Back when she was in high school, Cindy O’Donnell, an energetic former athlete, worked as a camp counselor for kids aged 6 through 13 at the JCC Camp in Medford. And she began to notice a disturbing trend: The very athletic boys overshadowed the other kids. And in particular, she noticed the more timid girls would put little effort into playing sports under these circumstances.
Those early observations resonated with O’Donnell, now a mother of three teenage daughters (11, 15, 18). So with a wealth of experience under her belt, O’Donnell turned her findings into a business, Balanced Athletics, featuring fun fitness classes and camps for elementary-aged girls to strengthen their athletic prowess, with the cornerstone being to boost their confidence.
“I wanted to build my clinics around what I knew, and what I thought girls, who play athletics, needed the most,” says O’Donnell, 47.
And what O’Donnell knows is sports.
For as long as O’Donnell can remember, she’s been on the playing field. At Bishop Eustace High School, she was a scholar-athlete who played field hockey, soccer and softball. After high school, she joined the field hockey team at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.
During her college summer breaks, she gained certifications to work as an instructor at fitness centers, eventually gaining credentials for Pilates, and with an added emphasis on youth and teen training. She’s been a student of yoga and an advocate and teacher of good nutrition.
Recognizing an unfilled niche, O’Donnell developed the strollercise program at the Burlington County YMCA in 1994, an ingenious program that afforded moms-with-tots a way to exercise without separating from their children.
“The kids loved it because they got to be pushed around,” remembers O’Donnell, laughing. “And it was harder than people thought. It really got your muscles working.”
By 2008, O’Donnell had begun implementing Balanced Athletics at parks and schools in Moorestown and was bringing girls together in sessions that “fostered camaraderie, teamwork and confidence.
Besides field hockey training sessions, O’Donnell offers “Girls B Fit,” activities designed to encourage new ways for girls to work out.
“I make my classes fun by doing games that kids like. We’ll practice with hula hoops, or I might have a group work on agility ladders,” says O’Donnell, who grew up in Medford Lakes, but now lives in Moorestown with her family.
O’Donnell says her partner, Sarah Dawson, a five-year member of the United States National Field Hockey Squad, and Sarah's sister, Meghan Dawson, a current field hockey member of the United States National Development Squad, were trainers at this summer’s field hockey camp. (Their sister Rachel is a two-time Olympian, and recently competed for the United States field hockey team in the London Olympics.)
In December, the partners will hold the second annual Holiday Hockey session, where all of the Dawson sisters will be coaching.
Besides clinics for girls, O’Donnell runs women’s boot camp classes—“Be Fit For Women”—which teaches five-minute snippets of power exercises that can be done at home.
The establishment of her own business not only arose from her sporting experiences, but also the 15 years O'Donnell spent as a marketing representative for IBM, which afforded her clever entrepreneurial skills and savvy know-how.
Kate Wilson, a mother of two, has had her girls take part in O’Donnell’s camps—in particular the field hockey clinics. She says the level of participation the coaching staff has with the girls has been more organized and educational than other venues they’ve used.
“Both of my girls learned new hockey skills and gained confidence in their games,” says Wilson, of Moorestown. “When they came home, they would practice those skills in our backyard. There haven’t been many camps where they’ve come home like that.”
For a list of camps and classes visit the Balanced Athletics website.