A note from the editor:
When Jae Kim opened up about his story with me back in April, I knew right away it was a story worthy of being printed in the magazine.
If you don’t know, Kim is the owner of the local restaurant chain, Chi’Lantro. He started the business, famous for its Kimchi Fries, in a food trailer in 2010, and nine years later, Chi’Lantro has expanded into seven locations across Austin — six storefronts and one trailer on Congress.
His story of growing up as an immigrant from Korea, working to provide for his family, his failures and successes as a business owner, and even his appearance on Shark Tank and how he received a deal and then later turned it down, alone, of course, is inspirational.
But it’s Kim’s fitness journey that resonated with me. At AFM, we’ve written about people who train for marathons or Ironmans or have lost a significant amount of weight. We’ve written about why fitness is important for overall health and wellness. But one area I’ve lacked in covering is the emotional and therapeutic part of fitness.
I hope to change that, starting with this one.
It’s an unusual 75-degree summer evening in Austin, and Jae Kim is moving and sweating through another workout at Of The Lion Fitness on North Lamar. He’s sweaty and has the look of determination and focus in his eyes, yet he still cracks a smile every so often.
Although he’s able to crack a smile during his workouts now, it hasn’t always been this way. When Kim first started getting into fitness a little over a year ago, his workouts were filled with much more intensity and even tears at times.
“I would work out until I felt like my heart was about to burst,” Kim says. “I would tear up thinking about what happened and then just [freaking]go! I don’t know if it was an addiction, maybe, but it was therapeutic.”
Kim found fitness as his way to cope and process the death of his younger sister, Michelle, who passed away last March from Neurofibromatosis type 2, or NF2 — a hereditary condition most commonly associated with acoustic neuromas, which are tumors that occur on the nerves for balance and hearing leading to the inner ear. NF2 also increases risks of other tumors to develop on the nervous system and brain, and NF2 can also cause a significant amount of health problems, including cancer.
“My sister passed away after 10 years of battling cancer. I watched her deteriorate,” Kim says. “It spread from her spine to her brain. She lost her sense of taste, her eyesight, her hearing. She became immobile — it’s tough. It’s always tough talking about my sister.”
He knew he needed to find an outlet to pour his energy into, and Kim also knew diving even deeper into work wasn’t the answer. Instead, he found fitness, and OTL became his escape — a place he could expel all of his physical and emotional energy, and most of all, a place where he could grieve without worry.
One of OTL’s goals as a gym is that its members would leave with a better mindset — physically, mentally and emotionally — than when they came in.
“Everyone here is working through something,” says David De Leon, OTL owner and coach. “We’re like a family here. I’ll ask Jae what he’s dealing with that day, and then we’ll work through it together.”
Kim is an introvert — he likes to internalize things and think before he acts. Fitness allowed him to internalize things and process on his own.
“During my workout, I didn’t have to talk,” Kim says. “It helped me get into a different state of mind.”
Kim credits his success, and humility as he has been successful, all to his sister. Now, over a year since she passed away, he still gets emotional talking about her, and some days are harder than others. But he says he’s in a better place than he was at first — especially with his relationship with fitness.
“I don’t work out as hard as I used to,” Kim says. “It’s now out of enjoyment. I want to have fun now, and when I go [without working out], I feel like I’m missing out.”