The seminal moment in the life of fitness trainer, reality television star and tattooed Versace model Adam Von Rothfelder was when – early one morning in 2005 – he learned of his brother’s death from a drug overdose.
The previous night, Andy Von Rothfelder had called his brother needing to talk, but the trainer felt too busy; he had one more client and wanted to sneak in a workout of his own before going to bed. But at 5 a.m., Von Rothfelder was awakened by a phone call with the devastating news.
“I had a lot of rage,” Von Rothfelder says on a recent afternoon, standing inside, CoMo, the Walker’s Point gym that he co-owns. “I knew if I didn’t [vent] it in a constructive manner that I would end up in prison.” Now 34 years old, he can look back at that turbulent time more calmly. He’s been married for the past five years to Araceli Sevilla, a former hair stylist who recently became a certified yoga instructor, and the couple have two daughters: Azalea, 3, and Arrow, 1.
But the path to focus and stability has been anything but direct. After his brother’s death, Von Rothfelder found an outlet for his anger in fighting. With little training, Von Rothfelder, a Greenfield native, entered several area tough man competitions – amateurish but brutal affairs, he says, in which fighters merely flailed away at each other. Von Rothfelder performed well. His strength was an asset, of course, but he was fueled by personal tragedy. “The pain was revealing,” he says of the pounding that he took while fighting. “It allowed me to feel certain things I was hiding from.”
To hone his fighting skills, Von Rothfelder moved to Minneapolis, where he joined a mixed martial arts gym and practiced striking, wrestling and submission holds alongside professional fighter Brock Lesnar. Von Rothfelder eventually competed in a pair of professional bouts of his own, but a shoulder injury, and, more importantly, a hard-won sense of acceptance with regards to his brother’s death that took five years to achieve, compelled him to walk away from the sport.
“I realized that I could find peace without aggression,” he says. “Anger wasn’t the root. Anger was the reaction.”
When the peripatetic Von Rothfelder had this revelation, he was living (and fighting, and surfing) in California. But shortly thereafter, he learned that his father, who has since passed away, had diabetes, prompting Von Rothfelder to return to Milwaukee and put his lifelong obsession with working out to good use. “I didn’t want people to just look better,” he says. “I wanted people to be better. I had to start with myself, though.”
Von Rothfelder helps people to be better by teaching his own eclectic philosophy of movement, which incorporates disciplines like tai chi, capoeira and kickboxing. His Conscious Movement program is as unique as its creator. Crawling, shimmying on one’s back and shuffling on all fours, apelike, are among the movements that Von Rothfelder teaches.
His own morning ritual starts with breath work. He takes 40 deliberate breaths, focusing on prolonged inhalations, while lying on the floor. When emotions arise during this practice, he allows himself to experience them, even if that means curling into a ball, shaking. Afterwards, he does some basic yoga like sun salutations, followed by 10 to 15 minutes of balancing exercises.
When he concludes his routine, Von Rothfelder devotes the remainder of the morning to training clients, who seem to appreciate his unique approach. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before,” says Gail Teigeiro, 50, co-owner of a small business. “The whole idea of conscious movement, especially for middle-aged people, is important for longevity.”
A friend sums it up this way: “Adam thinks like an artist more than a personal trainer. Which makes him unique and truly great at what he does,” says Ian Abston, president of Millenian LLC. “He’s the real thing.”
Von Rothfelder’s own workout typically starts with 30 minutes of low-impact cardio, after which he focuses on anaerobic exercises like push-ups and pull-ups that rely on body weight, although he does use weights for doing squats and deadlifts.
Fitness often plays a role in family time, with perpetual motion being the key concept. “I believe that most parents work harder trying to keep their kids busy with their own tasks than just getting on the floor with their kid and crawling and playing. We crawl and play a lot,” says Von Rothfelder. “We’ll set a timer to know how long we crawled.”
His holistic approach extends to food, too. He and his wife devised a plan that allows the family to eat nutritiously, even when their schedules are hectic. “Prepping and planning out your meals is essential for success,” she says. Most of the cooking takes place Sundays, when he prepares food for the whole week. “I make six pounds of meat at once: two pounds of turkey, two pounds of chicken, two pounds of beef,” he says. “Four burners are going, the skillet, the oven, and the rotisserie.” He also blanches broccoli, asparagus and zucchini to make a giant vegetable medley. To add variety, Von Rothfelder prepares an array of sauces such as a teriyaki marinade and a coconut curry. “The kids love it,” he says, because whenever they’re hungry, he can add a sauce to a scoopful of cooked meat and veggies. Thrown in the microwave, it makes for an easy meal.
Von Rothfelder’s intense personality and unusual fitness ideology originally caught the attention of the producers of “The Biggest Loser.” Last spring, he was featured on another NBC show, “STRONG,” on which he trained and competed in fitness challenges with a contestant who suffers from fibromyalgia. The duo was pitted against other teams, each containing an accomplished personal trainer like Von Rothfelder.
Since the show, Von Rothfelder has appeared in a short film starring supermodel Gigi Hadid that promotes Versace’s new men’s fragrance. In addition to that, Von Rothfelder and his daughter Azalea were photographed for Versace’s children’s line, pictured next to a heavy bag with Azalea standing perched atop her father’s palm.
That photograph is reminiscent of an iconic one of big-wave surfer, and fitness guru, Laird Hamilton holding his own daughter in the same pose for an American Express advertisement. When Von Rothfelder and I met at his gym, he had recently returned to Milwaukee from Hamilton’s home in Malibu, where he lives with his wife, Gabrielle Reese, the host of “STRONG” and a former professional volleyball player.
In Malibu, Von Rothfelder concocted healthful dishes for the celebrity couple. One such meal included a sweet potato pancake topped with a homemade roasted-garlic mayo, which was itself topped by a grass-fed beef patty and an over-easy egg. After hitting the surf, Hamilton consumed three, Von Rothfelder says. He plans to return to Malibu for the coming winter. “It’s almost like me going to Malibu is going to get my master’s,” he says. “If you think you’re something special, go try to live in the Mali-bubble and see how special you are.”
Among celebrities and power brokers, he hopes to establish his brand. For her part, Araceli Von Rothfelder is simply excited to be somewhere new and warm for the winter. “I can’t wait. It sounds like heaven,” she says.
Looking forward, he is considering splitting his time between his hometown of Milwaukee and Malibu. “My plan is to position the gym so it’s here and to build my brand up out there,” he says. “My affinity to Milwaukee is never-ending. I love this city.”
Eben Pindyck, a Milwaukee-based freelance writer, is a regular contributor to the magazine. Video by Geoffrey Rogers.