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From Runaway Bride to Workout Mogul

How an American Gladiator audition on the morning of her wedding led Ally Davidson to launch a fitness empire.
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Before their 2008 wedding, Ally Kelly and Jeff Davidson's pastor encouraged them to write a marriage mission statement. They agreed on a simple phrase: "To Live Adventurously." The pledge wound up becoming a business plan of sorts, inspiring them to found the Austin-based fitness company Camp Gladiator. Entrepreneurs Ally and Jeff Davidson told their story to Inc. contributor Reshma Memon Yaqub.

Ally Davidson: The night before our wedding, my sister found out that the TV show American Gladiator was holding tryouts at a nearby gym the next day. That morning, we snuck out of the house without Jeff finding out. I was afraid he would think I was getting cold feet.

When we arrived at the gym, there were about 2,000 people in line outside. I knew I couldn't wait and make it to the church on time. So I threw on my veil and garter and ran up to the producer at the door. He loved that I was a real-life runaway bride and let me in. I did 14 pull-ups and ran a 40-yard dash, then raced to the church, drenched in sweat. I didn't even have time to shower before the ceremony. Later, as we entered our reception, I said to Jeff, "Hey, babe, guess what I did today?"

After we got back from our honeymoon, I got a call saying that, of the 15,000 people who auditioned for the show, I was one of the 40 selected. A few days later, they asked Jeff to join me for a special newlywed episode.

Jeff Davidson: Ally had ridiculously exaggerated my athletic abilities. I'm a finance guy. My goal was to not die in the arms of a 300-pound behemoth. Ally's was to win the whole darn thing. We spent the next six weeks in Los Angeles, competing on the show. I made it to the semifinals, but Ally became the Grand Champion.

After we returned to our day jobs, Ally was restless. She was in ad sales, but she dreamed of gladiators and adventure. In the two months before the show aired, she realized we could leverage the publicity and $100,000 prize money.We talked about it every night and prayed. We came up with the idea of gladiator-themed outdoor fitness classes and launched Camp Gladiator in Dallas a month after the show's finale. Within three months, 100 people had signed up.

Tycoon Tough

Ally Davidson leads a fitness boot camp in Austin. Camp Gladiator holds camps at 350 locations in eight states.

AD: I trained the campers, leading workouts in our church parking lot and a city park. I also handled day-to-day operations from our apartment. Jeff kept his day job and handled our company's finances at night.

JD: As Camp Gladiator grew, we added more trainers and locations. We're now based in Austin and have 10,000 campers in eight states. We attract top trainers by giving them 80 percent of the profits from their locations.

AD: When we created our marriage mission statement, we had no idea we'd have such an amazing opportunity to live it out. Not only are we blessed to live adventurously ourselves, but we're also challenging our campers to do the same.

IMAGES: Jeff Wilson, Jeff Wilson
From the September 2013 issue of Inc. magazine




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