We recently wrote about an adoption-match picnic staged with the help of the indefatigable Kelly clan of Austin.
While working on that post, we discovered that our original story on fitness titan daughter, Ally Davidson, “Soul of a Gladiator,” could not be found online. So we filed through the archives and present it now, one of our favorite all-time profiles.
Note: Camp Gladiator is now firmly anchored in Austin
“What sets Ally Kelly Davidson apart is the set of her eyes.
From a distance, the champion of NBC’s “American Gladiator” looks like any other fit, young woman – lean, clean-limbed, coiled for action.
Yet the former Austinite’s eyes, like military weapons, absorb every movement on the horizon. They focus incredible drive, whether she’s barking orders at her new Gladiator Camp in Dallas, where she now lives; trading barbs with her husband, Jeff, a financial adviser and fellow gladiatorial contestant; or playing holiday touch football with her equally intense but affectionate siblings and assorted in-laws at the family home in the Canyon Creek neighborhood.
What’s behind those eyes? Sometimes a goofy, transgressive girl who once flooded the family house in Northwest Austin because she and brother Brandon were “watering it.” At other times, one detects the no-nonsense competitor, who lettered in four sports (softball, basketball, volleyball and cross-country) at Westwood High School, played college basketball for Ole Miss and Texas State University-San Marcos, then auditioned for “Gladiator” on her wedding day, veil and all.
Also behind the twinkle cogitates the adventurous woman who broke her neck skiing, barely skirting full paralysis and keeping her housebound for months. That was one of several times that Ally and her family invested ever deeper trust in a shared Christian faith that pops up, sunnily, in almost any conversation.
And, deep inside, there’s the teenager whose entire family’s stamina and faith were tested in ways that few today could guess. When she was 17, her uncle was convicted of murdering her aunt and cousin, as well as attempting to murder Ally’s brother Joey. During the victim-allocution phase of the trial, Ally trained those unblinking eyes on the convicted killer, saying he destroyed those who had only loved him in return.
Spend enough time with Ally – and her family – and those eyes will tell remarkable stories.
Family in motion
Every large family is something of a circus. Yet growing up in the Kelly household must have resembled living with an unruly pack of Lance Armstrongs and Mia Hamms.
Father Neal, 51, a systems analyst for the state comptroller’s office, competed at the state level in track and still bests his adult children at leg wrestling and other contests. Mother Patricia, 51, a lawyer with her own firm, won an all-school competition for reading the most books – 67 – and still participates in family mini-triathlons.
Both grew up in Austin, meeting in fifth grade, graduating from Anderson High School and the University of Texas, cheering the Longhorns through several national championships. Ally’s 1983 birth presented this sports-saturated couple with a singular dilemma.
“UT was playing in the baseball College World Series, ” Patricia says. “However, (Neal) was my labor coach. He kept getting phone calls from his brother (who I thought was checking on my labor), but the calls were sports updates. He missed the whole game. So, Ally was destined to be a great athlete and entertain her parents even more.”
Eldest daughter Amanda, 27, played championship volleyball and still exults at beating Ally at arm-wrestling, board games and other endeavors. Brothers Brandon, 25, Daniel, 22, and Joey, 20, have not only excelled at sports, they’ve joined siblings on charitable missions – Brandon, an all-American swimmer in high school, now fights poverty in Guatemala with the God’s Child Project. Daniel studies medicine in San Antonio, and Joey started a Christian fraternity at Texas A&M University and competes in a hip-hop dancing group.
Even in this company, Ally stood out. “She was an intense kid, ” Amanda says.
Sometimes, boys wouldn’t play games with her because they couldn’t catch her. A bundle of combustible energy, she was told to race down the street and touch the stop sign when she became too much trouble inside the house. At other times, her parents were forced to impound her bicycle to keep her indoors after dark.
“She always showed determination, which is difficult for a parent, but a great quality to have in life, ” Patricia says. “I stopped taking her to the grocery store as a child, because she would insist on selecting and throwing in the cart the groceries she wanted. She wanted to be in charge.”
There were minor temper tantrums, like the time a boy false-started in a race that wasn’t called back (and her father was the official).
“I’m still mad at dad, ” she jokes.
She and Brandon, once her cousin, got into particular trouble. They spent a lot of time in “time outs.” Once, the duo dug a hole in the back yard to “get the good people out of Hell.”
Luckily, Ally was born into a generation when a competitive, active girl could make a mark in public.
“When I was growing up, the girls cheered for the boys, ” Patricia says. “There were limited sports for girls. But I always told the girls they could be anything they wanted to be.”
A fitness program at Hill Elementary School set up a competition: Anyone who jogged around the track would receive a Popsicle stick, then at the end of the year, the one with the most sticks won. Ally didn’t just best the other first-grade girls: She beat the boys all the way through the fifth-grade level.
In high school, Ally triumphed particularly on Westwood’s state championship basketball team, snatching district MVP as well as all-state and all-American honors.
“She’s kind of a freak athlete, ” says husband Jeff. Ally also excelled, however, at academics, making her ripe for college recruiters.
She was determined to play for the Southeastern Conference – then the best conference for her sport – and so turned down other offers to walk on for the University of Mississippi basketball team. After sinking three straight three-pointers in her first game, Ally was offered a scholarship. Eventually, she missed Texas and finished her college career in San Marcos, earning summa cum laude academic honors.
Ally recalls, “I always felt I could play at a higher and higher level.”
On Dec. 2, 2000, the Kellys’ rambunctious suburban lifestyle was interrupted by a tragedy that might have thrown a family with less spunk – and faith – into permanent desperation. The event affected two of Ally’s siblings, Joey and Brandon, even more emphatically. Yet her whole family was, for a while, shattered.
That night, according to public records, Joey, then 12, was sleeping over with cousin Mikey, 9, and aunt Phyllis Brickley. Her other son, Brandon, was living with her estranged husband, John.
John entered her Northwest Austin home while everyone was sleeping and attacked his wife. Hearing the screams, Mikey and Joey attempted to fight off the burly man. Phyllis and Mikey died; Joey escaped a horrific struggle with stab wounds to his arm and chest before seeking help from neighbors.
Brickley then set fire to the house, burning himself as he left the scene. After spending months in a San Antonio hospital, Brickley was charged with two counts of capital murder, attempted capital murder and arson. Two years after the crime, he pleaded guilty and remains imprisoned in Huntsville. (The families had agreed on the plea agreement to achieve closure, say Patricia, who is still deeply shaken by the crime, trial and their aftermath.)
Amanda and Ally, along with other family members, spoke during the victim-allocution phase of the trial.
“The day after it happened and even weeks after that, there was a lot of anger, ” Ally remembers. “But I was a kid, and so were the rest of us. It was a difficult time of not understanding why something like this would happen.”
In response, however, the Kellys, now including Brandon, grew closer and closer.
“We were incredibly blessed to have Phyllis and Mikey at all, ” Ally says. “I came to realize that it’s much better to have loved so deeply and then to lose them, than to never have them at all.”
For the Kelly family, the crime split their lives in half – before and after.
Yet not all Ally’s trials ended tragically. Not long after graduating from high school, serious romance skipped across a basketball court.
You see, there was this assistant coach … Jeff Davidson. Five years older and a senior at the University of Texas, Jeff’s best buddy was football player Jeremy Jones, who was coaching an all-star summer-league basketball team.
“I was already enamored early in the summer, ” says Jeff, who grew up in Irving. After Ally sunk 11 three-pointers during the season finale, Jeff ran over to Patricia – the parents have always attended their children’s games – and shouted “I’m going to marry your daughter!”
That raised a few eyebrows.
“A lot of us thought it was shady, ” teases Brandon.
Yet Jeff sent Patricia a long e-mail explaining that his intentions were honorable, asking permission to date Ally. Only problem: Ally had decided to attend school in Oxford, Miss. – a 11-hour drive from Austin. Depressed, Jeff decided the only solution was a surprise road trip, which led to the promise of more romance.
“The first year, we dated long distance, ” Jeff says.
“Really long distance, ” Ally adds.
As Jeff took subsequent jobs in Houston and Dallas, he pressed the courtship.
“Pretty much I married my coach, ” Ally says.
In comparison to Ally and her family, Jeff is less overtly competitive. At first, he’ll avert his eyes with strangers and defer to others. Where Ally is exuberantly optimistic, Jeff is skeptical, reflective. The two were well-matched, however, as Jeff, by all accounts a natural salesman, uses a charming determination to achieve his goals.
“Ally finally found a playmate who can keep up with her, ” Neal said at the time.
Naturally outdoors types, both headed to Gunnison, Colo., for a skiing trip when Ally was still a college junior. Of course, the pair chose the most difficult, extreme slopes. At one point, Ally lost her skis and slammed into a tree. Pumped with adrenaline, Jeff insisted she not move and was able to reach the ski patrol, which took her down the mountainside on a trundle.
Eventually, she was transferred to a Denver hospital where a neurosurgeon said that, in breaking her neck (the second and fourth cervical vertebrae), Ally had narrowly avoided permanent paralysis. She spent the next six months back at home in Austin in a hard neck brace, torture for someone as active as Ally.
“It was a scary time for her, ” her mother says.
“It was a humbling experience, ” Ally says. “Just to know that you blink, and your life is taken away.”
Spending months depending on her family for everything from feeding to washing deepened the attachments.
“It improved our relationships because she’d just want to talk to us, ” Brandon says.
An accident such as this one might have scared anyone else away from such risks, but Ally continues to ski, snowboard and climb mountains.
“She breaks her neck, ” Amanda says. “And she’s ready to hit the slopes!”
It was all sister Amanda’s idea. Ally had never even watched “American Gladiator.” In fact, Amanda filled out the pages-long application form and insisted Ally show up at the Austin auditions on Feb. 2, 2008. That was also the day Ally was slated to marry Jeff, who knew nothing of the audition.
“I stayed up all night at my parents’ house with my bridesmaids, ” Ally says. “All we could think about was how to do something crazy the next day. So we snuck off to try out.”
Jeff didn’t find out until after the “I do’s.”
Something about Ally and her story – she and Jeff had previously tried out for “The Amazing Race” – caught the attention of the show’s producers.
“Ally’s always been convinced that one of two things would happen in her life: She’d win the lottery or wind up on TV, ” Jeff says. “And it happened.”
The producers called her out to Hollywood, putting her through the paces with medical and background checks. At first, it looked like the newlyweds would spend four or five weeks apart – two weeks after getting married. Storyboarding the show, however, the producers asked: “How about your husband? Is he athletic?”
Though fit, Jeff hadn’t worked out seriously in a year. And he’d be facing some Goliaths during the combats on the revival series.
“They called me on a Friday, ” Jeff says. “They said, ‘We want to know if you want to come out and join her.’ I said ‘I’d love to watch.’ ‘No, no, no, we want you to come out and be on the show. We have a plane ticket ready, so come out right away. You have two hours to decide.”
It wasn’t so easy for Jeff, now vice president at his financial firm, to commit. He ran the idea past his supervisors, and everyone said “go for it.” Ally coaxed him as well.
“Can you seriously see me on national television, wearing spandex, and some 300-pound wrestler squeezing me between his legs?” Jeff asked his bride.
“Yeah, I’m imagining it right now, ” Ally laughed. “And I’m loving it.”
But he went along with the gig, and they performed as a couple-team in the first round.
Jeff remembers telling NBC executive producer David Hurowitz, “See that little blonde girl over there? That’s the best personality and athlete you have on the show. Let me emphasize athlete.”
After the finale, the producer told Jeff he was right.
Their secrets: Although the other contestants and professional gladiators were body-builder or fitness model types, Jeff and Ally are fast, agile athletes, well-fitted to the actual skills on the show.
The entire Kelly family secured excuses from school and work to cheer – and often coach – Ally and Jeff, then only Ally, once he lost during the semifinals.
“We make fun of each other but all we want to do is spend time together, ” Brandon says. “‘If you don’t win this, ‘ we told her, ‘don’t think about coming home!'”
It was all on the line: $100,000 in cash, a new truck and a shot at joining the cast of “Gladiator” (an expensive show to produce – with 300 crew members – that could return to the NBC lineup in the fall).
It looked as if Ally wouldn’t make it. During the Eliminator obstacle course round, she fell during semifinals. The whole family went silent, but Ally wasn’t done. Despite a 5-second deficit going into the final round, she beat the other contestant at the last possible moment.
Ally says, “It was definitely the most fun summer of our lives.”
Off to camp
It’s 5:30 a.m. A full moon rises over North Dallas. It’s so cold that flesh sticks to metal. Yet Ally Davidson’s Gladiator Camp assembles around orange traffic cones in the donated parking lot of the Watermark Church.
Two dozen Dallasites of various shapes and ages hit the warm-up laps before engaging in strength and flexibility exercises. Jeff’s there, too, going through the paces, hauling sandbags with everybody else.
Then Ally adds her signature challenge: games. There’s a competition to snatch traffic cones, then a tug-of-war series. When one team easily bests the other, Ally joins the losers for the next match, though, despite her Herculean efforts, they lose again.
“Give me all you got!” she yells, not with the snarl of a Marine sergeant, but rather like that rare coach who can motivate even the unmotivated.
In just a few months, Gladiator Camp has grown into the Metroplex’s second-most-successful boot camp (after Jay Johnson’s, the fitness trainer of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders).
“She pushes us to the point where we feel we are going to break, but we don’t, ” says client April Willers, who discovered Gladiator Camp in an advertisement.
Like everything else, it’s a family affair: Jeff works the accounts and the Web site; Ally prepares the work-out routines and coaches clients in between sessions. (“They tell me about every injury so I won’t think they’re slacking off.”)
Yet this is not where the Gladiators want to stop.
“We’ve either got to get bigger or smaller, ” Jeff says of the business. “We’re already too big to do this part time.”
Although they plan an adult boot camp in Austin during the spring (www.campgladiator.com), their ultimate goal is a Christian sports/adventure camp like Camp Travis, the one that caught Ally’s imagination growing up. Right now, Jeff likes the idea of day camps for urban kids in Austin and Dallas with Gladiator games; Ally persists in the dream of summer sleep-away camp.
The $100,000 winnings were supposed to provide the seed money for either option, but it seems the goal line is still in the future, given the cost of land and construction of cabins for a permanent camp.
“It’s a couple million dollars away, ” Ally says. “Right now we are working with parents, but they have kids. Eventually, we’ll work with kids.”
Don’t discount this unlikely pair of gladiators. They’ve conquered mountains of adversity so far.
“All my life I’ve found myself in high-pressure situations, ” Ally says. “But I’m filled with peace during those times. It’s a God thing, yes. But also my family always told me that I could do anything. And I always believed them.”