In 2015, Erik Bartell spent five months deployed in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne. Bartell, then 24, was tasked with leading a platoon of 30 soldiers to “serve as Theater Response Force, or security and assistance to the Special Forces teams.”
Being thousands of miles from home in a high-stress environment has been known to take a physical and mental toll on anyone, well-trained soldiers included. However, Bartell was uniquely situated to remain steady in the face of adversity after a turbulent upbringing in Chicago.
Erik Bartell was raised by a single mother on the Windy City’s north side. “Growing up, we were homeless for about three years,” he says. “We stayed in homeless shelters. So the family dynamic wasn’t great.”
Youth sports became a welcomed distraction that helped him develop an impressive drive to succeed. “My goal was to be the hardest worker on the field or court, even if I wasn’t the most talented,” he says.
That relentless work ethic made an impression on his coaches and principal. So much so that they pulled strings to help raise his profile at a highly competitive selective enrollment institution in the city.
“My admissions test scores alone weren’t high enough to get into Lane Tech College Prep High School,” Bartell admits. “But I had good grades, and with their help, I got accepted. It was a turning point.”
Life at home remained tense. To stay grounded, he continued to prioritize athletics. “I wrestled, played basketball, football — whatever I could. Participating in a sport was the difference between getting home at 3 p.m. or 7 p.m.,” he says. However, for the next four years, he also prioritized his academic performance.
It paid off to the tune of a hefty scholarship to DePaul University in Chicago, and he became the first in his family to attend college.
However, college life wasn’t what he anticipated. Many other students, it seemed, were more interested in parties than their studies. “I felt like I didn’t fit in, like my values and beliefs were just different,” he says.
He considered dropping out to join the police force, but he didn’t meet the minimum age requirement. “So, the next best thing, I thought, was the Army,” he adds.
His mom stepped in and put her foot down, insisting he finish college. That summer, Bartell attended basic training. When he returned to school, he was contracted into DePaul’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program.
“Everyone in there was like-minded and super driven as far as fitness and team. I knew this was my tribe,” he explains.
After graduating with a degree in psychology in 2013, Bartell reported for duty at Georgia’s Fort Benning for infantry training. A year later, he was called to Fort Campbell to join the 101st. Then came his deployment. After returning home, he spent another year with his platoon before a torn meniscus left him with a choice: reclass out of the infantry or exit the service. He chose the latter.
To stay in touch with the military community, Erik Bartell leaned on social media. “I had 30 or so guys in my unit following me looking for workouts,” he explains. “Then that 30 turned into 60, and then hundreds.”
Now @realerikbartell has upwards of 150,000 followers. Bartell’s expanding social reach and robust network of military veterans led him to FitOps Foundation nonprofit that helps veterans find careers in fitness. He got a training certification and joined their team to help train other vets. That led to consultant work with the sports-nutrition company Performix, and, later, as a major contributor to getting Spartan Race’s DekaFit — the Decathlon of functional fitness — off the ground.
Most recently, Erik Bartell became a founding member and vice president of community for the startup Bravo Sierra, a men’s grooming company that dedicates five percent of its sales to the military. As part of his job is to oversee the strategy and growth of the company’s social media platforms, to do that, unsurprisingly, he’s focused on helping others gain recognition in the industry.
“I know a lot of trainers or influencers say this, but not all of them mean it: My goal in fitness is to help as many people as possible,” he says. “Fitness is my passion. So the biggest thing I can do to feel successful within the fitness world is to help more people.”