‘Be Yourself, But Bigger’: How Owning a Gym Made Me an Extrovert
We’d just come from my gym’s seventh holiday party, hosted by a couple of our clients at their big house on the hill. Everyone relished the chance to be together without exercising. It was like school picture day — we hardly recognized each other all dressed up. My husband, driving us home that December night in 2016, said, “What a fun party. The gym has paid off in so many ways. All those people are friends, and they wouldn’t have met if it weren’t for you. You’ve built this, and it’s great.”
I looked at him with tears in my eyes and said it aloud for the first time: “We have to close it down.”
I’ve always loved riding bikes and hiking. In my 30s, I enjoyed boxing workout classes. In 2004, when I was 40, my husband and I tried CrossFit and were hooked immediately. (It was tiny then — not even big enough to be called a cult.) Guided by a great teacher, I never got hurt. Soon, I astonished myself with the things I could do: rope climbs, squats loaded with far more than I weighed, waist-high box jumps. I couldn’t get enough.
Our CrossFit coach Dave was someone who thought before he spoke. In a demanding, aggressive setting, he had not an ounce of bombast. He was also the most effective teacher I had ever seen, dishing out hard challenges calmly and paying attention to effort instead of drama. People of all ages and genders liked his restrained teaching style. I absorbed not only workout skills, but teaching skills: how to build a workout, how to demand hard work while emphasizing safety, and what made praise meaningful.
I daydreamed about having a gym like that. I imagined owning that simple big room, and the equipment, and being able to create that atmosphere of play and challenge for friends. I had never considered owning a business before. I was always afraid of new assignments at work, always felt like a little kid posing as a professional woman. “Impostor syndrome” could have had my picture beside it in the dictionary. So I didn’t take my daydream seriously until a key observation electrified me: If Dave, who seemed to be a fellow introvert, could design and run raucous, demanding classes, then so could I. His quieter style was no disadvantage — it was a talent.
Dave hired me as a part-time trainer, and with my husband’s support I quit my tech-writing/IT helpdesk job. I signed up for three different trainer-certification seminars over the next two years. Only one was required if I wanted to be a trainer, but the other two offered complementary knowledge from kettlebell and barbell experts. I wanted it all. I saw the potential to do work that meant something.
“If you intend to become a certified coach, you can expect us to be extremely tough on you. If you haven’t assimilated the material well enough to teach it perfectly to the volunteers, you should not bother to test. If you sound like you’re asking questions rather than coaching, we will not license you to train the public. We will fail you. We don’t care about your feelings.”
That summarizes the opening remarks at all three training seminars I attended. In two of them, I was one of four women among about 40 men. These coaches, unlike my coach, wanted to see us flustered. They talked tough in general and to each person individually.
The seminar workouts and lengthy fitness tests were designed to intimidate. But the inner voice of my CrossFit training told me, “You belong here.” The coaches noticed my physical abilities. I saw their curt nods each time I finished a task.
At the end of the weekend, the cranky seminar staff would test each of us in real time, watching us coach volunteers or other students. Would I be able to think on my feet and speak with authority? Or would I be exposed as a fraud — just a nice, fit, middle-aged lady who couldn’t be forceful?
“Be authentic, but bigger. Be your biggest, genuine self.” These words came during a lecture on the third morning of the kettlebell seminar. I took them as permission to communicate in my own way, and to learn by doing, as men are allowed to do. It turned out that my ability to translate technical material for newbies made me an accessible, effective teacher. I coached using the cues I had learned, and I kept it simple. The stern seminar staff were satisfied, and I passed each test.
Ambition overcame doubt. My daydream of having my own CrossFit became a goal, and I started a business plan. By the end of 2009, after I had worked for Dave for two years, we found a commercial space in our neighborhood. We leased it, and I ordered $20,000 dollars worth of equipment and build-out.
People opened the door, looked around at my rubber-matted floor, and took a step inside. “I heard there’s a gym here — but where are the machines?”
I introduced them to CrossFit. I taught them how to lift safely and sprint and do correct high-intensity calisthenics; how to work hard, harder, and harder still — machine free — as their fitness increased. I was the one to tell them when they were lifting too much weight or not enough, or doing it wrong. I was the one to tell them to focus.
I reframed my daily nervousness as excitement: “I can’t wait to see the expressions on their faces when I explain this one. I can’t wait to see E shine now that she can do pull-ups.”
To my everlasting gratification, my careful style often convinced the hesitant, and my ability to answer questions disarmed the skeptical. In their eyes I saw first understanding and then trust. Eventually they would report seeing somebody lifting incorrectly somewhere else. “I wanted to go over and give them all of your pointers, Fran.” I took it in: I was memorable as well as effective.
In all my adult life, my gym business was the place where I had most allowed my personality to show up. I called it my extrovert bubble. My work expressed my true self, and my inner life informed my work.
I created a culture that blended typically feminine values of safety, celebration, and human connection with masculine values of authority and physical prowess. People got to know each other: A joke cracked during our warm-ups would ricochet, getting more ridiculous as it went around. I loved that part of class. I sometimes told my groups that my job was to make them work out, and their job was to make me laugh. One customer gave me a beautiful compliment: “You connect with each person in the room and then you connect them with each other.”
This community had formed because I worked up the nerve to be bigger, to lead with my personality, even though I was a quiet and earnest female. I could never have made connections in that way — my way — by emulating the tough seminar coaches.
My workload was relentless, but these were the good times, and I knew it.
The gym did well enough for seven years, but for the final two, I saw our growth limited from outside and inside. Every gym now offered high-intensity training, or claimed to. To prospective clients, our workouts now seemed like a commodity instead of a unique destination. Meanwhile, our growth was limited from the inside by popular classes being overbooked while others were half empty. Our space was too small and too expensive. Administrative tasks grew as the membership stalled.
I tried for weeks to find an acceptable plan to increase profits. I buried myself in spreadsheets, trusted advisors tried to help. No plan would solve the problem without, in essence, starting the business over again. During the week leading up to the holiday party I’d realized that I would never solve this Rubik’s cube, no matter which way I twisted it. And I was worn out. I decided to close.
Our last day was in February 2017. While drafting my announcement email, signed with heartfelt love, I visualized acceptance and support from the 100 friends I was about to disappoint. They lifted me up, offering practical help and listening ears. During our last days, we looked hard at each other and at the gym, savoring the community we had built.
The first women to arrive on our last day wore custom T-shirts that made me cry: A giant kettlebell on the back was printed with the words, “I’M WITH FRAN.” I ran an equipment-free workout of Tabata intervals with dance music. Forty-five people came. Love was all around.
People hung around afterward, not wanting to part from our shared routine, our in-jokes, our support for each other’s hard work in the gym. They’d find other places to work out, and each would be special, but we all knew our community was irreplaceable.
Even in closing, I felt successful through being myself, but bigger. I knew I would never again feel like an impostor. If I let my true passions show, not only would I have more fun at work, but other people would benefit. We owe it to the world to let our quirky enthusiasms lead us because they are the source of creativity.
I work in my garage now, teaching basic barbell lifts and calisthenics to adults — mostly women. It’s still a joy to see women discover what they can do once they learn how. Everything I learned from Dave and from all those tough guys, back when a woman strength coach was an unusual sight, continues to pay off.
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