By Tafra Donberger
Portraits by Lori Ovanessian
What do Spartan competitive obstacle course races, and horses have in common? For one thing, an inventive entrepreneur named Kressa Peterson.
Kressa is a Spartan Race competitor and sporthorse sales businesswoman who has taken her knack for business to the “Shark Tank” stage and walked away with a deal.
Her idea — the shower toga, an item that allows anyone to strip down and clean up in public places without needing changing rooms — earned the backing of Mark Cuban and has become, in no uncertain terms, her full-time job.
Ever a business whiz, Kressa first sharpened her sales skills with her husband, Tony, in direct mail advertising in the ’80s, then used that acumen for Kressa Peterson International Sport Horses. After a series of personal trials pushed her to find a new outlet in the Spartan racing, she’s become the face of Shower Toga, the idea that spawned from participating in the muddy challenges.
Becoming an Entrepreneur
It was a breast cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy that led Kressa to the Spartan races. “In that process, I needed something to kind of bury myself in,” Kressa explained. “Once you get diagnosed with cancer, it changes things. I started doing Spartan races.”
Tony had been competing in the races, where racers encounter varied obstacles including spear throwing, barbed wire crawls, climbing challenges and carrying and lifting tests (think carrying heavy stones or flipping tractor-sized tires) that push athletes to the limits of their physical abilities.
Kressa encountered a rather annoying inconvenience when traveling and competing in these races: Contestants end up muddy and there was no easy way to get clean before leaving. And that was the impetus for Kressa’s Shower Toga.
“I’d go put on a bathing suit, I’d rinse off the best I could, then go back into the changing room, dry off and get dressed,” she explained. She and Tony were driving home from a race in Asheville, North Carolina, when they started brainstorming.
Kressa made her first shower toga out of diaper cover material — the only waterproof material she could find — and started using it herself. “I took it to a race and everyone thought, Oh Kressa, you’ve lost your mind!” she laughed. “I sat in the middle of all these people, put on my goofy thing, showered and scrubbed without ever going into the changing tent.”
Suddenly, it wasn’t just a crazy thing — everyone was borrowing it, to the point where she would lose track of where it was at races. The potential uses for the shower toga are numerous: Surfers, equestrians and other athletes all benefit from a shower-on-the-go.
Kressa paid for a patent search and upon finding nothing similar, took the leap of faith and moved forward to patent the product and manufacture it. About a month after the first manufacturing run, she began the formidable process of pitching the product on “Shark Tank,” the television show where entrepreneurs present their ideas to the “sharks,” five industry executives with lucrative businesses and money to invest in new ideas.
“They told her ‘no’ so many times, but she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Tony. “The producers of Shark Tank said, ‘We had you on the show because you wouldn’t accept no. We knew you were close to ready but not quite, and you convinced us.’”
On the equine side of things, it was a Breyer horse that started her journey — but not when she was a child, playing with the beloved models. Kressa’s husband, Tony, cleverly thought to use her old Breyer model, stashed in storage and retrieved for a dinner date, to tell Kressa that he supported her buying a horse.
“He literally looked in the Atlanta Journal Constitution and saw that horses were around $600 and figured I would find one,” Kressa recalled. Tony had known from the day he met her that Kressa loved horses, and this was the right time for them to do it.
Little did Tony know what he had sparked with his sweet gesture and support. “It didn’t turn into anything like what I thought it was going to be,” Tony laughed. “I thought we’d get a horse that stays at a stable, and she goes and rides it a couple of times a week and that’s it.”
That most definitely was not it for Kressa and Tony. She found a heeling roping horse named Chico Dice who didn’t like his job anymore. “He was probably one of the best, dumbest things I’ve ever done,” Kressa said fondly. “I did my first horse show with a horse that had never jumped in his career, and I was hooked from that point on.”
She began riding with a group that was a flurry of different levels and expertise, which she realized wasn’t helping her advance in her own horsemanship skills, and began to seek out professional help, including speaking with different trainers and attending clinics.
Finding a Trainer
Eventually Kressa found her way to Cathy Whiteside, who hadn’t intended to take on a new client but didn’t want to see Kressa get hurt with the new, green horse she had purchased. “I remember asking her after six months if she’d get rid of me,” Kressa said. “She said no!” The green horse, however, went on his way, and Kressa had been begging Cathy to try a horse called Cool Runnings, whom she’d watched on the circuits.
This horse was quite successful with his owner, Stockton Tullis, and Kressa had always wanted to ride him. “Cathy said, ‘He’s going to scare you, you’re already a nervous rider!’ And I am, but I literally beat her down. I said, ‘Just let me sit on him!’”
That first time went so well, even his then-owners could see that Lance, as he was nicknamed, had picked Kressa. “I never got hurt on that horse,” she said. “We clicked! I’ve had some wonderful horses since then, but never another Lance.” Known at shows as Tigger for his unstoppable need to bounce through the in-gate, Lance was a valuable partner for Kressa in the low jumpers.
Next came Boots, who helped Kressa continue to learn. “Boots was a better ride for me as far as me learning,” she explained. “Lance and I were a little wild, a little crazy, but for my brain that worked better. Boots was a wonderful teacher; he was just a good guy.”
But as wonderful as Boots was, Kressa’s riding career was altered — as was her life.
Starting Another Business
Kressa was showing with Boots in the hunter classes at Poplar Place Farms in Georgia when she got left behind at a jump and came off, landing on her shoulder and getting a compound shoulder fracture that left her with a slow, arduous recovery and a titanium rod in her arm; she recovered and began to ride again, but her time in the saddle was cut short again by another fall.
After a second months-long recovery, Kressa was ready to have Boots back, but in another heartbreaking blow, he was in a freak trailer accident on his way home. “He had somehow gotten his hoof jammed under the aluminum, and when he pulled up or jerked, he did it strongly enough that he fell,” she said. In an eerie echo of what Kressa had done to her own shoulder, Boots broke his leg and hip — but he also tore an artery, and she lost him.
Though it marked the unofficial end of Kressa’s time competing, it allowed her to swing into the business side of things. Kressa learned the ins and outs of the business from several people including Joe Fargis, who had become a good friend and mentor.
“I feel like any feathers in your cap have to go to the rider who insisted on the horse or the trainer who saw something in that horse,” she said. “I’ve never had a horse sold here that didn’t end up turning out to be something everyone was happy with, and in the end that’s the best thing.”
Through the ups and downs, Kressa has found that being authentic with the people she interacts with has created friendships and support in all places, and her husband is her biggest supporter. “She’s such a strong person,” Tony said. “I know she was very scared about some of those things but it never slowed her down. Everyone has bumps in the road, but she just plows through them. When there’s a hurdle in front of her, I don’t worry.”
Tony now describes himself as the “supporting cast” for Kressa’s Shower Toga business, and she has passionately pursued it in the same manner that she pursued her horses, with enthusiasm and a seemingly endless supply of energy. Reminiscent of when Kressa first began riding and taking lessons, she is happiest with something to do.
“She’s the kind of person that when she leaves a room, it’s like the whole room cleared out,” Tony described. “She says what she’s thinking, and a lot of people appreciate that.”
For more information, visit showertoga.com
Photos by Lori Ovanessian, simpleefocused.com, unless noted otherwise
Photos taken on location at Launch Pointe RV Park in Southern California, launch-pointe.com.