Miami-Dade County

Five South Florida moms, five workouts

YOGA HOME: Sabina Covo make times for yoga in her daily life at her Coconut Grove condo. Joining her are her two children, Paulo, 2, left, and Pedro, 6, right.
YOGA HOME: Sabina Covo make times for yoga in her daily life at her Coconut Grove condo. Joining her are her two children, Paulo, 2, left, and Pedro, 6, right. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

A 74-year-old grandmother and cancer survivor rows competitively, training for the 2015 Nationals.

A 36-year-old TV reporter does yoga with her two sons, ages 2 and 6.

An 84-year-old great-grandmother of four is on her way to a million steps.

A 54-year-old attorney, who retired from karate, teaches indoor cycling, competes in dragon boat racing and plays golf with her 23-year-old son.

And a 44-year-old Adrienne Arsht Center executive and mother of two tween-age daughters teaches ballet barre classes twice a week.

Five mothers, five workouts.

They’re boosting their hearts — and their minds. Studies show exercise builds memory, eases depression and shrinks your brain at a slower rate when you age. And if you’re a cancer survivor, it helps with recovery.

“I see a lot of patients, especially breast cancer patients. And there is a lot of data that shows when they exercise, the risk of recurrence, and of ever developing breast cancer, will be reduced,’’ said Dr. Estelmari Rodriguez, director of the woman’s cancer center network at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

And one last thing: Mothers set the pace for their family. If they work out, their children will, too.

“Kids are more likely to do the things their parents are doing,’’ said Tony Musto, Ph.D., director of exercise/fitness programs at UHealth Fitness and Wellness Center. “If mom lives an active lifestyle, and she gets her kids involved, then they will be more active themselves.’’

The five women know that. So do their kids.


It’s 6:30 in the morning at the Miami Rowing Club off the Rickenbacker Causeway. Five women are pulling their legs up to their head, doing one-legged squats and with hands and knees planted on the floor, kicking up their back legs.

Sweat is pouring out.

“You understand that we’re all trying to keep up with Sunny,’’ says Chris McAliley, one of the women.

“Sunny’’ is Sunny McLean, who has been rowing competitively for 30 years. She just came back from Orlando where she and her rowing partner, Debbie Matthews, snatched a silver medal in the woman’s doubles.

Sunny is 74. Mother of two. Stepmother of two. Grandmother of nine.

“I want to be able to take care of myself as I get older. I want to be able to run, to walk, to travel. And by rowing, I’m helping myself every time I go out on the boat.’’

Three days a week, McLean and her 10-12 fellow rowers — women between ages 25 and 74 — are at the boathouse by 5:30 a.m. They’re on the water by 5:45, 6:00 at the latest. When it’s raining, they’re working out on rowing machines nicknamed ergs, for the ergometer that measures their workouts, or squeezing in Pilates with their fellow rower, Erin Yanowitch, a mother of two boys and Pilates instructor.

On non-rowing days, McLean heads to ClubX Fitness, a gym in the Bagel Emporium shopping center on U.S. 1. in Coral Gables. Workout: 30 minutes indoor cycling, 30 minutes of floor exercises that focus on flexibility, balance and strength training with weights.

“Sunny is hard core. She is physically lightweight, but tries to do everything to the maximum. I’ll tell the class to raise your hand when you’re recovered, and nine out of 10 times, Sunny’s the first one to raise her hand,’’ said Janice Muller, class instructor.

Sunny got into rowing by accident. Her boyfriend, Dennis Jenkins (now husband), had a friend who had introduced him to rowing. Jenkins told her she would love it.

She initially balked — it was 1983 and she had recently opened a showroom in the Miami Design District, selling high-end ceramic and glass tiles.

“I couldn’t do it for a year. I had just opened my business. I had to make sure the business was up and running and profitable, and that I didn’t have to be there 24/7.’’

Her first time on the boat?

“I loved it immediately. You’re one with nature, and to watch the sunrise over the water is spectacular,’’ she said.

Her timing was perfect. Around this time — 1986 — the University of Miami began training its nascent crew teams at the Miami Rowing Club. As part of the deal, the legendary UM coach, Joe “Okie’’ O’Connor, coached the master rowers at the club.

Sunny began competing nationally and internationally.

“I discovered my competitive self. I realized that I was competitive in school and in business, but had never competed in sports,’’ she said.

Sunny has no plans to quit rowing. She took off only six months after completing chemo for non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2012. (She competed in Nationals in 2013 and 2014, earning medals in all of her races —six in 2013, five in 2014.) And she’s training for the 2015 Nationals in August in Philadelphia.

“My goal was to get to Nationals in 2013, and get down that course somehow. It very much allowed me to get past the daily stuff with the cancer and focus on the future.’’

And she has a word of advice for those who turn over in bed and forsake their workout:

“You have to have the discipline to know that you need to get moving, no matter how you feel in the morning. The payoff will be there.’’



When Kalyn Chapman James dances, she feels free.

She stands among a room filled with women and stretches her long-sculpted arms on the wooden bar. She plants her feet into first position and asks the other women to do the same. The room is dimly lit, but seems brighter with two walls of mirrors and accents of hot pink paint. She’s teaching a ballet barre class.

“Dance is something that I was always naturally good at and I enjoyed,” said Chapman James, a 44-year-old mother of two tween-age daughters. “For me, dance was really a way to change my life.”

Chapman James was studying at Loyola University in New Orleans at age 19 when she turned to professional dancing. For a year, she danced for a Dick Tracy show in Orlando, until she suffered a knee injury. She went back to her home state of Alabama and attended the University of South Alabama, joining the dance team after a friend recommended doing beauty pageants for scholarship money.

“In that system, talent is worth 40 percent of your score,” Chapman James said. “I had to maintain my body and my dance ability and training in order to be a viable competitor.”

She won Miss Alabama in 1993.

When her pageant life ended, she studied tap, jazz, ballet and hip-hop at the Broadway Dance Theater in New York and the Millennium Dance Center in Los Angeles.

For a few years, she taught dance while working full time for HealthSouth in Birmingham. Nearly a decade after winning Miss Alabama, she had her first child, moved to South Beach for her then-fiancé’s new job, along with their 8-month old daughter, Phoenix, and got married in Key West.

“Like most moms, especially like most first-time moms, I was overwhelmed by that responsibility and learning so much about parenting that I didn’t have a lot of time to stay in shape,” Chapman James said.

Within a year, she discovered the 6th Street Dance Studio and signed up for a pomo funk class, a combination of funk and hip hop dance. She did so well the instructor asked her to take over.

Dance became her life again. She starred in an Old Navy commercial about Bermuda shorts, danced for Sabado Gigante, the Spanish-language variety show, and performed at music award shows, while raising her daughter and balancing her marriage.

Soon after, she began teaching dance classes for Arts for Learning, a non-profit organization that teaches the arts in under-served areas of Miami-Dade.

“I loved doing that because of my community involvement when I was Miss Alabama,” Chapman James said. Then, in 2006, she got pregnant with her second daughter, Zen, now 8, and joined Arts for Learning’s communications team.

For the last four years, she’s been teaching the ballet barre classes at IronFlower Fitness in Miami’s Upper East Side, in addition to her full-time job as the corporate sponsor coordinator at the Adrianne Arsht Center and her part-time gig hosting art loft, a PBS program showcasing talent in South Florida.

“Now what motivates me is making sure that my children see me being active, eating well, being active in my community and making fitness part of my lifestyle,” she said. “I always like them to see me active and I like to do those things with them so it becomes a part of the way we bond.”



Sabina Covo found tranquility in yoga and never looked back.

“I felt like I needed something calm for my workout,” said Covo, 36. “I really don’t like going to places where there is a lot of loud music. I consider myself a very calm person, so I needed a workout that could go in tune with my personality.”

Her day job, however, is anything but serene. Covo is a political reporter for América TeVé, a Spanish TV news organization in Miami, and a columnist for El Nuevo Herald. She’s also married and has two boys, Pedro, 6, and Paulo, 2.

A native of Cartagena, Colombia, who was raised in Spain, Covo moved to Miami nearly 18 years ago. She studied broadcast journalism at Florida International University, minored in politics and studied modern dance, ballet and Flamenco.

“I found out that a lot of dancers like to do yoga and like to do Pilates for strength training,” Covo said. “I figured that I’m not going to be dancing because I don’t have the time, but I can do something else that I really enjoy.”

Yoga and Pilates are a retreat from the stresses of Covo’s job, plus raising two sons. (She is separated from her husband.)

“It’s the only way that I can find some type of relaxation on top of work and my two children, which is a full-time job as well,” Covo said.

Sometimes she’ll pull out her yoga mat and practice on her balcony at her Coconut Grove condo. Pedro often joins in when she does the animal poses. Paulo plays under her when she’s in downward dog.

“Many times I have to do yoga at home, so I try to put them into the whole story about the animals and they like it.”

Covo takes her practices to work, using breathing techniques to focus before going on camera.

“It really keeps me calm and centered. I think it’s a good way to approach life,” Covo said. “Breathing helps a lot in how you project your voice.”

She also subscribes to Gaiam TV on her iPhone, a video service that streams yoga-related information. When stressed, she’ll read a post or watch a meditation video.

“There are times where I don’t do it for two months and I miss it,” Covo said, speaking of yoga. “It reminds you that you’re a strong woman and I love it.”



Bernice “Bunny” Shey walks 5,000 steps every day.

It is the daily fitness goal her Garmin Vivofit sets for her, since she bought the high-tech pedometer with her daughter last December. She wears the purple plastic device around her ankle.

“It’s not a chore,” Shey says firmly. “That’s my daily goal.”

For Shey, a mother of three, grandmother of six, and great-grandmother of four, tracking her steps has brought new meaning to life. She has connected to an online support group for people over 40.

“She’s the star of the group because she’s 84,’’ says her daughter Nina Voges.

For years, Shey, of Pembroke Pines, was a stay-at-home mom until her youngest son went to school. She took up part-time work, retiring when she was 48. She joined a tennis league and practiced at C.B. Smith Park.

“I was looking for something to do,” she said.“We lived on a golf course and I thought the tennis clothes were cuter than the golf clothes.”

As she aged, Shey dropped the sports and stayed indoors more. Her semi-active lifestyle came to a halt.

Then, seven years ago, Shey’s youngest son committed suicide: He had struggled with a prescription pill addiction.

“I had a really difficult time,” Shey recalled. “I wouldn’t go out. I wouldn’t change my clothes. I just went into myself.”

Nina began visiting her mom. Within months, the two began weekly mother-daughter trips to the mall.

At the same time, Shey began suffering from back pain. She tried epidurals, but to no avail. She underwent back surgery. To recover, her doctor suggested walking in the pool.

“They said just walk in the shallow water and hang off the edge,” Shey said. “I was much better after five-and-a-half months.”

Pool walking was the only type of exercise she could do until late last year. Then Nina got involved.

“I started to go to yoga and I saw how much of a difference it made in my life,” Nina said. “I realized how much she was sitting in the house, so I said let’s get her walking.”

Cue the Vivofit and the 5,000-step daily goal, roughly about two-and-a-half miles.

“This is what’s helped her get out and get moving,’’ her daughter said. “I’m so happy and proud. I got my mom back.”

Shey hasn’t taken the device off yet. Her goal is to make it to one million steps in the next few months. She’s up to 600,000 steps and counting.

“For the longest time, I didn’t do anything. I just couldn’t get out,” Shey said.


Caren Lesser has a demanding job. As one of three attorneys for the Guardianship Program of Dade County, she and her two colleagues handle 1,200 clients a year — people who are indigent and mentally incapacitated and can no longer make decisions for themselves. Writing up legal briefs. Attending court hearings. Mediating conflicts with family members.

When it gets hectic, she remembers the lessons she learned from martial arts: She has a six-degree black belt in karate.

“I don’t get tired. I can stay on task. I budget my time. It’s all because of the discipline and training I have from karate,’’ said Lesser, 54, of North Miami Beach.

Lesser has been training and competing in karate since the early ‘80s. She has owned karate schools, taught at after-school and summer camp programs and coached the 2009 USA Maccabi Karate Team, training 21 athletes for the Olympic-style games in Israel.

Along the way, she returned to school to get her bachelor’s degree at Florida International University (magna cum laude) and law degree at the University of Miami (commencement speaker). When she went back to school, her son, Dean, was entering kindergarten.

“We would do our homework together, his was harder than mine — math and fractions.’’

Lesser grew up in the Keystone Point neighborhood of North Miami. She did water sports, gymnastics and aerobics, which led her into karate. She competed in karate matches for 25 years, competing in her last nationals in 2008 at age 47. (The knees started going.)

“When I realized that was the end of my karate competition career, I was looking for other things to do, sports I could participate in at a high-intensity level and also had a competition component.’’

Next up: Mountain biking races, indoor cycling (she teaches at L.A. Fitness) and for the first time, a team sport, dragon boat racing. Through a colleague she had learned about the Miami Dragon Slayers, a dragon boat racing team established in 2006.

“I sit in Row Two on the right side of the boat. That’s where you can find me.’’

Lesser believes her sports and fitness activities will keep her going for years to come. More importantly, she has set an example for her son, now 23. He played flag football for 10 years, still plays golf regularly and has 19 years of snowboarding under his belt.

“What Dean got from me is discipline and perseverance,’’ she said. “Years of sports builds strength of character, ability to face, challenge and handle competition, and instills an internal gauge to push for perfection.

“Please never say you don’t have time to break a sweat.’’