The fitness family—or fit fam—in Sarasota-Manatee has expanded over the years, with instructors offering everything from yoga to high-intensity workouts in an environment that’s as much about emotional support as it is about the latest routines. Meet three of our town’s favorite fitness motivators.
Ray Gardner, HIIT Workouts
Ray Gardner’s clients always thank him for his work, but he claims the results are all them. “I’m just the shot of espresso that got them going,” he says.
Gardner, 33, has become one of the most popular fitness instructors in Bradenton, with more than 2,000 Instagram followers and motivational speaker status. His clients, inspired by his high energy and mental approach to fitness, gather in the hundreds for each bootcamp and conference.
Gardner played football and basketball growing up and on a collegiate level, but says fitness has always been more about connections than the perfect body, and his clients—kids and adults—feel that.
His bootcamps and annual “Ray Day” bootcamp attract hundreds of participants each year. But his specialty? Making even the shyest gymgoers feel seen.
“People have told me that I make them feel included and like they belong,” says Gardner. “It warms my heart.” Gardner posts daily motivational content on his website, raysramblings.com. He also runs a podcast called “A Shot of Espresso,” featuring local trainers and friends. Next, Gardner plans to open his own gym, Prosper Bradenton.
“I went with the name prosper because it means to elevate, mentally, physically and spiritually,” says Gardner. “This holistic approach to fitness is unique and new to our community. It’s more about your mental health than simply trying to lose weight.”
Follow Gardner at prosperbradenton.com.
Mandy Allen, CrossFit
For Bradenton’s Mandy Allen, CrossFit is not just a hobby, but a way of life. She quit her corporate advertising job in 2015 to become a CrossFit trainer in Bradenton. Now, Allen, 46, is the manager of CrossFit 941, where members lovingly refer to her as “the gym mom.”
“My first CrossFit workout was only six minutes, but I was sore for three days,” says Allen. “I remember wanting to spend all my time at the gym from then on.”
Allen received her coaching certificate at CrossFit 941, but says it was the hands-on experience from fellow coaches and welcoming nature of the gym’s more than 200 members, and the gym's more than 2,000 Facebook followers, that motivated her. As a coach, she seeks to modify techniques, from flipping 100-pound tires, to climbing ropes and jump-squatting boxes, so that everyone meets their potential.
“The best part of being a coach is seeing someone achieve what they thought they couldn’t,” says Allen. “[My clients] are like my children, and I take pride in them achieving their goals, in and outside the gym.”
Follow Allen and CrossFit 941 at crossfit941.com.
Ashley Stewart, Yoga
There’s no shortage of good yoga studios in Sarasota, but something about Ashley Stewart’s classes makes students call it “the yoga church.” Stewart, a Sarasota native, began her teacher training at The Yoga Shack in 2013. Now, she’s a staple at the Sarasota studio and in the local yogi community, with more than 2,000 Instagram followers.
“My first yoga class was in college at the University of Florida, but I remember not feeling so present,” says Stewart, 34. “I didn’t realize there were a variety of yoga styles.” She learned the art of hatha, slower yoga, and vinyasa flow, or power yoga from Sarasota teacher Allie Koski.
When the pandemic started, Stewart, who once worked in person with the elites—IMG Academy athletes and the Baltimore Orioles—shifted to Zoom classes that reached a broader range of students. She’s since gone back to in-person sessions for her students.
“Clients call it yoga church because it’s like a pause from the business of life,” says Stewart. “We return to mindfulness and become more in control of our thoughts and actions, especially during uncertain times.”
Follow Stewart on Instagram @ashleystewartyoga.