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Willmar woman to compete on new NBC fitness series

Jill May, left, a 35-year-old mother of four from Willmar, is a participant on the upcoming NBC series “STRONG,” produced by Sylvester Stallone. Jill teamed with Bennie Wylie, right, a renowned strength and conditioning coach on the series, billed by the network as “a fitness competition show like no other.” (PHOTO COURTESY OF NBC)

Jill May was in a slump.

When she looked in the mirror, she wasn’t a fan of who stared back.

Physically she felt heavy and sluggish.

Mentally she was drained, her mind on autopilot.

One day last spring she stumbled upon an online advertisement.

“Are you a mom with 20 pounds to lose?” the ad quizzed.

“Why yes I am,” Jill thought.

She read further.

“From the network that brought you ‘The Voice’ and ‘American Ninja Warrior’ and the creator of ‘The Biggest Loser’ … ”

The ad was an open call for competitors for “STRONG,” an upcoming NBC reality series produced by Sylvester Stallone and billed by the network as “a fitness competition show like no other.” Contestants, the ad said, embark on a transformative journey to find a balance between mind and body.

It was no secret to those in her circle Jill was long intrigued by the prospect of appearing on a reality show. And this seemed right up her alley.

But the closest audition site was Chicago.

So she submitted a video.

“My name is Jill,” she began and then laid out the details of her life: 35-year-old Willmar resident, four kids, stay-at-home mom, substitute teacher, 5 feet, 8 inches, 165 pounds, no desire to workout, mind and body don’t quite reside in the same zip code.

Weeks later, the network called. Jill was in.

Jill, meet Bennie

After learning she was selected to compete on “STRONG,” Jill flew to Malibu, California, where the show was filmed. It was there she met her training partner: Bennie Wylie.

In the mid-1990s, Wylie was the starting tailback and captain of the Bearkats football team at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He studied criminal justice and considered becoming a Texas Ranger or Navy SEAL.

By his senior year, his focus shifted and he transferred his major to kinetics, the specific study of human movements.

He buoyed his academics by running the university’s strength and conditioning program, to rave reviews, according to a 2015 article on Bennie in his hometown Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News.

Bennie and Jill compete on the show against nine other teams. (NBC PHOTO)Bennie collected his degree during a ceremony on a Saturday in May 1999.

The subsequent Monday, before dawn, he strolled into the Dallas Cowboys’ Valley Ranch training facility as the team’s new assistant strength and conditioning coach.

That first day with the Cowboys proved indelible: he was assigned to train with Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, he of the three Super Bowl rings and Hall of Fame plaque.

“He was my guy, having been a tailback,” Bennie was quoted in the Reporter-News article. “He was the guy at the time, one of the top five running backs of all time.”

Later, Bennie would accept similar positions with Texas Tech and the University of Texas, training more than a dozen young athletes who’d become NFL draft picks and one, Vince Young, regarded by many as one of the superior collegiate quarterbacks of the past 25 years.

“He was no-nonsense,” Jill said with a hearty laugh during a phone interview March 15 from her Willmar home. “He was very much a coach. I remember meeting him and thinking ‘OK, better get it together, Jill’.”

The show

The slightly slurred and cavernous narration on “STRONG’s” online promotional trailer is apt. And as a chain of vignettes featuring the competitors accompanies his unmistakable parlance, Stallone’s creative touches on the show become increasingly apparent.

Parts “Rocky,” parts the “Contender” - the heralded action star’s previous foray into reality TV, one that offered a behind-the-scenes look into the world of up-and-coming boxers - the “STRONG” trailer hints at a gruelling physical venture, with competitors, at times, on the brink of tears.

Due to a confidentiality agreement, Jill could discuss little but the show’s synopsis: participants and their all-male trainers - a roster that includes Bennie, a former MMA fighter, a CrossFit superstar and seven other burly slabs of intensity from various fitness disciplines - compete side-by-side each week during strength and conditioning challenges.

At the end of each episode, two teams battle to stay in the contest by besting one another in a four-story monolith designed to “put every muscle and ounce of determination to the test,” the trailer states.

This process continues until two teams face-off in the finale, with the winners receiving a cash prize of up to $500,000.

Life lessons

The post-“STRONG” Jill is vastly different to the individual who left for California.

Jill will host a viewing party April 13 for the series premiere of STRONG. (NBC PHOTO)While physically exhausting, she said the experience was inwardly reinvigorating and renewed an avidity she had previously struggled to nurture.

“It showed me the body will do whatever the mind wills it to,” she said. “Part of my challenge before I went was that mentally, I just didn’t care. But a big part of what Bennie did was build up my mental strength again and reinforce that mentality that nothing I put my mind to is beyond reach.”

She’s also eager for her children - two boys and two girls, ages 8-15 - to see mom in a way they never have previously.

“I’m looking forward to them soon getting a glimpse of where I was while I was gone and for them to see what I did,” she said. “We were talking about the show yesterday and they were like ‘whoa, mom’.”

The public can also share in the experience: Jill will host a viewing party from 7 to 10:30 p.m. April 13 at the Kandiyohi County Area Family YMCA, 1000 Lakeland Dr. S.E. in Willmar. “STRONG” premieres at 8 p.m. that night.

For more information on “STRONG,” visit www.nbc.com.

Dan Burdett

Dan Burdett is the community content coordinator at the West Central Tribune. He has 13 years experience in print media, to include four years enlisted service in the United States Air Force. He has been an employee of Forum Communications since 2005, joining the company after spending two years as the managing editor of the Redwood Gazette and Livewire in Redwood Falls. Prior to his current position, Dan was the presentation editor at the Tribune.

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