Van Davis

By Susan Bean Aycock

Chief Fun Officer of “Be Awesome Now”; Awesome Pickleball Outreach Director

It’s not hard to see why her friends and fitness clients call Van Davis The Energizer Bunny. She’s unbelievably energetic, enviably enthusiastic and dead serious about having fun in achieving a healthy and fit life at any age.

An athlete and fitness trainer all of her adult life — even in her ‘retirement’ — Davis sees her senior years as truly golden. Davis was a volleyball and basketball player, then coach of the women’s volleyball team at Western New Mexico University, and she’s spent the past nearly 40 years championing her message of making physical fitness enjoyable and sustainable.

She’s served as fitness director of the Greater Waco YMCA; owner and personal trainer in her own company, Fitness by Van; and in administrative roles in campus recreation and wellness programs at Baylor University for 23 years until she officially retired in 2022. Which is not to say that she’s sitting still these days; even after 13 surgeries, she’s back to motivating clients to live their best lives through activities that really spark their passion.

For her, that’s pickleball, the relatively new sport that’s taking the country by storm — especially in the senior community, for which she barely qualifies. Wacoan writer (and senior citizen) Susan Bean Aycock sat down with Davis recently to talk about aging spectacularly, finding activity you love and doing it with enthusiasm and beating the pants off of younger people on the pickleball courts.

Can we say your age?
I’m 62 years young, turning 63 on July 18.

You’ve been in the fitness industry all of your career. What’s your backstory?
I was born and raised in Thailand. I graduated from Tombstone High School in Arizona, attended Eastern Arizona College on basketball and volleyball scholarships for two years and finished out the last two years at Western New Mexico University [WNMU]. After becoming head women’s volleyball coach for WNMU at 25, I coached there for six seasons before moving to Waco 33 years ago. I served as fitness director for the Greater Waco YMCA for five years, then started my company, Fitness by Van, before going to work at Baylor University. I served as Baylor’s assistant director of fitness in the campus Recreation Department from 1999-2017, then as assistant director of wellness from 2017-2022. After 23 years at Baylor, I retired in July of 2022.

You were a student athlete, and got your bachelor’s and master’s degrees in exercise-related fields, right?
When I graduated from high school, my goal was to get an education degree to teach PE and coach volleyball for my alma mater. During my undergraduate years at WNMU, I majored in exercise science and minored in nutrition. In my senior year, I was asked to return as a graduate assistant. I began my master’s degree in health education and taught weightlifting, volleyball, aerobics and archery, and served as an assistant coach for the volleyball program. The following year, the university fired the head volleyball coach and asked me to step in as head coach.

So, volleyball coach was your first professional foray into a sports career?
Yes. The most unique thing was that before becoming the head coach at WNMU, I had played as a team member with all the players except the first-year students. I remember talking to the seniors and telling them I was a little scared to be their coach because I had been their peer as a player. But what they told me created a huge mind shift for me. I had been the only senior on the team when I played, and they said they had already looked up to me as a leader. Hearing that gave me a lot more confidence. That year, we broke every record in the program; it was the university’s winningest season to date! I was so honored to be inducted into the WNMU Hall of Fame in 2009 as a player and coach.

Back-pedal for a minute. How did you come to the U.S. from Thailand?
My stepfather, Craig Smith, was stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War when he married my mother. We moved to America when I was younger, then went back to Thailand during my junior high years. We moved back to the U.S. when I was a freshman and I attended Tombstone High School, where I met my high school sweetheart, Raymond. We’ve been together 48 years now and will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary this August. We moved to Waco when Raymond took a position with the Social Security Administration, which he recently retired from.

So you moved to Waco 33 years ago. What happened with your fitness career?
I had always been such a workaholic that when we got to Waco, I told myself I’d take three months off before starting anything else. I started going to the [Greater Waco] YMCA to work out — I was usually the only female in the weight room — and my first week there, someone told me about a job opening in the Y’s fitness center. The next week, I took the job. By the second week, I was teaching aerobics and managing the weight room.

During that time, I dove into earning fitness certifications through the Cooper Institute of Aerobics Research in Dallas: Fitness Specialist, Biomechanics and Advanced Biomechanics, Resistance Training, Personal Fitness Training and Life Coaching, to name a few. I became the fitness director for the Waco Family YMCA, and then started my own personal training company, Fitness by Van.

Tell me about Fitness by Van.
Fitness by Van is an in-home personal training service. I show up to my clients’ homes with equipment such as exercise bands, dumbbells and mats and train them in working out.

I loved being my own boss and being able to set my own schedule, and really enjoyed the flexibility of working for myself. Our daughter, Bianca, was still young, and I was able to fit my appointments around her schedule.

But then I had a car accident. My plan was to wait until the insurance money came in and take the next step in my business: to buy a minivan that was to have the ‘Fitness by Van’ logo on it — a van for Van! I never went through with the van idea because my life took a 180-degree turn in 1999 when I was asked to become the assistant director of fitness at Baylor University, and develop programs and services for its McLane Student Life Center that was under construction.

How did you get connected with Baylor University?
While I was waiting for the insurance money after my car accident, Dr. Kim Scott, the director of Campus Recreation at Baylor, called and asked me to take the newly-created position of Fitness Coordinator. Dr. Scott was my daughter’s former PE teacher at Spring Valley Elementary. I said no the first time she asked, but then I said yes.

When God opens a door when you’re not looking, there’s a reason for that. I decided to say yes to this opportunity because I love challenges, and I loved the challenge of taking a brand-new position to create programs and services to go with the new center. I started the FitWell group exercise program at Baylor that’s still going strong after 23 years. It also offers personal training, massage therapy and nutrition advisement programs to serve Baylor students, faculty and staff. My title was later changed to Assistant Director of Campus Recreation in Fitness, then to Assistant Director of Wellness when my programs and services were moved into the Wellness Department.

But wait, you have your own fitness company again.
My company’s name is Be Awesome Now. Its mission is to inspire individuals to love, live and lead better. Be Awesome Now offers three areas of service:
• Fitness by Van: focusing on personal training, group exercise and fitness and wellness conferences and seminars
• The Awesome Pickleball Outreach program: bringing the awareness of pickleball and teaching the sport to new players in Waco and surrounding communities, providing a free open gym at Central United Methodist Church [CUMC] • Van’s Volleyball Training for Life program: teaching basic volleyball skills and leadership training to youth once a week from January to May, and hosting summer volleyball training programs
I never got the van for Fitness by Van, but I do have a new car now that has my ‘Be Awesome Now’ logo on it.

What does a typical week look like for you — or is there one?
I keep myself quite busy. A typical week sees me training personal training clients, teaching exercise classes at the Memory Care Unit at The Delaney at Lake Waco; teaching Strength & Stretch classes at Crestview Church of Christ Community Center and Chair Strength & Stretch classes at the Woodway Family Center; and coaching youth volleyball players on Wednesday nights. I spend at least 20 hours a week supervising and coordinating the Awesome Pickleball Open Gym at the CUMC gym and making time for personal workouts and pickleball training. The rest of the time, I get to be wife to my husband, Raymond, and mom to my two Aussie puppies, Joy Bear and Bruiser Bear.

You teach an exercise class that you say is ideal for seniors. Tell me more about that.
My Strength & Stretch classes are for all ages and levels, but we do have a lot of seniors since classes are in the morning. The class starts with a group warm-up, followed by five rounds of Tabata [interval] workout that includes cardio and strengthening exercises with exercise bands and body weight, and finishes with a 10- to 15-minute total-body chair stretching. Tabata workout consists of doing the exercise phase for 20 seconds, breaking for 10 seconds, and repeating that for eight times per round. It’s so amazing to see my members becoming more active and stronger, and increasing their flexibility.

And your Volleyball Training for Life program?
On Wednesday nights, I teach basic volleyball skills for fourth grade through high school youth at the Waco Montessori School gym. I started the only volleyball club in central Texas, the Waco Juniors Volleyball Club, more than 20 years ago and it’s still going strong. I did that for eight years so that my daughter, Bianca, could have a volleyball club to play in. She’s 34 now and lives in Houston.

That one club team season grew from one to 14 teams before I retired and gave the club to Ryan Porter, head volleyball coach at Midway High School. I’m still coaching volleyball mainly because of a promise that I gave to Molly Martinsen, the best volleyball player I’ve ever coached, who passed away from brain stem cancer when she was 12 years old.

I seem to be the only one of my senior friends who hasn’t tried pickleball. For those not familiar with it, can you describe it? What do you love about it?
With all the sports I’d done, I had never even heard of pickleball until I retired from Baylor. A friend invited me to play, and I fell head over heels in love with the sport — I simply can’t get enough of it. Imagine playing ping-pong but standing on the table; it’s a little like playing ping-pong and tennis combined. The courts are much smaller than tennis, which makes it easier for seniors to enjoy the sport. [Wacoan’s note: pickleball is a sport for two or four players, where players hit a perforated, hollow plastic ball with paddles on a 20-by-44 foot court, indoors or outdoors.]

And Awesome Pickleball Outreach Director at Central United Methodist Church: that’s quite a title. You really cheerlead for the sport. Why?
Pickleball has changed my life. It can be played recreationally or competitively, and it’s great for seniors. I’ve been an athlete most of my adult life, and I’m so grateful and excited to play a sport that’s fun and challenging at my age with all my physical limitations.

I have one participant who’s lost 100 pounds playing pickleball, and another who’s playing pickleball to stay active while coping with cancer. Pickleball has allowed me to stay active, to interact socially with a great community, to play a sport that I love and to compete in tournaments.

What’s your view on the importance of physical activity for senior citizens?
Without regular exercise, senior citizens can experience a range of health problems that include reduced muscle mass, strength, physical endurance, coordination and balance. Physical activity is so important for all ages, but especially for senior citizens. People who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional well-being, lower rates of mental illness and reduced risks of falling, anxiety and depression. Regular exercise improves mental health, well-being and cognitive functioning.

What advice do you give for older adults on staying active?
Find something you enjoy, whether it’s a sport, walking, hiking, dancing or gardening. Try to move your body every day, most days of the week. Find a friend to do these activities with so it’s more enjoyable, and you’ll stick to it longer than doing it by yourself. Remember that even a little bit is better than doing nothing at all.

I enjoy a lot of different things, but pickleball is at the top of the list. It drives me every day to have something so unique that I love to do. Even when I was recovering from my recent hip replacement and couldn’t play, I enjoyed being in the gym watching and learning from other players.

You’ve had more than a few sports-related injuries and surgeries and that doesn’t seem to have slowed you down. Has that changed what you can do physically?
I’ve had 13 surgeries: seven on my left knee, four on my right knee — with both knees replaced — a right rotator cuff surgery, and a right hip replacement over Christmas. I must accept that I can’t do certain things at the same level any more, like jumping in volleyball and wallyball, and high-impact activities. I’ve learned to not be bothered by the things that I can’t do, but to really appreciate all the things that I am still able to do and enjoy. I’m so glad that I’m still able to play pickleball, and am looking forward to spending my golden years competing in this wonderful sport.

How do you carry your mission of active aging to others?
The biggest thing that I can do is to walk the talk and do all the things I’m asking my clients and others to do. I also live by my seven tips of Be Awesome Now (sleep seven to nine hours a night; drink at least eight glasses of water each day; eat foods closest to their original forms; move and stay active most days of the week; lift to keep your muscles and bones strong; stretch daily to stay flexible and reduce chances for injuries; and practice gratitude.) Teaching my Strength & Strength classes and pickleball to my senior friends and clients has also been impactful.

We live in a youth-oriented culture — how do seniors take back our power?
Our culture might look at seniors as being frail and weak. By taking care of our bodies and keeping our minds sharp, we can show our independence and earn respect. One area that seniors are getting a lot of respect is on the pickleball courts. I know a lot of players in our community who are in their 70s and can easily beat players in their 20s.

What does aging well mean to you?
To me, aging well means keeping my mind sharp, staying physically active, serving my community and having the physical well-being to do all the things that I love to do, like playing pickleball and traveling with my husband. 

Listen to your body! If something doesn’t feel right, seek professional help. Listen to your doctors and surgeons and follow their instructions. If they say to stay off your feet for a week, that doesn’t mean to do it for only a day or two. Truthfully, this is a difficult one for me; I’m very impatient during my rehabilitations.

How much does attitude play in the challenge for seniors to stay physically active?
Attitude is at least 90% of it. Your mind drives your physical well-being, not the other way around. If you have a positive attitude, it’s going to drive you to do things that are better for you, that will give you more energy both physically and mentally. A positive attitude will let you see the fun in your workouts and look forward to the activities and people you get to share them with.

Changing your body with more exercise is one thing, but how do you go about changing your mental attitude?
Whatever you put in your mind becomes your mindset. By feeding your mind something positive even when you’re thinking negatively, things begin to change. For some people, it’s hard to get out of a negative rut. Try to have an intervention with your negative thoughts and replace them with something positive: a positive word, phrase or mental picture. Practice this on a regular basis so it becomes a habit, just like you would practice for sport skills or lifting weights to get stronger.

What do you think keeps a person young at heart?
Most importantly, accept and embrace aging. Having a positive attitude and laughing a lot is also important. Find things that you enjoy doing and do them with others. Try to start your day with a positive mindset and do whatever it is that will bring you joy. Volunteer your time by serving your church and your community. Staying physically active, eating healthily and prioritizing sleep will also help in staying young at heart.

Why do you do what you do?
Every day I get to live out my life’s mission, which is simply to live life enthusiastically and to help every person that God puts in my path. I love to serve people, to bring them together, and see them enjoy life. With my Be Awesome Now company, I get to do all of this through helping people to love themselves better; to live their best life now physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally; to be better leaders so they can lead themselves and others better; and along the way, to have FUN and live each day as if it’s your last!