I met a business associate recently and she mentioned that she loved our story. We agreed that I should probably tell it more often. Staci said it should be on our website.
My business card has a picture that usually gets quite a reaction from people who have not known me for a long time. Here’s a little history and the story of how CrossFit Cleveland came about and why.
As I approached my 40th birthday, I had the shocking realization that I had let myself go to pot. The reality was that I drank too much, ate too much and smoked too much, all while moving as little as possible. My only physical activity was chasing a little white ball around finely manicured fairways several days a week. Of course, that only added to my drinking, eating and smoking too much.
In those days, I ran a successful computer service company and wore a suit and tie pretty much every day. Over the years, my suits stopped fitting one by one. One day as I was getting dressed, it finally happened. My very last wearable suit no longer fit. I stood staring at a closet full of Hickey Freeman suits and custom dress shirts and realized that I simply could not afford to replace all of them. It was time to get my act together and lose some weight. A lot of weight.
Around the year 2000, I started martial arts/kickboxing training with four of my drinking and golfing buddies from LCC. We hired an old high school friend of mine to train us in the evenings. That instructor happened to be Randy LePrevost, the same Randy who teaches our Kickboxing classes today. Within a few months, I had lost over 30 pounds and started wearing all of my suits again. In addition to losing the weight, I had more energy and confidence than ever before. I started to change my diet and stopped eating crap. I continued my Hapkido training for many years to a point bordering on being obsessive. Hapkido is a Korean martial arts that combines pieces of Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Jui Jitsu and Aikido along with its own arsenal of bone breaking and joint destructing techniques. Along the way, many of my friends and business associates wanted to know what I was doing to get and stay in shape. Several friends tried the classes but no one liked them. It was simply too hard on their bodies and they were not interested in the potential injuries that came with the hard style of training. In 2006, I learned about CrossFit workouts and immediately got hooked. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but their workouts taught me otherwise. I began mixing in CrossFit style conditioning with my Hapkido training and everything got better. I also believed that it was something my other golfing buddies could do to get in shape without hurting themselves.
CrossFit very much paralleled my Hapkido training. A small group with a dedicated instructor teaching you what you need to know. You show up, you do the work, and you get the results. There’s friendly competition to do better than your training partners, and they give you crap if you miss a week. You are like a family and do all sorts of other social activities together. CrossFit is just like that, without the bruises, cracked ribs and dislocated joints 😉 I had a strong feeling that CrossFit was going to be the best way for people of all ages and fitness levels to get back in shape, just like I had done. I had figured out a way to lose fat and get back in shape. Maybe I could help other people do the same thing.
I spent a lot of time on the CrossFit.com website, drinking in as much information as I could. I became interested in learning more about the training and possibly getting certified as a trainer. I also learned that others were opening their own “boxes”. Most early CrossFit gyms were part-time, hobby businesses run by people who also held down full time jobs. I figured I could do that. That’s what we did.
In December of 2006, Staci and I along with another couple sketched out a plan on a napkin at the Rocky River Brewing Company. Actually, two of us talked about the plan while the wives had their own conversation after dismissing our silly idea about opening a gym. We decided to move ahead and test the concept to make sure other people would like the training and actually pay for it. In April of 2007, we obtained the license for CrossFit Cleveland, the area’s first CrossFit affiliate. I attended a CrossFit Level 1 Certification Seminar in Ann Arbor two weeks later along with one of the co-founding business partners. We began free workouts on Saturday mornings in the Metroparks the second weekend in May. People started showing up, and coming back for more. The word spread and our crowds got bigger. We knew the weather was going to be changing soon so the hunt for a building began.
After months of searching, we stumbled upon a gem of a space located at the western end of Madison Avenue in Lakewood, OH. A bare-bones stand-alone retail store that had sat vacant for years, with masked windows and bare block walls and concrete floors. We thought it was an awful place to put a retail store, but perfect for a CrossFit gym. We turned out to be right. We obtained a three-year lease that included building out the space to meet our requirements. Our building owner/landlord was fantastic to work with. He did everything we needed. By November, we moved our crew inside and began our first official day of business on December 1st, 2007. We opened our doors with enough paying members to exceed our monthly expenses and were cash flow positive from day one. As anyone who has started a business knows, that is unheard of. We kept expenses low and gave as much value as we could to anyone who walked through our doors. We maintained a free workout every Saturday morning at 9:00am for new people to try, just like we did in the Metroparks. Word of mouth and free online postings got the news out. People just kept coming back and loving the workouts.
It still amazes us to this day how many people have come together and became great friends because of their visit to that little gym in Lakewood. If you were a part of our early days, you know exactly what I mean. Just think how so many lives would be different if we never decided to take a chance on a new thing called CrossFit over 10 years ago.
That’s how CrossFit Cleveland got started back in 2007. The story continues if you are interested.
We continued operating for while the four of us also worked our primary careers. Staci got her CrossFit L1 Cert in 2008 in Virginia Beach and traveled to California for her CrossFit Kids Cert. By late 2009, we decided to take the business to the next level. Staci acquired the rest of the business from our business partners and I shifted gears to run the operation on a full-time basis. Staci helped out coaching at the gym and at home handling the books in addition to running her own court reporting business. We quickly outgrew our location and searched for the new, larger home for our members. Staying in Lakewood was priority number one, but we just could not locate the right building. In 2012, we finally decided to cross the border. We took an abandoned, bombed out building in the heart of Rocky River and proceeding to clean it up and make it our next home.
Our Grand Opening in Rocky River was on Saturday December 15th, 2012. It was the very first day of operation. No ‘soft opening’ for us, we kicked it off with a Fundraising Workout/Event with about 100 people participating and another 100 or so in attendance throughout the morning. It was a cold, rainy December day full of all sorts of surprises. Our toilets backed up first. No kidding. We had used them during the buildout, but only by one person at a time. Funny things happen when you have a hundred people in your building for the first time. Everything gets tested. While I ran the workouts, Staci handled everything else, including rounding up a plumber who kept mopping up the mess while attempting to clear the main drain. The Rocky River police showed up next, wondering WTF was going on in the old abandoned building on Allen Court. I guess I should have listened to Staci and called the station to inform them of the potential crowd. I was kinda busy with all the other last minutes build out details, but that was one thing I should have done. Fortunately we had a member who was a local FBI agent who talked with them and let them know we weren’t a bunch of hooligans who had just stormed their city.
Julie Foucher was our CrossFit celebrity guest for the event. She’s a real crowd favorite and everyone loves her. Julie wasn’t the only famous CrossFitter that shared our day. About 9:30am CrossFit co-founder and CEO Greg Glassman and his crew strolled in to help us celebrate. He had been in town with Maggie and a slew of HQ staff members to visit Dr. Darrell White at his Skyvision Centers Lasik practice in Westlake and his son Randy’s CrossFit affiliate in Sheffield Village. Upon hearing about our fundraiser to benefit a local family with a child suffering from Cerebral Palsy, Greg decided to extend their stay and attend our event. Not only did the entire crew stay around for a couple hours mingling with everyone, Greg donated a very generous sum to our fundraising efforts for little Conlan. If you were there, you’ll never forget it.
I know Glassman enough to guess what he said when his limo driver came down our muddy street lined with cars and pulled up outside, seeing cop cars out front and people peeing on the side of the building (toilets back up, remember?). You might guess he thought it was a disaster. I’m sure he thought it was cool as hell.
Fast forward to today, we’re going strong. We’ve expanded into the remaining section of the building that was totally uninhabitable initially. Many of the faces are the same and many have come and gone, but we’re still here committed to helping our members become the best version of themselves as they can.
We appreciate all of you who have helped make our community so strong and supportive. Here’s to the next ten years. Cheers!
Bill & Staci Russell