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‘I pedal that bike to the high road’: Jill Brown's SOUL Story

tuntwoman JILL BROWN survived on-set fights with zombies and the sinking of the Titanic, but when the one-two punch of a car accident and cancer diagnosis threatened to finish her, she took matters into her own hands… and found strength at SOUL…

As a little girl, I was a scrappy tomboy who climbed trees, played football and jumped bikes over cars. I despised princesses and anything pink. It came as no surprise to my parents when I announced I wanted to be a professional stuntwoman.

I’ve gotten into on-camera fisticuffs with brides, zombies, gangsters and creatures out of the pages of science fiction scripts. I’ve kissed Clooney and stalked Clive. I've escaped tidal waves, meteors, killers, creepy producers and went down with the Titanic. For a short time, I was in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. I called De Niro “Pesci” and made Robin Williams laugh. My father told J. Lo how to handle her business. Nicholson shot me, I gave Channing the finger and Ice Cube said I was "awright."

Then my chosen career broke me.

In 2003, I sustained a debilitating back injury from an intense car transfer for the crappy movie Taxi. (Seriously. Have you seen Taxi? I didn’t think so.) I walked away with three herniated discs that initially compressed… then blew out some much-needed disc fluid. I could no longer enjoy a run, compete in sports or do my usual workouts without feeling like I had glass in my spine. I took long walks and went to the gym and eventually accepted my fate, knowing it could have been worse. I had to be selective with stunt work now, sticking mostly with driving while I transitioned into stunt coordinating. In the spring of 2012, I took a stunt job as the lead driver for a NYC car chase for the movie Now You See Me. Taking that job may have saved my life.

On the last day of shooting, I woke up at dawn, excited to wrap. I was already imagining a sweet reentry to Los Angeles for my “Spring of Yes,” when I’d get back in shape (sitting in a stunt car 12 hours a day does not strong abs make) and date again. Naturally, I promised myself that I’d steer clear of “hairoin” – you know, that specimen of California male with big dreams, big addictions, no future and a perfectly-groomed beard. I had a difficult time grasping the notion that a full beard does not guarantee an evolved man. Abe Lincoln and Joe Manganiello led me astray.

But as it turned out, I wouldn’t even have a chance to be tempted. The stunt went to hell in a hand roll. Norman, the driver in the stunt car I was tailing in the chase, turned a corner too fast, spun out of control, drifted into my lane and we crashed.

You know what’s not all that enjoyable? An airbag to the face. I was rushed to the hospital and miraculously, was cleared. But the following day, sh*t got weird. Cue the fog and dizziness and 11-hour naps. Everyone and everything seemed to be moving so fast; I felt like I was inside a video game. My sister Kelly urged me to return to the hospital for further testing. I decided to go because there’s no arguing with my protective little sister. Besides, you never know if there’ll be an opportunity to meet a hot doctor.

After a CT scan, the physician's assistant (who, sadly, was not hot) told me I had a “significant mass” on my frontal lobe. Medical professionals used the word “significant” because they’re not allowed to say, “f*cking huge.”

Although doctors can't pinpoint my tumor's birthday, they estimate that this slow-growing mass was in my head for 10-plus years. The tumor grew from the outer protective sheath of the brain called the meninges. It was slightly bigger than a golf ball and it was pushing my brain to the side, a condition called "mass effect." Neurologists were dumbfounded that I was asymptomatic. I reminded them that I had had symptoms: Just look at all my previous dating choices.

A month later, following a tumor tour to see my favorite bands and then a going away party for “Norman” (the name I’d given to my mass because I couldn’t get myself to say the word “tumor”), I had brain surgery at Johns Hopkins hospital.

Don't cry for me, SOUL siblings. They excised it all. Although my recovery was grueling, my titanium head and I sought a new normal in work, love, life and of course exercise patterns. It wasn’t always easy; my serotonin dipped and those powerful endorphins I so enjoyed after a solid workout were greatly diminished. I was happy to be alive, but between my back and brain, I longed for those intense workouts that cleared my mind and made me feel both physically and mentally stronger.

Enter SoulCycle. I am privileged to stunt coordinate for the phenomenal show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Our lovely lead, Ellie Kemper, constantly raved about SOUL as she jetted off to class seconds after wrap. My dear friend Susan Kaplow, who embodies everything cool, implored me to change my elliptical routine and just try it. I was resistant to do a group class since I've always been a lone wolf when it came to exercise. My job as a stunt coordinator can be intense, so I was fearful that with my competitive nature, I wouldn't be able to cycle within the limitations of my injuries, yet still enjoy the ride.

But this past April, shortly after I wrapped a four-month stunt-coordinating job, I had to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer blame the dryer for my jeans being too tight. I took my OLL (Old Lady Legs) to the studio and signed up for my very first SoulCycle class.

I arrived at the studio jittery and nervous, as if I was about to crash a car or leap off a building. (Did I mention my baseline anxiety level tends to run “significantly” high?) I kept thinking, What if I can’t unclip? What if I barf on my bike? What if I can’t keep up and I look like an idiot? Has anyone had panic attack in a WeHo bike studio before? Why is everyone on the wrong foot? Wait! Am I on the wrong foot? Why can’t I keep the beat? How do these people get their legs to move so fast? Will I blow out a knee? Why does it smell so delightful even when everyone is sweating? If there is an earthquake will my bike fall over with me on it? Am I losing weight right now? What about now? Are there any cute guys in the class? What about any cute guys that aren’t looking for other cute guys? Am I losing weight now?

The next morning, after bathing in BENGAY, I felt a pull to return. And return. And return. The class itself was a blast, but I was also enjoying the resurgence of those fabulous familiar endorphins -- not to mention I was starting to see definition return to my middle-aged bod. I became more confident, perfected my form (thank you, Pixie and Kym) and then miraculously, my swirling, metal-infused mind quieted.

I was over the “no pain, no gain” type of workouts I’d experienced before; pain was all too familiar in my life and work. Pain is overrated. I’m more motivated by instructors who push me to reach my personal best, to be comfortable with who I am. I'm a back row babe, cycling at a pace that feels right for my fragile spine and the metal plate in my noggin. Although I modify some movements, I push myself more than I have in years and attempt to stay within the "what's right for me” zone. I leave drenched, feeling stronger, rewarded, more empowered, calmer, clearer in thought, slightly high… and did I mention drenched?

At first, I took inventory of the riders around me in class. I gawked at the tiny-waisted front rowers hitting all the beats as if they were on Dancing With The Stars: Tour De France edition. I glanced at the second rowers nailing the rapid-fire press (my body does not rapid fire anything but pepperoni pizza, tequila and gummy bears). From the corner of my eye, I witnessed the sidebar crew hitting their four corners (on a good day, I hit three). Every so often, I craned my neck to watch those with perfect form (why aren't their shoulders in their necks like mine??).

Yet without fail, a unique phenomenon occurred every time I clipped into the safety zone of SoulCycle: Self-doubt seizes. There is no judgment in that sacred studio. Every SmartWater-guzzing rider with a soaked towel and drenched topknot has their own drama, fight and plight. Inevitably, instead of feeling envious, or wishing and wanting to be at a different juncture in my life, I take pride in being a back row babe, praising the here and now and celebrating my journey. I honor that I ride to the beat of my own drum…. even though that beat my not be on the same leg as my fellow riders. I tap and press with a smile on my face just as big as when I strode the halls of Pikesville High the day I got my braces off.

Life is chaotic and I’m often rushing to class. That said, if I happen to enter class a little annoyed, agro or ungrateful, something shifts when I hear the click of my shoes into the pedals. The release of negativity is palpable. It’s next to impossible to drift back into an undesirable abyss when Pixie slams down the lights, pumps the sickest beats and finds the perfect moments and mantras to motivate us. When Heather throws out funny snippets of her life’s challenges, I laugh and am reminded that we are all of the same tribe. We’re a band of brothers and sisters trying to navigate through the streets of life, love and loss. We ride for fun and joy. We ride to feel strong in body and mind. We ride to free our minds and fuel our souls.

As my legs push through resistance, I climb over the negative feelings toward the changing cells of my injured and aging body and honor growth and recovery. As I tap my J-Lo stunt-doubling ass back, I release any lingering resentment towards toxic people, bad bosses, dismissive nimrod boys and unfortunate events, and pedal that bike to the high road. As sweat pours out of me like a biblical storm, I pump my legs, celebrating my single status, excited for unknown prospects around the bend. Then, when it’s time to "take it home" and I don’t think my legs can take one more revolution, I finish as strong as I can, feeling only joy and immense gratitude for how lucky I truly am to be alive.

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Article by Jill Brown
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