Amidst COVID-19, a CrossFit Gym Fights for the Soul of a Tennessee County
For years, Dannette Wheeler felt uncomfortable in her own skin. “I was embarrassed of how much weight I’d gained,” says the 48-year-old nurse, who is 5’7” and at one point weighed just over 250 pounds. Once a social person, Wheeler started to stay in, avoiding friends who she feared might judge her.
Wheeler lives in Fentress County, Tennessee, an area that like many rural communities has struggled to find economic stability as manufacturing jobs have moved overseas. When a CrossFit box called New Horizon Athletics opened there last summer, she joined it. Flash forward to March 25, 2020, and Wheeler was feeling much better about herself. By eating right and doing modified versions of CrossFit’s classically high intensity workouts, she’d dropped 52 pounds.
That day, as the coronavirus was spreading around the country, forcing businesses and restaurants to close, she noticed a semi-truck parked up the street from the medical office where she worked.
The truckers explained their plight. They had 44,000 pounds of lettuce bound for restaurants throughout Middle Tennessee, but none of those places were open to receive fresh food anymore. The truckers needed somewhere to unload it.
Almost a quarter of the 18,000 people in Fentress County live below the poverty line, and public schools offer their free lunch program to all the kids in the district. Wheeler knew those schools were closed, and many of her friends and neighbors had been laid off. Families who were previously teetering on the edge of food insecurity could easily tip into hunger.
So she opened up her phone, and asked a friend to shoot a quick video. It took a few takes because she was so nervous. In the final product, however, she stands confidently in the back of the trailer, giant crates of lettuce all around her. Her message is clear and simple: Come get what you can use. Bring a bag and tell a friend. “Stay Healthy Fentress County,” she says at the end of the message.
Wheeler posted that video to a same-named Facebook Groups page—Stay Healthy Fentress County—that had gone live just two days earlier. The effort was started by her CrossFit coaches, Adam and Amanda Wood, who wanted to create a hub for the community to share more health information, lend support to each other, and stay connected as calls for self-isolation spread. No one knew if the idea would work. This was a totally different kind of exercise in wellness.
As the Covid-19 outbreak hit the country in early March, independently owned gyms came face-to-face with two grim realities: First, some members might cancel their memberships if they couldn’t use their facilities. Second, even those who wanted to support small businesses might bail if they lost their jobs. Recessions are not generally kind to the fitness industry. During the Great Recession, Bally and Crunch both declared bankruptcy—and those were the big guys.
But at New Horizon Athletics in Fentress County, Adam and Amanda Wood didn’t panic. Adam grew up in the area and had recently returned because he felt God calling him to help improve health in the county seat of Jamestown. In 2019, The Atlantic’s CityLab reported that while rural America has 21 percent of the country’s population, it has just 12 percent of all the gyms. Part of that is because rural places are often poor, making disposable income for memberships scare. CityLab’s analysis also found that the average household income for neighborhoods with gyms and fitness studios is nearly $73,000, more than double the average in Fentress County.
The Woods always saw their gym as a way to help some people. Now they wanted to create a free model that could help everyone. They both felt that, perhaps for the second time in their lives, God was revealing his plan for them.
The Woods are in their mid-30s. They met half a decade ago while working in the service industry in Gainesville, Florida. Amanda was a Florida native, and Adam a transplant. After a stop in the mountain town of Brevard, North Carolina, and contemplating a few different career paths, they opted for the not-exactly reliable option of opening a gym in a place that seemed to need the most. “I felt like God was calling me home,” Adam says.
Over the course of their first year, classes began to fill even though a membership costs more than $100 a month. Members like Wheeler joined before the gym even opened. She signed up in June of 2019 as a “founding member” about a month before classes started.
For the Woods, the biggest problem was balancing the costs of running their operation with the knowledge that some people still couldn’t afford to use it. “We know this is a privileged service,” says Amanda. “But our heart from the beginning was to make a difference in this community.” As the novel coronavirus spread, the Woods decided to voluntarily close their gym. They kept thinking about how to make change on a bigger scale.
On March 21, 2020—just a few days before the lettuce truck unexpectedly arrived—the Woods notified members that the New Horizon Athletics would be closing indefinitely. But they also announced two new Facebook pages. The first was a members-only page, where gym regulars could post PRs and Adam and Amanda could demonstrate moves in their virtual programming. The other, though, was Stay Healthy Fentress County, a page devoted to reaching out to everyone in the community who wasn’t a CrossFit member. The Woods asked their membership to spread the open-to-all page to anyone they thought might be interested in using their time in lockdown to get fit.
In fact, the greater health of the community was one of the reasons the Woods chose to close their gym more than a week before the Tennessee Governor, Bill Lee, issued his order closing non-essential businesses, particularly given that people who might transmit the virus could carry it asymptomatically to others who are vulnerable. In Fentress County, 27 percent of the adult population is obese, and 17 percent has diabetes. A quarter of all adults smoke. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking are all identified as comorbidities that enhance the risk of complications from Covid-19.
Stay Healthy Fentress County was designed to tackle those underlying issues. The key components are recipe sharing (like the couple’s “eggroll in a bowl,” a mix of ground turkey and cooked cabbage) and practical equipment-free workouts for non-gym disciples. One day they’ll lead county residents through sets of wall sits and running intervals, and the next they’ll encourage people to try hand-release push-ups mixed with sit-ups. Their short videos always offer a range of modifications so it’s clear: You don’t have to be super-fit to do this, you just have to be willing to try.
The Woods figured their own members would share and contribute, and word of mouth might get more people to join or share some of the content on the page. If you’ve ever heard your friend talk about his triathlon—or even a couch-to-5K—and thought if he can do that, I can do that, then you’ve felt this effect first-hand.
To that end, Wheeler’s first inclination when she spotted the lettuce truck was to call Adam and Amanda and have them post something. Instead, the duo had a better idea. “I told her she should make a video and post it to the group,” Adam says.
Wheeler’s first reaction was no way. The idea of putting herself out there was a non-starter. But then she realized this was the old Dannette talking; the version of herself who hid her body. She thought about how, at the end of every WOD, New Horizon Athletics members huddle up and promise to “be the light we wish to see in our communities.”
“I filmed it three times,” she says about the video. But within a few hours the post had 50 shares. The lettuce was gone within hours, too, but the site has kept growing. There are now 450 members, roughly a quarter of the population of Jamestown.
On May 4, the Wood’s reopened New Horizon Athletics but with strict social-distancing rules in place. They’re not taking on new members because class sizes will have to shrink to accommodate more distance between participants. In a way, that boosts the demand for their free services more than ever, and they plan to continue posting short workout videos and recipes daily.
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Occasionally they mix in reminders about mental health—that it’s okay to occasionally have a treat or skip your workout, especially at times like these. Community members are quick to chime in too. Recent posts show Strava files from walks around the neighborhood and videos of kids doing jumping jacks with their grandparents.
What makes the site special is that these are regular people trying to do just a little bit better—not Instagram stars who look suspiciously like they’ve never even seen a plate of biscuits and gravy. The names “liking” these small efforts are friends. That feels especially useful in a time when some of us are still unable to see the ones we love in person. Best of all, because it’s run by two certified CrossFit coaches, so there’s no questionable fad diets or fitness misinformation.
Wheeler is happy to have played a small part in this community effort. In fact, an old friend chimed in on her post with some simple but powerful words: “You look great.” Re-watching the video, Wheeler was glad she did it. Supporting others felt great too.
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