There and back again: A story of personal triumph and the origin of Ambition Athletics

At a very young age I wanted to play soccer professionally. I played recreational soccer (non-competitive level) until I hit 12 years old when I was offered a spot on a national level competitive local soccer team. It was not cheap, so I started working at age 12; refereeing soccer for little kids, setting up soccer fields on the weekends, watering plants, mowing lawns, as well as eventually other landscaping jobs. By 14 I had a good number of houses that I was working for, and had taught myself how to install sprinkler systems. I had enough money to pay for soccer and save a little.

Family troubles started just after this time so I was also able to help out the family financially. At 16 I began working for a general contractor in La Jolla near full-time in what I called “Suicide Shifts,” that ranged anywhere from 6 to over 24 hours. I remember vividly wanting to go home after midnight on a Friday and my boss/friend Gary saying, “Double time, let’s finish this.” I couldn’t resist double the money so I ended up working through until the next day. This was not an abnormal occurrence. I continued playing soccer, while working, going to school, and helping support the family (which was a fun little roller coaster, in and of itself). I ran every day up a hill near my house to improve my speed and then I would run a few miles around the neighborhood to improve my endurance. Early morning or late evening, I didn’t miss a day.

I was picked up for the Olympic Development Team as a stand-out player, nationally. This allowed me to go to England to play soccer for 10 days in a tournament. Great experience, wish I could have seen more of the country but most of the time was just playing soccer and recovering between matches.

I still have the Jersey.

Eventually things on the soccer field got even better while things at home got worse. At 17 I had the opportunity to go play with Ajax, a Dutch professional team, on their B-Squad. It was at this point that my family disintegrated completely and I was left to make the choice of abandoning it completely or helping out. I chose the latter and I don’t regret it. To put it briefly, I put my financial life on the line to help the rest of my family after my mom left with everything except the kitchen sink. My savings were completely gone, back to zero, and I haven’t spoken to her since.

Life goes on; I applied to one college (San Diego State) and got in with an academic scholarship (for SAT scores, not for grades—that is a different story). I had no time to play soccer as I was working three different jobs: still working with the general contractor, landscaping, and then a new job as a personal trainer. This is where it starts to get interesting: I got the job simply because I was the only person to show up wearing formal attire—button down, tie, slacks, belt, etc. Everyone else showed up in gym shorts and a T-shirt. So with no athletic experience outside of soccer, and no qualifications whatsoever, I was given a job.

I really value the experience I received at all of these jobs. My friend Gary taught me an almost unbelievable amount about electrical, drywall, plumbing, building, framing, tile, remodels, and so much more. He also taught me about insane work ethic—this man simply did not stop, hence the suicide shifts. I consider a basic understanding of fixing, building things and taking them apart to be necessary “Man Skills.” I have since been able to utilize many of these skills in my life with great success.

On to my first foray into the wonderful world of personal training.

It should first be noted that I was not strong at this time. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I had some leg strength but only from sprinting and playing soccer. I remember struggling to bench press a pair of 35 pound dumbbells for a few shaky (ok, very shaky) repetitions. I also couldn’t touch my toes.

So I started to actually exercise and adopted a body part + treadmill running program that involved lots of “core” work on a bosu. Looking back I hang my head in shame at the things I used to make the housewives of Rancho Santa Fe endure.

He’s clearly helping her “engage her core.”

I did get a little stronger with this method—hell anything was better than nothing. Still going to school full time and working my three jobs, I found Crossfit.

This was a great turning point for me as a strength enthusiast; it got me to focus on big lifts, go harder, and go heavier than I had before. I liked it because I felt like it was working. Eventually I also started to hurt. Everywhere. Elbows and knees, especially. I also applied for another job at Crossfit Encinitas (like I needed another job right?) to get more experience, and started working just down the road at yet another gym.

For those keeping score, I have four jobs now, and I’m going to school full time while living at home and helping the family. I get very sick every time finals roll around because the only time I have to give up is sleep.

I moved from Crossfit to Olympic Weightlifting. I was terrible but I started to not hurt as much and got stronger. I still didn’t have a good base of programming but I at least put in some real strength work–finally.

In 2008. I found Kettlebells and started to help out and train at a local Kettlebell gym next to the Crossfit facility. Somewhere out there is still a video of me learning how to do a kettlebell swing that can best be described as a monkey trying to open a coconut with his hips.

No I’m not going to post the video.

I became RKC Certified soon afterward which was not only a fantastic experience but also a catalyst for major professional change. A few years later I would become the youngest Senior RKC in the history of the organization:

I continued to work and one day complained to a client and friend of mine, Tom, about my financial and life troubles. His reply was simply, “Make more money.”

At the time, I had just a slight chip on my shoulder and thought to myself disdainfully, “easy for you to say, Johnny Rockefeller.”

Little did I know that it would be the single most influential thing anyone had ever said to me.

I knew that I wanted to open up my own facility. I continued to ask for raises constantly and attended every workshop or certification I could afford. I devoured books about training voraciously. I was completely fascinated by self improvement—physically and mentally.

Two wonderful things happened. I finished with school (Spanish, and Economics if you can believe that—still a fluent Spanish speaker to this day) and I got fired from my first personal training job–which was a blessing.

I remember sitting and writing out many hypothetical names for a gym—ultimately arriving at the only word appropriate for me—Ambition.

Throwing caution to the wind, I filed the $25 for a DBA as Ambition Athletics and took over a small space. I bought only a few bare essentials, second-hand. Pullup Bar, a few kettlebells, barbell, medicine balls and acquired some flooring.

All throughout this entire experience I am proud to say that through thick and thin, school, and jobs, I never once went into any debt—no student loans, no borrowed money, no credit cards, nothing. I did it the old fashioned way.

I purposefully put the pressure on myself; I crossed the bridge and burnt it behind me. There was no turning back, and this was just the fire that needed to be lit. Having a second rent and second set of expenses to pay was just what I needed to rise to the occasion.

I soon quit my other jobs.

I reinvested every spare penny I had into the gym, and into my own personal, and professional growth. I hired a business coach and went to business seminars. I saved every penny and denied myself every instant gratification. I spent nothing that was not an absolute necessity. Luckily that part was nothing new to me, as I had practiced it for the past decade.

My good friend and now General Manager at Ambition Athletics Mike Baltren joined me at the new facility.

We both had gone through our own journey with regard to exercise and ended up in the same position with a similar philosophy regarding training.

Movement. Strength. Education.

Throughout the next 2 years I continued to be very frugal. I continued to save. Last year I took a massive step forward and paid for a build out, increasing my gym area to 2,000sqft. With a giant concrete saw and huge steel support beams, we knocked down the wall. It was actually kind of a surreal moment to have the means (and the guts) to undertake such an expansion.

Brian Crilly, another great friend of mine, began working at Ambition (He interned for a year, and earned it). It was (and is) really a great feeling to have other people with me working toward the same goal.

Business grew, not because we used the latest marketing tricks and tactics, but because the three of us genuinely care about people—about health, about movement, about life.

The brains and brawn behind Ambition Athletics

I remember that during those two years my savings hit my first goal amount—and I felt some financial security for the first time in my life.

I remember the conversation that brought that number to light, years before. In college I had gone to see a financial planner. She took me through a series of questions and “exercises” to determine my best course of action. One of my goals was to have $X dollars in the bank. She said, “Great, what do you want to buy with it when you get it? A car? Take a vacation? House down payment?”

She wanted me to spend it! She didn’t understand.

“I just want to have it. Just in case.”

I think in today’s world it is so common for people to live right on the edge of their means—and that might be fine for them, but it’s not for me. I knew that a lack of money would not be the thing that brought stress to my life.

Problem solving for me became simple at that time; I realized most of my problems were still monetary. The answer? “Just make more money.” Thank you, Tom.

The funny thing is that he might not even remember that conversation.

I continued to support my family in every way I could. Financially and psychologically. They supported and appreciated everything I did every step of the way. I felt (and feel) good about the person I am.

In June of 2012 the landlord at our current home decided they were moving back in Dec 1.

Yet another catalyst for change. I did not fight the change, but embraced it.

My prudent life choices allowed me to entertain the idea of buying a house. To do this, I wouldn’t have to dip into my investments. I am now 24 years old. I am reminded of this when I can’t rent a car while I am out of town to teach at a workshop.

My straight edge lifestyle also manifested itself in my athleticism. I was strong, fast, flexible and I felt great. Certainly the best shape of my life. No sugar, wheat, or alcohol and smart, consistent training had transformed me as an athlete. I was undefeated in Pankration (Mixed Martial Arts without punches to the face) and Muay Thai.

I had been forced at a very young age to grow up and take on the full responsibility of life. After a lot of honest, deep, introspection, and the help of some people close to me—I realized that I was alive, but not really living.

A switch flipped in my head at the same time. I lightened up. I loosened the vice on my wallet—slightly. I went wakeboarding for the first time (and shelled out $140 for an hour!) and as I carved through the water and jumped over the wake. It was as if the past was washed away.

All I could do was smile

I have dealt with catastrophes, depression, heartbreak, hopelessness, helplessness, loneliness (a lot of it is really pretty dark and doesn’t need to be mentioned individually) and much of it wasn’t my own. I was a rock. I didn’t break, no matter what I endured. I moved forward.

Mike wrote a great quote on the board at the gym the other day:

“We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

I had chosen to make myself strong.

The chip on my shoulder was gone. The past didn’t (and doesn’t) dictate the future.

I am strong. I make my own future.

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26 Responses to There and back again: A story of personal triumph and the origin of Ambition Athletics

  1. Dave says:

    Great story, and an honor to learn from you Max. Amazing the lessons you learned at such a young age, especially since many twice your age still don’t get it.

  2. It makes me happy to see that people that care about performance, fitness and knowledge still do well. Hope you get your 100kg power snatch soon.

  3. Ron says:

    This is an incredible story! I salute you for your self-determination, perseverance, and genuine overall “goodness”.

  4. Cheri says:

    This is an incredible story, Max, which I already knew, and I’m glad that you’ve shared so that others can be inspired by you.

    I know that you know now that “Johnny Rockefeller” didn’t give you that advice from a place of comfort and ease. He worked very hard for many years and did it all on his own, like you. And I love you both.

  5. MikeBaltren says:

    Cheri! I absolutely know that! You two are truly wonderful people 🙂

  6. MikeBaltren says:

    ^^^^^^ That was Max, by the way.

  7. Jason says:

    Thanks for sharing Max. So awesome!

  8. Cole Summers says:

    Outstanding Max

  9. Max, outstanding! A honor and a pleasure to know you.

  10. Tom says:

    This is an amazing testament. And in case you don’t know it, you certainly enriched my life.

  11. John Beamon says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Max. Words like inspiring and courageous come to mind, but not at the exception of words like exhausting, desperate, and difficult. What you are today speaks volumes; knowing where it comes from gives us all pause to think. Congrats on the wakeboarding, looks like a blast.

  12. George says:

    Great post. You are wise well beyond your years. Don’t change your approach to anything.

  13. Sean says:

    Thank you

  14. Pellicio says:

    Max is the absolute man. Great post

  15. dcenidoza says:

    Awesome story! Thanks for sharing!

  16. Max – honored, since the day I met you, to be your friend. Thank you for sharing.

  17. carol says:

    An amazing story for someone so young, your family must be so proud of you. You are such an inspiration to people of all ages, good luck with your future 🙂

  18. Pingback: The Week in Wellness | Personal Training, Trainer, Cardio, Strength, Nutrition | Stronger U Fitness (651) 497-1184

  19. Katie Dawers says:

    This is such an awesome story! I am sure your inspiring so many people with it -including me-Thank you for sharing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  20. maxshank says:

    Thank you all for your amazingly generous and kind words. It means so much to me.

  21. kb5x5 says:

    been my hero from first time i saw you on youtube max. funni how a young warrior can make a old one happy wish you all the best in life and im sure we have seen nothing yet. the best from max is yet to come .im 54 young man and still kicking and screaming ha ha …..

  22. Kelsey Reed says:

    Thank you for sharing Max! It was certainly an honor to work with you at the RKC cert in Vienna, VA. Stop by if you’re ever on our side of the country!

    Props for the Hobbit reference.

  23. pitootsky says:

    Awesome life story, and still young! I love reading about the rock-solid types of people that take action and get what they want. Good for you. A true inspiration.

  24. natepost says:

    You courage to share this and ability to be in tune with what has happened in and around you is what makes you an incredible leader. You have an exciting journey ahead my brother!

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