Brice Cherry: Retirement won't slow the gusto of Baylor's Van Davis

If only we could all have the energy of Van Davis, just think of all we could accomplish.

Davis is retiring from Baylor University at the end of this month, after 23 years of service to the school and nearly 40 years in the world of fitness. If Davis’s name doesn’t ring a bell, certainly her ever-beaming face will. She’s probably Baylor’s No. 1 superfan for a variety of sports (but especially her beloved volleyball), often decked out in a green or gold wig, a Baylor T-shirt and a cowboy hat. But her superfan role is just one of the ways Van goes above and beyond. Her actual job for more than two decades has been Baylor’s assistant director of fitness, wellness and nutrition.

And, again, nobody goes any harder or works with more gusto than she does.

Davis, 61, was born in Thailand before moving to the United States with her family as a teenager. She always had a passion for moving and staying fit. In a textbook case of “find what you love and make a career out of it,” Davis turned her passion for fitness into her livelihood. Before coming to Baylor in the summer of 1999, she worked at Western New Mexico University, serving as a volleyball coach and student activities director, as later gained a following as a popular fitness instructor in Waco.

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Dominique Hill, Baylor’s director of wellness, called Van the university’s “Wonder Woman,” and it’s a title that fits. Partially because she’s well-known for actually wearing a Wonder Woman costume to campus, particularly on Baylor’s Move-In Day before the fall semester every August. But, mostly, the name works because of her superhero spirit. By all accounts, Van seems to tackle everything she does at 100 miles an hour and with that ever-present smile on her face.

So, Van and retirement are a combination that makes about as much sense as peanut butter and tuna fish. (They didn’t serve any such sandwiches at Van’s very health-conscious retirement party Monday at Baylor.) Certainly, Van has earned the right to take a break.

But that doesn’t mean she is going to.

She plans to devote more time to one of her side hustles, a company she founded called Be Awesome Now. Van has long felt called to lead and inspire groups of women and girls, and now she’ll have even more time to give to that calling.

“I remember about a year ago when my husband was retiring, I asked myself one night when I went to bed, ‘God, I’ve done everything you allowed me the opportunity to do. But if you were to take me home right now, is there anything I would have regretted not doing?’” Davis said. “And he gave me the idea of Be Awesome Now, and yet I haven’t done much with it. … I’ve done all that I can do for Baylor. So it’s time for them to find somebody who can take it forward. So I can really listen to his calling and listen to my heart, and do what’s the next chapter he laid out for me.”

Van’s vision for Be Awesome Now involves inspiring women and girls to love, live and lead better. That’s a broad concept, but sometimes it boils down to very simple, practical lessons. Davis preaches the importance of wellness truths like getting at least seven hours of sleep at night and drinking plenty of cold water throughout the day. But she also has a burning desire to direct women to find their purpose, to remember to take care of themselves and recognize their self-worth.

“There’s so much that people can do to love themselves better,” she said. “If you love yourself, you can love others. But if you don’t love yourself and who you are, it’s hard to do for others.”

For years, Davis has conducted a slew of volleyball clinics for young players in the area, and she plans to continue in that realm, too. Baylor volleyball coach Ryan McGuyre was among those in attendance at her retirement party Monday, and he joked that since the NCAA is expanding the size of volleyball coaching staffs that maybe Van could come join him on the bench.

Of course, the guy that Van will be sitting next to most in the coming months and years is her husband Ray. Even more so than her other passions and pursuits, Van’s desire to spend more time with Ray — her high school sweetheart — prompted her retirement decision.

“He’s been so patient through the years, he’s been patient, supportive, encouraging and always putting me first,” she said. “It’s time, now that there’s free time, we need to do more things, whenever we want to and not just when we have don’t have something going on at Baylor.”

In fact, they’ve already got a regular Wednesday morning golf date penciled in as a new routine.

Whether it was leading her sweat-inducing F45 classes or leading the cheers at Baylor games, Davis gave the university her all for the past 23 years. The funny thing is, she didn’t even attend Baylor. But the school fixed that, as it recently bestowed the honor of “Alumni by Choice” on Van.

Baylor President Linda Livingstone commented Monday that Van was one of the first beaming faces to greet she and her husband Brad when they arrived on campus. Van even managed to convince the President and First Gent to lead a few virtual fitness courses during the height of the COVID pandemic.

“You’ve just been such a fabulous cheerleader for everybody across this campus,” Livingstone said, gesturing to Davis. “The students — the impact you have on the students who work with you and for you, the impact you’ve had on our student-athletes … and then the people you’ve impacted beyond, just on our campus. You inspire all of us. … We’re deeply, deeply grateful for you.”

Again, don’t expect Van to really slow down just because she’s joining AARP. She’ll still get out and walk with her mother every morning before the sun comes up. She’ll still lead volleyball clinics. She’ll definitely expand the reach of Be Awesome Now. To that end, she wants to hold a Mother-Daughter Conference next year at the Waco Convention Center, and her dream would be to land Joanna Gaines as the keynote speaker. She’ll likely still take part in Zumba and Yoga and F45 classes — she just might not always be the one on stage, leading the group.

“I want to do more of what I’ve done at Baylor, but for the community,” Davis said. “I’ve done everything here, but now I want to focus on the community and get the community to move better. People ask me, ‘Hey, are you going to enjoy your retirement?’ And I say, ‘I’m really retiring from Baylor, but I’m still going to work and do all I can do.’ … Hey, 61 is still young!”

They say age is nothing but a number. In much the same way, retirement is nothing but a state of mind.

When Van joins its ranks, retirement isn’t going to know what hit it.

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