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Fitness Trainer Shaun T: 'I Understand Why You Feel Weak'

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As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Shaun Thompson, better known as Shaun T, is the man behind the fast-paced, strenuous fitness programs Insanity, Focus T25 and Hip Hop Abs. He got his start as a choreographer. The story of his big break begins with someone breaking him down.

Thompson says he was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship for "four years too long." When he got his first big choreography job in his home state of New Jersey, his partner was not supportive.

"After the show, I mean, people wanted my autograph, and I was really no one," says Thompson. "My partner at the time said, 'You'll never be a professional dancer so you can immediately delete that dream from your head.' "

That was the final straw in the relationship.

"No one out there is going to stop me from living the life that I want to live," says Thompson. "I gained up enough strength to leave that relationship."

A friend invited him to come to Los Angeles for a vacation at his beach house. His friend had one demand: He wanted Thompson to get some headshots taken before making the trip.

"Let me tell you, those abs were poppin' on those shots," Thompson says.

When he got to Los Angeles, he checked out a dance school in North Hollywood and found out about an audition for a new dance agency that was happening around the corner.

With his headshots in his car, Thompson decided to go in.

"I was frickin' living in these dance moves. I was like, 'I don't care what happens. They're gonna remember me even though I don't live here,' " he says.

Out of hundreds of people auditioning, seven men and five women were left at the end of the cuts. Thompson was one of them. The judges said they would contact the dancers in a couple weeks if the agency was interested.

"I literally left there like, 'Whatever, this doesn't really matter. I don't even really care,' " he says.

He returned home to New Jersey and two weeks later, found out that audition would change his life.

"I was at the laundry mat, with my pocket full of quarters, when I got the phone call that the agency wanted me to move to LA to pursue a career in dance," Thompson says.

When he moved to LA, he was teaching workout dance classes at the gym, in between auditions and dance gigs. His classes got really popular.

"My big break came when a friend called me and said, 'Hey, there's this company called Beach Body that wants you to see if you can develop a project with them,' " Thompson says.

Thompson had a two-hour meeting with Beach Body, which produces many popular in-home fitness workouts, and left with a contract for his first video, Hip Hop Abs.

"It was just the most incredible feeling. I knew that I had potential that someone was trying to push down," Thompson says.

Thompson went on to create another dance workout, Rockin' Body, and crossed over to intensive interval training programs with Focus T25 and Insanity. "Believe it or not, Insanity is very difficult for me to do!" he says.

"I love to work out with people who are doing Insanity for the first time because they look at me and they're like, 'Oh my god! You actually get out of breath too?' And I'm like, 'Abso-freaking-lutely!' "

He says a key part of his success was the decision to eliminate that negative influence from his life and go after his dreams.

"People, you have no idea. I understand why you feel weak and why you might be not as confident as you want to be," Thompson says. "All you have to do is tell yourself you can do this, and I know that it's possible."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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