Coffee is a requirement at the start of Jean Darling's day. Sunlight is optional.
There are two ways to look at a dynamo:
1. With awe.
2. With annoyance.
I know when I come in contact with a person radiating boundless energy, I generally begin with the first. But it doesn’t last. Then I just feel like a slug. I mean, come on, Jean, you’re actually up at four in the morning, and you’re working out? Seriously? Makes me want to attack something, like a giant breakfast burrito. Only later, when it’s daylight.
After that, Jean goes to work. As part owner of Advanced Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine, she’s got many clinics she can visit, stretching from her home base in Shawano, up to Marinette, down to Green Bay, Appleton, and the Fox Cities, down to Fond du Lac, and over to Ripon and Waupaca.
And back to Shawano, where she also runs a health club, Total Fitness.
Not sure this slug was ready to embrace the peripatetic business owner, physical therapist, athletic trainer, group fitness instructor, yoga teacher, sports medicine specialist, personal trainer, and cat advocate. But I sure did. Following our discussion, I was left only with awe. Jean Darling is one likeable dynamo.
Try to keep up.
Part 1 – “You Should Get Into Physical Therapy”
Jean Darling grew up in the lakeshore community of Algoma, a small town known for hearty people who enjoy the outdoors. Darling was no outlier.
“I would qualify myself as a tomboy when I was little,” Darling said. “Loved to climb trees, build forts, be outside.”
Darling was a natural athlete, gravitating in high school to basketball, cross-country and track. More than athletically inclined, Darling was into something that didn’t have a name back then, but today would be called wellness.
“I liked being active, always,” said Darling, “but I also paid attention to what I put into my body and listened to my body, making sure it was prepared for whatever activity I was into at the moment.”
This acknowledgement of wellness was always present, but for Darling it was internalized, existing at an almost subconscious level. It would take a college roommate to illuminate a path to Darling, who arrived at the University of Wisconsin as the very definition of “undecided.”
“You should get into physical therapy,” her roommate told her.
And that’s where Darling would focus her attention. The course of study in physical therapy in the late 1980s was primarily devoted to rehabilitative techniques and strategies, and Darling’s predisposition to wellness led to an epiphany.
“I realized some of my passion was always directed to wellness,” Darling said. “So I considered the potential of learning powerful things that I could teach people in order to avoid physical therapy in the first place.”
The previously undeclared major decided to pursue two degrees, eventually earning her degree in physical therapy as well as completing her athletic training certification while working for the Wisconsin Badger football team (RBBA*).
For those who might need background, the job description of a physical therapist (PT) is to improve mobility, relieve pain and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities of patients suffering from injuries or disease. Therapists evaluate patients' medical histories, test and measure their strength, range of motion and ability to perform function, and then develop treatment plans that describe strategy, purpose and anticipated outcome.
Following graduation, Darling sought employment and found her first position as a PT in Milwaukee. Soon after, she found a job in the valley at Appleton Medical Center (at the time Appleton Memorial Hospital), where she spent seven years as a physical therapist. Then Darling took a position at Shawano Medical Center to manage their rehab staff, which at the time consisted of a single provider. In three years under Darling’s direction, it had grown to 26.
But she had other plans in the works.
Part 2 – Business Plans Sketched on a Napkin
Overseeing a large staff dedicated to physical therapy, occupational therapy, cardiac rehab, massage therapy and speech therapy limited Darling from providing patient care, which had been her raison d'être since she left college. Now a mother of three young boys, she held a steady job in a community she loved, and any aspirations of opening up her own physical therapy clinic were dormant, at least until a chance meeting at a PT conference changed the trajectory of her career.
After listening to a particularly inspiring speaker, she ran into Rob Worth, another physical therapist whom Darling knew through PT connections in the Fox Valley. Worth’s nascent practice, Advanced Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine, had locations at the time in Appleton and Green Bay; he and his partner Tracy Rasor were considering options to expand. Worth suggested grabbing a bite to eat before the next session. One discussion led to another as the brainstorming Worth and Darling, using napkins from a dispenser and conference giveaway pens, sketched plans to open an Advanced PT clinic in Shawano under Darling’s direction. In addition, Darling was to join Worth and Rasor as co-owners in Advanced PT.
Darling asked questions, weighed risks and decided to take the leap into running her own business, an avenue with plenty of variables and considerably more risk than sticking with her rehab management position. She loved the upsides, however, especially the return to patient care.
“I knew this was going to be fun,” Darling said. “I thrive on the unknown; I like to jump in. I had confidence in making the business a success, so I was never fearful.”
Six weeks later, Darling opened Advanced PT in Shawano. Her mantra was to provide the best care possible, one patient at a time – a fitting goal for her start in Shawano.
“I had exactly one patient that first day,” Darling said.
Darling was on her own in the office for the first nine months, seeing patients, answering the phone, performing the gamut of necessary operational tasks. Outside of normal work hours, she focused on establishing her footprint. Already known in the area through her work at Shawano Medical Center, Darling added to her name recognition through relationship building in the community.
Her patient list grew, as did her responsibilities as part owner of an ever-growing entity. From its original locations in Appleton, Green Bay and Shawano, Advanced PT now boasts twenty clinics in addition to providing onsite physical and occupational therapy services at multiple industrial sites throughout Northeast Wisconsin. Darling’s efforts throughout the years have contributed significantly to the success of the organization.
“Jean knows how to connect with the communities we serve,” said Worth, whose robust daily schedule mirrors Darling’s. “She’s a small town girl with small town values, but she’s got big ideas and a very big heart.”
The growth of Advanced PT from its inception has been steady, and it is now the largest independent provider of comprehensive physical and occupational therapy in Northeast Wisconsin.
“In 2001, Advanced PT had fewer than 10 employees,” co-founder Worth said. “Now we have over 130.”
Advanced PT has undergone many changes since Darling came on board, and her roles within the organization have evolved as well.
“Over the past year Jean has developed several fresh and innovative marketing ideas that have enhanced Advanced PT’s outreach in the community,” said Nancy Rusch, Advanced PT’s Practice Administrator of 20 years.
Recognition of Advanced PT has come at local, regional, state, and even national levels. In 2013, the American Physical Therapy Association recognized it as the top private physical therapy practice in the country.
“It’s a testament to the amazing team we have assembled here at Advanced PT,” Worth said.
Part 3 – Recognizing a Need
Darling has always been a workout fanatic. Running, weights, yoga, stretching, you name it. This full-time mom and full-time employee/owner prided herself on getting in her workouts no matter what her schedule. And living in Shawano, that meant going to the one and only fitness center available to her there, which unfortunately offered a total of four machines and zero classes.
“Following my years as a competitive high school athlete, my avenue for fitness was always a health club,” said Darling. “Our community really needed a place where people could come and be inspired to keep themselves fit, so I decided to open a health club that had something for everyone.”
In 2005, Total Fitness was born. From the get-go, Darling wanted the club to be “all-inclusive” in both its offerings as well as the people it attracted.
“You don’t have to be a buff athlete to be here,” said Darling. “You simply have to be a person who wants a welcoming place that provides assistance in getting you where you want to go.”
The club offers weights, machines, locker rooms, saunas and a variety of group classes (44 a week). Currently, Darling employs 23 at her club, and she is one of the group instructors, primarily teaching classes that serve women and seniors. It’s a place close to her heart, a place where her kids growing up both worked and worked out.
Darling’s personal focus at Total Fitness has changed over the years. Her biggest satisfaction when she started was working with athletes, keeping them at their peak level of performance. It’s a completely different demographic today.
“I love taking a 65-year-old knee replacement patient, someone who may have never worked out in their life, and making fitness a passion for them,” said Darling.
Part 4 – Next up
As is the case with self-described workaholics, there seems little chance of Darling slowing down to a reasonable pace. She still sees physical therapy patients, remains a fixture at Total Fitness and maintains ownership in each. But with her youngest son now off to college, the empty nester has some discretionary time. She described a number of different ventures she is pondering, any one of which requires an amalgam of time, energy and determination that seemingly precludes involvement in another.
Pushed to identify her favorite, she returns to a discussion of the Shawano community, the place that she has been tied to longer than any other in her existence, and revisits the concept of need. Unlike her health club, the plans for which were indelibly etched in her head, this latest idea (“more like a whim at this point”) relates to her love of dining.
While she embraces area eateries and the friendly, supper club-type atmosphere and food options that abound in the Northwoods, Darling wouldn’t mind bringing alive a concept eatery. When asked to provide more detail, she smiles and tosses off a few descriptors: “wine bar,” “locally-sourced menu options,” “healthy everything.” She hints that she has a name for it too, but she’s keeping that to herself.
Before you knew it, Darling graciously signaled the end of the interview and excused herself to return to Total Fitness to instruct a class. Her energy is an aura, powerful enough that if it doesn’t quite spur the sedentary interviewer to join her today or even tomorrow, it provides a modicum of hope that one day the tiny seed of energy all of us have within (she told me it was there!) might bloom one day.
Perhaps I’ll use that knowledge as a catalyst to set a reachable physical goal, which in turn might result one day in the ability to look down and actually see my own feet.
Which means there is also hope for Darling’s cat, who seems more than just a tad overweight.
*RBBA = Right Before Barry Alvarez
Note: Advanced Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine has long been the physical therapy partner of the Orthopedic & Sports Institute. The two organizations collaborate to offer patients comprehensive care services; they also combine resources to provide self-funded companies onsite services to improve workforce health. Both are NOVO Health providers.