Stronger than Yesterday
Grace Kolis ’24 just knew she had to study abroad in Cork, Ireland. The opportunity combined her love for travel, photography, and her desire to grow as a person—but it was only a few years ago that studying abroad seemed unthinkable.
The Belmont, Mass., native, who now boasts nearly 50,000 followers on an Instagram account chronicling her fitness and bodybuilding journey, had forgotten how to walk. After two ankle breaks and subsequent surgeries growing up, Kolis spent the summer of sixth grade in a wheelchair.
“I did physical therapy for years, trying to relearn everything,” she recalled.
But more injuries kept happening and other mysteries, including chronic knee pain and the inexplicable ability to bend her knees backward. “I didn’t quite know why,” said Kolis, who was eventually diagnosed with hypermobility syndrome, a condition affecting the connective tissue in her joints.
Kolis can hyperextend her limbs and, as a result, she’s prone to sprains, strains, and dislocations. “I’ve dislocated my kneecaps, my shoulders a couple of times,” said the exercise science major who will spend the spring semester at Ireland’s Munster Technological University.
As a result of her injuries and condition, Kolis developed Amplified Musculoskeletal Pain Syndrome (AMPS), “a disordered response and over-amplification of the pain signal by the nervous system,” she explained. “I felt pain, but there was no direct source. It’s basically my brain saying, ‘She’s doing something active, let’s send out additional pain signals because in the past when she’s been active, she gets injured.’”
By freshman year of high school, Kolis’ struggle with AMPS and hypermobility had become unbearable.
“I was miserable. Wildly depressed. I was in pain all the time, but I had no idea what was happening. I thought the pain was fake. It was very mental, but also very physical,” she said.
Kolis doubled down on physical therapy twice a week on a two-hour-long roundtrip journey and water therapy. “They taught me to get strong enough to be active, to not dislocate my joints because of hypermobility, to control my knees from bending backward when I walk and things like that—just being more physically active to teach my brain that I’m okay, I can do things.”
She also worked with a cognitive behavioral therapist to retrain her brain to recognize that she wasn’t really injured, “which I now know from my exercise science studies is a concept called neuroplasticity, where I’m forming new neural connections to teach my brain that I’m not in pain,” she added.
When Kolis’ insurance ran dry, her physical therapist warned her about maintaining physical activity or else she’d weaken and the AMPS would worsen.
“I was so totally terrified of being in pain ever again that I just kept going to the gym, even though the gym hurt in different ways,” she said.
Lifting made Kolis’ body sore, but it was also revelatory: She could finally distinguish pain from physical activity from amplified pain and her brain trying to protect her. “They felt different,” she said.
Endorphins from exercise swallowed her depression; the gym was now her safe space.
Before Cork, Kolis was often found weight training in the Post Center and creating content for her Instagram account, which garnered the attention of brands like GymReapers, Campus Protein, and Helimix.
Brand ambassadorship and content creation have become the side hustle that fuels her lifelong love for travel and photography—while in Cork, Kolis wants to do more of both. The straight-A, type-A student said she’s so used to making lists, plans, and routines, that her goal “is to slow down and enjoy the moment a bit more,” she said. “And be more independent.”
She’s also quietly launched her own personal training business, Grace Kolis Fit, and already has a few clients. While she’s always been entrepreneurial, two internships at Athletic Evolution and Brandeis University’s strength and conditioning department have helped get her where she is today.
When asked about future career plans, Kolis said: “It’s funny—if you asked me that freshman year, I would have been hard set on being an athletic trainer for the NFL. When we’re young, we almost seem more confident in what we want to do. But now that I’m 21, I’ve realized there are so many more possibilities. I’m figuring it out. And that’s the exciting part.”
Applications for study abroad are open through April 14. Learn more.
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