KICKING HER WAY INTO THE NEW YEAR By Sara Courtney
Tara Connell, owner of CKO Kickboxing, celebrates a milestone.
It’s been ten years since Tara Connell moved to Maplewood and opened CKO Kickboxing. Located on Springfield Avenue, the high-energy gym has been inspiring local residents for years to get off the couch and get moving. Connell, with her cheerfully straightforward approach, encourages folks to try this particular brand of fitness, with its classes that create a community atmosphere, its miked-up teachers telling gym goers all the moves, and, of course, its method of relieving stress by punching a heavy gym bag.
Connell’s journey to becoming a gym owner was unexpected. Growing up in Florham Park, she was the youngest of six children. “It was kind of chaotic,” Connell says. “We were all born within a year of each other.” All that energy was often channeled into sports. “That was our outlet,” she remembers. “We were very active and played sports every season. Going from one game to the next was pretty much my whole life.”
Having graduated from college with a marketing degree, Connell began working by planning corporate events. She traveled frequently for her job, and the hours were long and often grueling. She had her first child in 2007 and began to reconsider her future. “That’s tough work,” she recalls.
“It’s really kind of around the clock. It’s a lot of travel.” With the financial crisis of 2008, and many of the corporate event clients in banking, the work came to a halt. “It was good timing for me to sort of slow down,” she admits. “I wound up having two more kids shortly thereafter. We were living in Brooklyn and I was trying to figure out what my next step was going to be. I was looking for something more kid-friendly.”
The desire to find work that was more fulfilling but also more flexible led her to consider an unexpected passion of hers: kickboxing. She had been staying active after the birth of her first child, dedicating herself to running marathons. When a friend of hers asked her to be her gym buddy and accompany her to the CKO Kickboxing gym in Carroll Gardens, Connell was game. “I’m all for being a wing girl. So I went with her and I was immediately hooked.” Right away, Connell felt the level of fitness she experienced was doing more for her physically and mentally than anything else she had tried before. “It was amazing to me that in one hour, I could get what I couldn’t get for my whole body by running for four hours. It was just the whole body cardio and strength training that comes in just a one hour class.”
Despite being nine months pregnant, Connell found herself going to classes as much as she could. “I was a bit of a spectacle at times,” she laughs. Still, the ability to turn up for a class and simply focus all her stress and energy on punching a kicking bag did wonders for her physical and mental health. “It made me feel good and it allowed me to be a better mom. I could take it all out on the bag, and then I’d come home and could be patient and just enjoy hanging out with my kids.”
Part of the particular joy and satisfaction that one gets out of kickboxing is, according to Connell, “the stress release of being able to hit, kick, and punch a bag. That’s really the difference.” It’s not just the pounding of a 140-pound bag that is so satisfying, though clearly that helps. Connell suggests that the class model is conducive to a successful and consistent gym-going habit. “When you go to the gym and you have to work out for yourself, you have to be your own trainer.
Whereas here, you step into a class and it’s done for you. All you have to do is show up.” For many busy professionals and parents, the act of simply showing up and being told what to do is a huge relief.
Having made the leap from Brooklyn to Maplewood in 2012, Connell made the professional leap as well and opened her own CKO Kickboxing franchise on January 12, 2013. She was eight months pregnant at the time, and thrilled to be owning and operating her own gym for the community. Many of the gym goers – Connell estimates 75 percent – are women, something that Connell chalks up to the physicality of the total body workout, the class support, and the much needed satisfaction of relieving that day-to-day stress. And while she acknowledges that taking that first step in a fitness journey can be tough, especially for folks who have been sedentary for some time, it is the act of simply coming in and doing what you can that will make all the difference over time. “We have a saying here. ‘Kickboxing is my therapy.’ Well, it’s cheaper than therapy,”
Connell says, before adding, “No one ever regrets coming to class.”
For many locals, starting the new year off right – mentally, physically, and, hopefully professionally – takes time and dedication. Yet just as importantly, it all takes motivation. Connell and her 140-pound kickboxing bag are here to encourage folks to believe in themselves and give something new a try. From working in client services in corporate events, to drawing in uncertain locals who transform into healthy, confident individuals, Connell has truly found her calling. “I get to help people feel good about themselves. I have seen people lose 80 to 100 pounds. They all started at the same place, but they come in and during the classes they are smiling more because they are feeling good.” For Connell and her CKO Kickboxing gym, being a positive force on Springfield Avenue has changed many locals’ approach to life, including her own. “This is extremely rewarding,” she says proudly. “More rewarding than any client service I had ever done.”
Sara Courtney is a local Maplewood resident and running enthusiast. She plans to give kickboxing a try.