About five years ago, I showed up to my first “Life Barre” class, my post-baby body cloaked in an oversized magenta t-shirt. “Hey, I took ballet in grade school,” I thought. “This should be fun.” Claiming a space on the far side of the room, I prepared for a gentle trip down memory lane via plies and arabesques…and over the next 60 minutes got the fitness wakeup call of a lifetime. Who knew a workout based on basic ballet moves would feel more like boot camp than the prim, ribbons-in-my-hair dance class of my youth?

Still, even in my less-than-beach-body state, I loved every minute of the surprisingly grueling session, and craved more. Tuesday mornings from then on, I made the trek to that mirrored room, rain or shine. It wasn’t that I particularly loved the selection of techno music blaring over the speakers, or that the gym offered free childcare (though that was certainly a plus). Mostly, my devotion to barre class came down to my feelings of awe for the instructor, Tessa — or, as I like to think of her, Lady Badass.

A goddess in our midst, Tessa was every woman’s fitness aspirations in human form. With toned arms, killer quads, and nary a hint of muffin top, she looked like she had stepped from a magazine photo shoot — after airbrushing. Still, her cheerful demeanor and positive attitude always kept her relatable, as she chatted from her headset about her kids, her husband, and great deals on yoga pants. And several months in, even when pregnant with baby number four, she never failed to go the distance with everyone in class, doing every last rep, pushing (seemingly effortlessly) to the finish.

Over the course of many Tuesdays, my barre classmates and I learned from Tessa how to exercise in innumerable ways using just a weighted pole. She turned red rubber balls into instruments of squeezable, rewarding torture between our thighs. In the absence of an actual ballet barre, I remember the many times she made us hold on to the handlebars of spin class bikes for balance. Though her moves placed insane demands on my muscles, they did so in such innovative ways, I couldn’t help but enjoy them. As the months went by, Tessa began to mean more to me than I ever would have imagined — as a fellow mom, a health inspiration, and the fitness champion I never knew I needed.

Tessa and I never hung out outside of class or even became Facebook friends, but her influence on me has endured. Even though I ended my gym membership a couple of years ago, she remains in my thoughts. I still marvel at her ebullient energy, and hope to someday achieve something like her level of unfailing stamina. (Flaunting washboard abs like hers would be nice too.) Since my days in her class, I’ve stayed active through yoga, barre videos on YouTube, and — mostly — by training for several competitive races. When I hit mile 5 of a 10k and I’m struggling, my breath ragged, my legs begging for mercy, I think of her relentless strength: staying on tiptoe longer than anyone in class, or holding a plank position, her baby belly hovering above the floor. Her cries of, “How strong are you today?” from her headset mic resound in my mind. “So strong,” I answer, and keep going. Last year I actually earned a medal for placing third in a race with several hundred participants. Pretty stunning progress for the woman in the oversized magenta shirt hiding in the corner of the classroom.

I know now something I never realized at barre, but that makes so much sense in hindsight: that identifying a healthy person we admire can help us become healthier ourselves. Just like studies have shown obesity to be “contagious,” healthy lifestyles and enthusiastic attitudes about fitness have a way of transmitting through personal connection too. Having a “health mentor” whose image I can call upon reminds me that I can always take more little steps toward harder, better, faster, stronger — or just healthier in general.

So thank you, Tessa, wherever you are. You taught me to be a fitness badass, and I am forever grateful.

Got an inspiring fitness instructor who deserves a shout-out? Tweet us @BritandCo!

(Photo via Getty)