Story by JODI ANDERSON
My mom said that when women hit a certain age, they disappear. ‘People don’t see you anymore.’ I’m like, ‘I’m gonna be a chihuahua! They’re not going to see me, and then [they’ll] wonder why their ankle hurts.’— Shae Tozzo
Shae Tozzo, co-owner of CrossFit Zoo with her husband Dave, has been in gyms nearly her entire life. Her father was headhunted by gyms looking to get established and become financially successful, so her family moved around a lot, as his career required. Her first job, at 15, was as an aerobics instructor in one of her father’s gyms. The gym was a family affair, with her mother running women’s exercise programs and her brother working on the administrative side.
A desire to get out of her afternoon high school classes led Shae to take the ASVAB, during a visit by military recruiters. She scored high in linguistics. Shae was assigned Russian as a language and was first stationed in Germany, until the first Gulf War began. “You learn to roll with things real fast,” she says of her military experience. She never did use her Russian; she ended up being the driver for a colonel, whom she drove all over Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
When Shae got out of the military, she went to college, continuing to do personal training and exercise instruction part-time. She graduated with a degree in English and thought she might be a writer. Then, she got married and pregnant and moved to Hawaii, so her husband could pursue the military. It didn’t work out; neither did their marriage.
From Yoga to CrossFit
Towing a baby, Shae surprised her parents at Christmas. They were then running a personal training studio, the first of its kind in Ocala. She started taking their overflow clients and was also the group exercise coordinator at another gym. “I’ve been a personal trainer since 1998,” she says. “At some point, I’ve done it all: spin, yoga, pilates, Tae Bo, kickboxing, mixed martial arts.”
Shae and Dave, a firefighter (now retired), met and married over 20 years ago. In 2008, Dave discovered CrossFit. He was the first to earn his coaching certification. “If you changed your license plate to say ‘CrossFit’ and took a picture, they would give you a free Level 1,” she laughs. They opened CrossFit Zoo in 2010 and began to volunteer at the CrossFit Games, moving into leadership with CrossFit HQ three years later. They are both Level 2 (out of 3) coaches now.
She likes CrossFit because of what differentiates it from other kinds of training: it teaches people skills that they can take outside of the gym, rather than focusing solely on increasing muscle or ability in a single sport. “CrossFit is about teaching you how to pick stuff up and put it down without hurting yourself. It’s teaching you to play with your grandchildren, with your children.”
Making a Comeback from an Injury
“We’re the longest running one-owner gym” in Ocala, Shae observes. “The aura of the gym takes on the owner’s. There’s something out there for everyone.” CrossFit Zoo is a place that collects people who might feel awkward in a regular gym setting or who have been injured, she says.
Perhaps that is because Shae knows how to come back from an injury. When her daughter was young, a driver ran a red light and hit them while they were in the intersection, totaling their car. “I ended up with a bulging disc on C5 and C6. They said I’d always be on pain pills, and I’d never use the arm. I’m not supposed to be able to use this hand at all.” She smirks as she extends her arm and flexes her hand. “It took me about two-and-a-half to three years to rehab it. I have most of my abilities back. I’m not on pain pills.” Last year, just before the pandemic shut everything down, she had a hysterectomy. “I healed a lot faster than I expected. I wasn’t able to exercise. I was literally in the bed for six weeks. I was able to start working out again last August. So being fit does help that.”
When asked about the criticism that CrossFit causes a high rate of injuries, Shae is adamant. “I call BS. I have, over the years, coached many a mom with a child who does volleyball, and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had bad elbows and bad shoulders and bad arms and had to go to physical therapy. And these kids are in high school and elementary school.” She says anyone can get hurt in CrossFit, so it comes down to the coach to make sure the athlete is listening and doing movements properly and at the right weight. “One of my favorite things is having someone come in with a movement issue that makes my brain think, ‘This is what I want to do; this is where I want to go.’” She also enjoys taking a “regular person” and making them into an athlete, doing things they never thought they could.
Shae has begun to think of the future of her business. “Most things I do, I do myself, and I’m 50,” she states. “I’m gonna go as long as I possibly can.” She has also been thinking about her legacy. “I would like the gym to continue in the spirit that we started it: all included, everyone can do it.”