AUSTIN (KXAN) — Even though this is a love story that blossomed in adulthood, the seeds were planted decades ago.

“So our story begins when we were 10 years old,” CJ Finley recalls about the time he and Erin, his wife, first met.

Erin and CJ went to the same elementary, junior high, and high school in Pennsylvania (Photo by CJ and Erin Finley)

“He would skateboard by my house and always be around creating noise outside the neighborhood,” Erin says. “In gym class for some reason he would throw the soccer ball and hit me.” 

They grew up together in Burlington, New Jersey from elementary through high school. Somehow both would end up working together on a variety of class projects.

“I just remember you would be on my team and really count on me to do all the work,” Erin Finley turns to CJ smiling.

Today, that teamwork continues.

Both recently trained for Hyrox, an intense fitness competition I previously blogged about.

It’s about a week’s worth of workouts built into a competition where you lift, pull and push heavy weights, a long distance of burpees, and squat while throwing a ball 100 times. Oh, and you also run a 1K between each event to give your muscles “a break” during the timed competition!

“I was on my way to finishing the race when he had to start,” Erin said. “One of our friends, Jason, who was cheering us on, went over to tell CJ that I finished second. And CJ took off in a sprint with the kettlebells.”

The couple each earned 2nd place in Austin at Hyrox, a fitness competition known as the Word Series of Fitness (Photo by CJ and Erin Finley)

Erin and CJ earned second place in their age division giving them the opportunity to represent Austin at nationals in Chicago.

The hardworking couple is behind a movement and business called Thrive on Life. They focus on giving back to the community by consulting and mentorship in entrepreneurship, fitness, health, and relationships.

We met up on a cool evening, the first Friday in June, after a brief rain shower. We talked about their passion for life– to make every heartbeat count.

”I didn’t always have this passion,” said Erin. “Seven years ago — actually tomorrow — is the day I lost my father suddenly to a heart attack. He was probably the healthiest, most physically fit person in my life and my family’s life, he would be the last person we’d identify as someone that would leave too soon.”

Erin says this dark time in her life turned out to be a miracle, because it created a mindset change about life and brought back CJ to her life. At this time Erin lived in Texas so, CJ reached out to give his condolences.

“At that point, my life certainly changed. I want to appreciate the ability to just be here, and give everything I have to this life, because we never know if we’re going to have a tomorrow,” Erin said while describing her passion for life.

Erin calls the loss of a her father a bittersweet event in life, because it also took her to a new path in life (Photo by Erin Finley)

CJ was going through the same type of reflection. “If someone like her dad could pass away at any moment, again, he was in great shape, it can happen to everybody.”

He visited Erin in Texas, they fell in love, got married and made another commitment.

“We wanted to dedicate our life to, how do we live in a way that inspires other people to make every heartbeat count,” CJ said.

Staying healthy is important to CJ. He had loved ones pass away, some to colon cancer at the age of 40, and he too, has an autoimmune condition affecting his stomach. “I thought to myself: if I was going to leave this world earlier than expected, I wanted to make an impact.”

“If you are excited to wake up every day, you are thriving at that point.”

-CJ Finley

Whether it’s fitness, business, a healthy mindset, he wants to help people find their own definition of thriving– he wants to help a million people. To achieve this goal, he became a consultant to small business owners and solopreneurs that are helping others.

He encourages people to take risks and go for the hard things in life. If those risks don’t pay off, you have a second chance to find a solution, but you don’t have a second chance to find your passion.

“The easiest way I can explain it is if you’re driving to a job right now, it’d better be something that’s worth it, because a car accident can happen at anytime.”

Talking to him today it’s hard to believe CJ lacked confidence. He was a smaller guy in high school, not even 100 pounds his freshman year. If you look at him now, you will find it strange to hear that he was scared to workout at the gym.

“My dad being the guy that he is, actually built a gym in our basement, and I worked out to the point where I gained enough confidence to then go to the gym. I realized that it was actually a safe space.”

“Rising tides do lift all ships.”

— CJ Finley

The community he found at the gym is why CJ and Erin are passionate about spreading their own message in Austin: that if you strive together, you thrive together.

It may have taken decades, but this love story was worth the wait.

“Anything in life that is worth it will never be easy,” CJ said.

KXAN photojournalist Frank Martinez and I met up with CJ and Erin Finley in the Mueller neighborhood. (Photo by Jose Torres)

Jose Torres is a morning news producer with KXAN. His blog will bring stories of hope and determination from others who have fought through their own health struggles and life challenges. He looks forward to sharing those conversations in future blogs.