When the 2012 Take the Lake Celebrity Participant Jane McNeill-Balter looks at national publications and sees “Occupation: actor” next to her name, she knows it’s been a long journey getting there.
Her childhood dreams of being an actor have finally come true, with steady work on television recently as a regular on “The Walking Dead,” and in movies “Hornets Nest” and “The Occult.”
She was no instant celebrity, though. After college at UNC Chapel Hill, she pursued stage roles in Kentucky, Arkansas and Chicago, working toward her actor’s equity card in community theater, and working other jobs to get by.
“I spent a lot of time waiting tables,” she said.
Putting her acting career on hold in the mid-1990s,
McNeill-Balter earned a masters degree in education, then taught drama and English for a while. She married Yoel Balter and returned to North Carolina where they began to raise a family.
Serious challenges ahead strengthened her and inspired her to return to acting. Their son, Ben, suffered illnesses in his first two years, an experience she described as “more terrifying” than what was to follow, and what followed was breast cancer, which she overcame through aggressive procedures.
These trials changed her for the better.
“I lost my fear,” she said. “I just didn’t know what I was supposed to be afraid of anymore. Sometimes it takes something like that to understand how strong you are.” All this got her thinking about the years she spent on the stage and how she really didn’t like doing anything else.
McNeill-Balter has also used her success in her fitness regimen to motivate her acting. She walked in the first Take the Lake Walk / Run in 2009, and the next year she set a higher goal. Frustrated with a few big auditions that weren’t going well, she decided to run for most of the Personal Endurance Challenge and she trimmed an hour off her time, finishing in three hours and nine minutes.
“I was channeling all my frustration into ‘I’m going to do this,’” she said. “That’s one of the things about fitness; you can set higher goals for yourself – I’m very proud of that run.”
That confidence can build on itself. “Reaching that point in a race or even just a workout where you say ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and then getting through it is incredible,” she said. “That’s really given me a lot of physical and emotional endurance – and it helps you believe in your abilities.”
That endurance can lead to more success. “If I can do that,” she said about surpassing intimidating fitness goals, “then I can achieve whatever’s in front of me.”
This takes determination and strength, but McNeill-Balter said those qualities don’t always come from within.
“Sometimes you have to have someone come along and tell you that you are worth investing in,” she said, remembering a few casting directors who “believed in me” and gave her confidence to move forward.
Coworkers, friends and family members can help inspire someone to adopt healthier lifestyles or even just to participate in Take the Lake, and McNeill-Balter gets strength from her family. She is inspired daily by her father, John McNeill, 93.
“Dad has always been a big dreamer,” she said, “and he’ll chase those dreams.” She referred to McNeill’s trek across North Carolina with a troop of Boy Scouts and how he would walk to and from work every day. He is the type of man for whom no goal seems too great, and he led a 15-mile walk around the Lake last summer, one mile at a time.
The late Margaret McNeill also inspired her daughter.
“She would be the strongest person; when a crisis hit, my Mom was a rock. She encouraged us and inspired us to always take pride in ourselves.”
McNeill-Balter will participate in the Walk / Run Sept. 1, and every step she will pull motivation from her family and friends, from her desire to stay healthy and strong, and from the confidence that exercise has already given her. And when she completes that last mile on that first Saturday in September, she will again feel the strength that comes from knowing that she can achieve whatever’s in front of her.
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