business don’t make it past that stage because it’s really hard, but we just had to make it happen.”
Jeff Davidson, who was still working full time in finance, helped out behind the scenes with the tech and accounting side of the business. The newlyweds found their complementary skill sets, as well as hard work and devotion, key ingredients for growing the company. For the first seven years, the couple invested all profits from Camp Gladiator right back into the burgeoning venture, living completely off Jeff Davidson’s income.
Less than a year into launching the fitness business, Jeff Davidson was offered a promotion in Austin. The couple decided to use the move to expand Camp Gladiator beyond the Dallas area.
“When we relocated, we really had to think differently and creatively to scale the business,” Ally Davidson says. “We had to figure out, ‘How are we going to run this thing without me leading every workout?’ ”
The solution for expansion was more trainers and, to financially support the growth, more campers in more locations. Remembering her own past withholdings about working in fitness, Davidson wanted to create a system in which trainers would be fully integrated and supported by the company.
“Even in college, I didn’t want to be a trainer or a coach because I didn’t feel like there were a lot of career opportunities. I actually went into sales because I liked that you could create your own income and opportunities, so I wanted to do that with this business,” Ally Davidson says of developing her business model.
In the various Camp Gladiator cities throughout Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas, trainers act as the operators of their own camp locations. They design workouts based on the weekly themes, help recruit new members and share in a percentage of the profits. They’re also given opportunities to take on more leadership roles within the expansive fitness company.
“We pride ourselves on what we believe is the best opportunity in fitness for trainers, who can build a successful business through our platform,” Ally Davidson says. “They’re truly business partners with us, and that’s something really rare in fitness.”
Her Business Boom
The company supports nationwide trainers from its North Austin headquarters, the CG Arena. The cavernous indoor workout space and central hub reflects the company’s considerable growth, with Camp Gladiator having earned a spot on Inc. Magazine’s top 5,000 fastest-growing private American companies multiple years in a row.
“Once we started hiring trainers, a light bulb kind of went off like, ‘Wow, the potential of this is awesome.’ We could be the Uber or the Keller Williams of fitness, and that’s really what we’re now kind of becoming,” Ally Davidson says of the business’ trajectory.
The move back to her hometown of Austin brought on some of Camp Gladiator’s first employees, who have since seen their responsibilities grow in the multidepartment office and now provide the marketing materials and behind-the-scenes business fuel to power the national camps. Jeff Davidson also came aboard full time as Ally Davidson’s co-CEO three years ago.
“Austin has been great for our business. It’s a really strong fitness community,” Ally Davidson says of her headquarters locale. “People here, I think, want to do something that has purpose behind it.”
As a memorable moment along the path to the company’s current presence in five states, Ally Davidson recalls Camp Gladiator’s fifth birthday. She rented out the Dallas Cowboys’ home, AT&T Stadium, to host a massive group workout for trainers and campers from throughout the U.S.
“It was a Friday night, and we packed out the whole field,” Ally Davidson says of the milestone. “It was just such a cool, epic moment of realizing that these people really love Camp Gladiator.”
The fitness program, now a lifestyle for some veteran campers, has grown to include an app and a nutritional-tracking service, as well as the annual CG Games. Held this past year at the Circuit of the Americas, the finals pull campers from preliminary competitions throughout the country for one big, American Gladiators-inspired obstacle-course spectacular.
Throughout Camp Gladiator’s 10-year existence, Ally Davidson has remained rooted in her Christian faith and founding principle to “honor God by serving others.” Throughout the company, which is staffed with team members of all religions and backgrounds, the founder says this principle translates to a shared goal of both serving others and treating others with respect.
“We definitely incorporate faith into our business and are really open about that,” Ally Davidson says. “I think people appreciate the transparency. Whether they’re Christian or not, they know what we stand for.”
The business’ Christian connections have also been supported by Ally Davidson’s strong family ties, with two of her brothers working for Camp Gladiator and her mother providing services as an attorney.
To share her love of Christ and lively athletics, Ally Davidson founded the nonprofit CG Victory camps soon after launching Camp Gladiator. Found in multiple locations throughout Texas, CG Victory camps welcome campers ranging from students in elementary through high school to gather each summer to participate in activities like rock climbing and dodgeball. Many of the youth are supported by scholarships, the result of fundraisers held at the adult Camp Gladiator locations throughout the year
Her Daily Inspiration
For the majority of her years as the leader of Camp Gladiator, Ally Davidson, in a characteristic show of her superpower energy supply, would rise early to lead a workout in the morning before going to the headquarters for work. The fitness tycoon’s workday would finish by leading yet another group class in the evening.
Although the birth of her two kids in the past two years has tweaked Ally Davidson’s schedule a bit, she continues to lead development programs for trainers and oversees marketing, sales and many other areas of the fitness realm from the Austin hub.
To maintain a sense of work/life balance, the 34-year-old has found investing in good help, like an assistant and a nanny, are essential to her role as CEO. That support system allows Ally Davidson to manage her business and family time, as well as her own moments to, as she puts it, “reharmonize.” Coming as no surprise, those recharge moments happen for Davidson during her exercise routine.
“The times when I feel most inspired are actually when I’m working out,” she says. “That’s when I get a lot of my good thinking time in.”
The born-and-bred athlete’s weekly activity log involves exercising six days a week, including at least three Camp Gladiator sessions. Swimming and jogging on off days complete her regimen, in addition to the family’s love for various outdoor sports like skiing, wakeboarding and sand volleyball.
This devotion to live adventurously reflects a promise made between Ally Davidson and her husband before their wedding, and also echoes in the company’s broad, empowering idea of physical activity.
“That’s about like, ‘Let’s live life together and let’s train for life,’ ” Ally Davidson says of the motto. “If you want to go climb a mountain or go snow skiing or play football on the weekends, let’s just train for that so you can go live adventurously.”
In the year ahead, Camp Gladiator will bring that positive ethos of living adventurously to new camp launches in Corpus Christi and Lubbock, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn. Along with tackling her first post-baby triathlons, Ally Davidson will continue to apply her gladiator grit and determination until, she says, she has a camp running in every major U.S. city, improving as many lives as she can along the way.
“Any time I hear a camper success story of how [camp]changed their life, that awesomeness is what motivates me,” Ally Davidson says. “Same with a trainer. When I hear that they found their passion and their career with us, that’s what I wake up for every day.”
Secrets to Success
Austin Woman asked the fitness empire co-CEO to share the best business advice she’s ever received. Ally Davidson’s expert picks reference her Christian faith, as well as wisdom from Inc. Magazine’s yearly gatherings for its lineup of the U.S.’s top 5,000 fastest-growing private businesses.
Business is all about momentum.
From the Inc. 5000 Conference
“Every business is going to face challenges and obstacles. It’s the businesses that have momentum, energy and inertia that are able to bust through those obstacles and keep moving forward. So, I focus a lot on how to keep energy throughout our organization.”
Two is better than one.
From Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 and 49 Financial, Jeff Davidson’s local financial-planning firm
“Our motto at CG is ‘better together.’ We know that alone, we can only accomplish so much, but when you put the best trainers on the same team and support them with an amazing HQ staff, the end result is limitless. We are a team-based model and everything we do at CG relies on the team.”
Sales is simply a transfer of enthusiasm from one person to another.
From Ally Davidson’s husband and co-CEO, Jeff Davidson
“You don’t have to overcomplicate or be intimidated by sales. It’s simply sharing your passion and love for something with someone else. At Camp Gladiator, we love what we do. Therefore, it’s fun and easy to share that passion with others.”
Heroic leadership isn’t scalable.
From the Inc. 5000 Conference
“If you are the leader or hero doing everything for your organization, that’s not scalable. You have to teach and develop other leaders so that they can also become heroes. One person can’t do it all, but a team of developed leaders can create something amazing.”
Ally Davidson’s Mini Power Circuits
Austin Woman asked the workout powerhouse for two of her go-to, quick, butt-kicking routines for the gladiator running on a tight schedule.
In 15 minutes, do as many rounds as possible of the following:
One 100-yard sprint down and back, 15 pushups, 15 squat jumps, five burpees
Repeat the following circuit three times:
Five burpees, 10 pushups, 15 squat jumps, 20 bicep curls, 25 lunge jumps, 30 mountain climbers, one lap run