A professional friendship: Trainer and client bond over shared interests and struggles


Sidney Kohl, a trainer at MERGE Performance Institute, works with Amy McDonnell, of Dubuque, at the facility. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY


Sidney Kohl PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY


Amy McDonnell PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY


Sidney Kohl (left), a trainer at MERGE Performance Institute, and Amy McDonnell, of Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

Sidney Kohl and Amy McDonnell met at a basketball game.

“We met seven years ago,” said McDonnell, 49. “We knew each other in passing. Sidney’s husband was an assistant basketball coach at (Dubuque) Senior, and my nephew, Luke, played for him. It was a play-off game.”

At some point during the game, the pair ended up sitting next to each other.

“We didn’t really know each other,” McDonnell said. “I just said, ‘I’m really nervous. I’m going to hold your hand.’ And Sidney said, ‘OK, let’s hold hands.’”

The two Dubuque women stayed in touch for a bit but eventually lost contact with each other.

“When my daughter, Maggie, was 12, she wanted to do some physical training,” McDonnell said. “I signed her up at MERGE (Performance Institute), but I had no idea Sidney was a trainer there.”

McDonnell was pleasantly surprised to find that Kohl was Maggie’s trainer.

“We got to know each other better,” she said. “Eventually, Sidney said, ‘You know, you can do this, too.”

McDonnell has been a client of Kohl’s for four years, and their professional relationship has grown into a friendship they both value.

“It was, and still is, very professional,” said Kohl, 31, who has been with MERGE for four years and has been the gym’s Director of Operations and lead trainer since 2018. “And then, we just kind of bonded over stories and situations.”

McDonnell’s daughter is now 16, and son, Will, is 18. Kohl also has two children: Collins, 5, and Jensen, 3.

“Regardless of our age difference or our children’s ages, we have a lot of the same personality and struggles, and we really bonded with that,” Kohl said. “In my industry, you have to find those things that let you relate to people.”

McDonnell said that their friendship is an effortless one. They might not see each other for a while, then will pick up right where they left off.

“’Socialization’ is an interesting word, especially now,” she said. “Sidney has always been one of those friends that if the crap hits the fan, and I don’t know who to talk to, I’d shoot her a text. Of if I wouldn’t show up at the gym for a few weeks, she’d send me a text. ‘Hey, I’m not calling as your trainer, I’m just making sure you’re good.’ It doesn’t matter if we see each other every day, or we don’t see each other for three months.”

Kohl, who is the only female trainer at MERGE, said that it’s important to her that her clients know she is there for them if they need her, but as a professional, she respects their privacy.

“As an athlete and a woman, sometimes I feel that piece is missing, that caring,” she said. “If I know somebody is having a bad day, I’m not saying ‘What’s wrong?’ in front of everybody. That’s embarrassing. But I will reach out privately and ask, ‘Are you OK?’ because a lot of people just want to be asked.”

“Sidney’s very professional,” McDonnell said. “I’m kind of a pain in the butt sometimes. I’m paying her, so I get to swear and roll my eyes. I’m pushing 50, but Sidney never treats me like I’m old. She is always pushing me to be stronger and better. But she always respects my privacy.”

Kohl said a personal issue in her life last year had her reaching out to McDonnell as a friend, not a trainer.

“She helped me with one of the biggest things I had going on in the past year, and I can’t thank her enough,” she said.

“When you’ve known somebody long enough, you just get a sense that something is wrong,” McDonnell added.

Kohl, who earned her degree in health, exercise and wellness at the University of Dubuque, is excited to be working with her clients again now that MERGE has re-opened after COVID-19 closings.

“I want to make them as comfortable as possible and do it safely and effectively,” she said. “Life is hard, especially right now.”

McDonnell is happy that she finally is able to get back to the gym.

“The first day I was back after it was open, I’d been working a lot and it was a relief to have that physical release. There were tears,” she said. “Being able to go to Sidney is really important to me right now. I’m a nurse and I’m a mom and I have a lot going on. It just gives me 45 minutes where I can just focus on me.”

For more information on MERGE Performance Institute and its training programs, visit www.merge-performance.com.

Michelle London writes for the Telegraph Herald.

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