Everyday Eleanor: I Started My Own CrossFit Gym

I saw Hannah perform at Huge Theater four years ago, and I’ve kind of had a girl crush on her ever since. She’s one of the main reasons I tried CrossFit in the first place. I’d always thought CrossFit was designed for people who like to workout until veins exploded in their head/they puked their paleo brains out. Knowledgable, approachable and super-de-duper funny, Hannah couldn’t be farther from that image. Last summer, she opened her own CrossFit gym in Minneapolis. Here, she talks about how career heartbreak (aka losing her coaching job) actually helped her launch a rewarding business that empowers the community it serves.

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Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into CrossFit? It’s surprising, because you really don’t strike me as a douchebag.

Ha! That is very funny. When I originally started doing CrossFit in 2009, I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into. I was a high school physics teacher and a giant ball of stress. It was my first year out of school, my first real job, and I had just gotten dumped by a long-term boyfriend. I was drinking a lot, staying out late and not taking care of myself at all.

I lived just a few blocks from a CrossFit gym and saw a postcard they were using to advertise. Even though now I am sure it would make the owner cringe to remember, one of the ad slogans they were using was, “Do you want to make new friends? Do you want to look good naked?” Both of those things were true for me, so I set up an appointment.

What about CrossFit appealed to you?

Just another day at the office, kinda. 
Just another day at the office, kinda.

It was like being in a competitive sport. I also loved that the gym was small (only seven of us had joined at that point). When I started, I really thought I was pretty good, mainly because there were so few of us and we were all newbies, so I had nothing to compare to. I needed that feeling right about then. It was perfect timing in my life.

Why did you decide to become a coach? 

I was a teacher, so in my first summer off, I offered to help the owner of the gym. At the time, he was the only coach. When I offered, he essentially asked if instead I would consider getting certified and becoming a part-time coach. I used to coach girls softball, I have always seen myself in a teaching role, so it felt like a natural fit.

At first I had NO IDEA what I was doing. I felt like a total fraud and I had to prep myself for an hour or two before each class. I was so afraid I would do something stupid and everyone would know I was an impostor. Of course, everyone was extremely supportive and so helpful in those first few months.

What do you love most about coaching?

The more you coach, the better your coach’s eye becomes. I can watch a rapid explosive movement like a snatch and pick out some piece of minutia and offer a correction. It’s like putting together a puzzle, but the puzzle is also a really great person who wants to feel strong and do cool tricks. It’s so fulfilling to help people in such a concrete way.

About a year ago, you were let go from your coaching job. I knew you at that time, and from I where I was sitting, it seemed you felt simultaneously heartbroken and incredibly determined. True? 

I was devastated because it was totally unexpected. I felt like a huge asset to the gym.  I questioned myself and every move I had made; I was filled with self-doubt and also anger.

After some time away, I realized that I had been unhappy there for a while. Overall, I just wasn’t able to express my full potential. I got stuck. I think my boss could see that working under him was no longer something I could do, and he let me go.

I took the holidays to both mourn my loss and gather myself and discovered that I had a renewed sense of excitement. I don’t deal well with “down time”; so being unemployed was not my jam. I immediately got a consulting job, started personal training, and got to work on my next step.

Taking the first step toward your next move can be daunting. How’d you start?

I took three big possibilities and storyboarded them. I mapped out what those options might look like, what the obstacles might be, and what success would look like.

One of them was “pursue improv as a career,” another was “open a gym” and the third was “start a non-profit.” I am very visual and tactile – I need to put pen to paper and see my options laid out. The process of just seeing my future as a thing I could approach methodically really helped.  

Selfishly, I am glad she didn't move to Chicago.
Selfishly, I am glad she didn’t move to Chicago.

The idea of moving to Chicago and pursuing improv for real was the most terrifying. My fiancé (then boyfriend) has a career and family in Minneapolis; and though he supported me, he wouldn’t move to Chicago. The other was that I didn’t have a defined idea of “success.”  Did I want to end up on SNL? Did I want to be on the mainstage of Second City? In the end, I didn’t know.

Starting a non-profit was the most nebulous. I thrive working with young adults and teens… and this started to blend itself into the idea of opening a gym. Why couldn’t a for-profit entity like a CrossFit gym work with young adults? Why not move forward in the business I know and mesh it with the business I wanted?

Starting your own business is scary as hell, but a gym has a lot of overhead, and I can imagine the insurance situation is pretty intense. Where did you start? 

I was so lucky. My former clients Nate and Nicole Aul told me, if you want to open a gym, we want to help. We started the paperwork and the next thing I knew we had an LLC and a space. It all happened quickly because Nate is just as driven as I am. We make a very good partnership. I think big picture and I like to dream about possibilities, while Nate doesn’t miss the details, makes deadlines and knows how to stay practical.

We formed a budget, and Nate provided the initial loan for the gym. On top of that, we ran a very successful Indiegogo campaign, which raised a little over $16K. That money was so important. It helped us make the gym beautiful, and cover all of the unexpected expenses that came with opening a gym. Little things you never think of, like cleaning supplies, towels, extra keys – it all adds up.

Hannah, less than six months after getting canned.
Hannah, less than six months after getting canned.

What makes Solcana different from other gyms? 

Solcana is built on the principle that different is good. The name Solcana is inspired by circus strong-women from the early 1900’s; women whose physical strength was seen as freakish, bizarre and sexual. I admire how unapologetic these women were, and I liked that they existed on the fringes.

Often, the fitness community is not very welcoming. The world of fitness is filled with shame – shame for being too fat, too thin, too scrawny, too manly or womanly. I want Solcana to be a place where shame is not the norm. I also want it to be a place where people go when they don’t feel like they fit into the standard gym, for whatever reason.

Additionally, we are built on the idea that supporting our community is an essential part of individual and group wellness. Our teen program acts as the cornerstone of that idea. Four days a week we provide free strength classes to low-income teens from two local high schools. We host a free community yoga class on Wednesday nights, partner with Rainbow Health Initiative to bring wellness initiatives to LGBTQ communities, collect warm clothes for a local elementary, and offer a series of donation-based clinics for Nurse-Family Partnership.

Who or what helped you through the process? 

Everyone. I mean it. Literally, every person I asked for help went above and beyond. I would post on Facebook something like “who wants to help paint?”, and five people would show up and stay the whole day.

Additionally, the support from the coaches we have now was insane. They had to make a really hard choice, by severing their ties with our former gym, and ending some relationships as a result. They sacrificed their time and their former community to help me and Nate build a new one. I can’t begin to express my gratitude toward the coaches and all of the other people who helped us.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned via this experience? 

I think Hannah likes her life. 
I think Hannah likes her life.

You can’t please everyone. In a small community like the gym, everyone plays an important role. Instinctually I want to make choices that satisfy everyone, but realistically I know that is not possible.

The other part of that is being okay hearing critical and negative feedback. I have become better at not taking things personally and remembering that if people are asking for change, it’s because they want to make it the best it can possibly be.

I’ve become better at asking for help and getting people to work on projects I don’t have time for. They always turn out 100-percent better than if I had done it myself, but taking that first step to ask for help has never been easy for me.

Most rewarding moment since opening the gym? 

I feel like there is a rewarding moment every day in the gym. I am not bullshitting when I say I love my job, and I basically get to watch people succeed at stuff they didn’t think they could do, all day, every day. It’s pretty great.

Do you think you would’ve had the courage to open your own place if you hadn’t lost your job?

As much as I don’t like to admit it, probably not. I needed a dramatic change, I was getting complacent in my position, and because I was happy more than 50-percent of the time, I just didn’t make any moves. I was outgrowing my position without even realizing it. As much as I didn’t appreciate the way it happened, in the end, I needed it.

People have a lot of misconceptions about CrossFit. What are three you wish would go away forever? 

Every gym needs a mascot. Meet Petey.
Every gym needs a mascot. Meet Petey.

1. CrossFit is too hard. It is hard! But it’s not too hard. People are capable of so much more than they think. It makes me sad when people think that they are “too old” or “too fat” or too whatever to try something new. You can modify the elements we do in CrossFit to fit every need. We enjoy doing that! It’s the best part of our job, actually.

2. CrossFit is for bros. Every gym is very different, and some of them are totally bro gyms. Those gyms have to exist so the bros have somewhere to go. Solcana is not like that, and a lot of other gyms are not like that either. You just have to try a gym and see if its your flavor.

3. CrossFit is dangerous/stupid/the pull-ups are dumb/it’s not as good as what I do. Haters gonna hate. I say, if your gym is a place where you feel happy, safe and comfortable, then it is not stupid and you are doing the right thing. People always have something critical to say about things that other people like.

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For more info on Hannah & Solcana, check out their really pretty website, or like their Facebook page. You can also follow Hannah on Instagram. And if you like laughing, go see her in real life at HUGE Theater.

You can check out my other Everyday Eleanor interviews in the archives. You know you want to.

Have you done something ballsy, like moved to a foreign country for work (or *gulp* love)? Flung yourself head-first into something people said couldn’t be done? Given up all your worldly possessions and joined the circus? I want to hear your Everyday Eleanor story. Email me at heyeleanorproject@gmail.com.

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