Three gyms. Two states. One dynamic duo and a WOD Pirate.
Abby and Jeremy McDonnell had no intention when they first found CrossFit to explode into something of a regional presence. In fact, the couple initially moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to open a triathalon training center. Jeremy launched his company SOF WOD – a training regimen that looks to prepare people for special operations forces – in 2010 after he got out of the military. And when the training center fell through, Abby found herself at CrossFit Steele Creek, training under Brian and Lisa Strump. “I was really wanting to tap into that more and more, as more and more women were approaching me and approaching us on wanting to do CrossFit,” she explained.
With the help of the Strumps, Jeremy and Abby opened South Charlotte CrossFit in 2011. Pretty soon, it was a successful, self-sustaining entity. “We had our day-to-day covered, and Jeremy and I had so much extra time to do what?” Abby recalled. “What are we going to do? Are we going to coach? Are we going to expand? And that’s when Jeremy’s idea of Rocky Top came up.”
Jeremy explained he had convinced himself the market in Charlotte was saturated at the time with 30 Affiliates – there are now something like 50 in the area. But, believing they needed to look elsewhere, he thought Knoxville – a market he was familiar with since he had been a student at the University of Tennessee – looked like a great second launching pad. On top of moving to Knoxville and opening Rocky Top CrossFit, the McDonnell’s had a baby.
A similar thing happened with their third Box, Beer City CrossFit, located in Asheville, North Carolina. An opportunity was presented. Abby and Jeremy were interested in living in the mountains, and so they headed to Asheville. In 2015, they opened Beer City CrossFit. And they had another child.
So, the gyms span across three cities and two states. However, Abby and Jeremy explained they are all connected.
For instance, the WOD Pirate holds them all together. Designed by Dustin Evans at Made by Fire, it’s a recognizable logo and icon used at all three locations, as well as SOF WOD. And yet, each gym’s Pirate is unique. At South Charlotte, a crown is in the Pirate’s eye. Beer City has a hop and Rocky Top has a tri-star. “It’s very easily distinguished on all of our apparel,” said Abby. “It’s very easily reprintable and reproduced and very recognizable at competitions, and has proven to be the best thing that we did for the gym, is really rebranding all of them to encompass where we started from and make sure they’re all associated with one another.”
Because despite being far apart, Jeremy explained their gyms are all built on the same foundation – keeping CrossFit raw – which comes down to three things. “We’ve always tried to offer extremely high-level coaching, extremely high-level program design, and a great, fun accessible community,” he said. “There’s nothing wazoo about it, but people know that’s what they’re going to get at our facilities, and then they just have a little icon that comes to represent all those different things.”
One of those pieces – high-level program design – comes from Jeremy himself. Rick Ball, the co-programmer of SOF WODs, explained Jeremy simply loves the science behind programming. Both are OPEX disciples, and he said Jeremy uses that knowledge as the basis. From there, he is simply methodical, taking a full-year view divided into four major blocks when it comes to programming for the gyms. But more than that, he’s simply always learning. “I’ve walked into the room where he’s reading some energy system, scientific book to his one-year-old,” said Ball. “That’s Jeremy. He is constantly educating himself on how the body works.”
But solid programming alone isn’t what has helped make the gyms successful. In order to keep CrossFit raw at each location, Abby and Jeremy have found solid team members. At South Charlotte – a gym known for its competitive demographic – Coty Bradburn manages the gym. He explained he was initially drawn to the Box by the support and tight-knit community. His desire for opportunity and the McDonnells’ need for a manager vibed at the perfect time.
In Tennessee, Rocky Top CrossFit is managed by Erin Hall. With previous experience running CrossFit programming at a Navy base in Italy, she had just moved back to Knoxville when she found out the Box was opening. Reaching out, everything fell into place and she’s been with the gym since the get -go.
It’s not to say Abby and Jeremy have stepped away from South Charlotte and Rocky Top. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “I talk to Abby and Jeremy every day. They always make sure things are going well,” said Bradburn. “I think that the fact they’ve not forgotten about it and kept it a high priority, they haven’t just let it be and trusted it would work out. They stay involved with the gym and I think people see that.”
And yet, there’s a balance of ownership. Hall explained the McDonnells have given her the keys and let her run the ship. “I’m so thankful for that because they let me make mistakes and they let me try new things and they’re always there to be my cheerleader, and to be my counselors and confidants,” she said. “To let me make mistakes and trust in me so much in running their Box.”
Each location needs its own manager, as each has a different demographic and marketing approach. Like Jeremy pointed out, one of the reasons why each of their locations has found success in reaching the community is because of their managers. South Charlotte CrossFit has partnered with a local lacrosse program and corporate fitness accounts. Rocky Top works well with small businesses. In fact, Hall was recently nominated for an award because of her work in the community and relationships with local businesses, including other CrossFit facilities.
“I try to be on really good terms with all of the other CrossFit gyms,” she said. “My theory is what’s good for the CrossFit gyms in Knoxville is good for all of us. If we can get every single athlete moving better at every gym and the virtuosity of every athlete in Knoxville, it’s just going to make our Knoxville community look better. And that’s better for all of us.”
The idea behind partnering with local businesses and entities comes from Abby’s mentality that you want your clients to be as healthy as they can possibly be. Their fitness, she explained, doesn’t stop when they leave the Box. If members are making poor food choices or have no mobility focus, their journey in the gym will reflect this. “They’re going to come in here, they’re not going to see results, they’re not going to be mobile and they’re going to ultimately think it’s our fault,” she said. “We’re just a piece of their big fitness puzzle. We’re trying to find the rest of those pieces for them.”
And as that one piece in the fitness puzzle, Abby and Jeremy are sticking to their roots and mission – keeping CrossFit raw – to best serve their clients. What that looks like at their three gyms is focusing on athletes’ needs, staying away from the boutique vibe and providing quality fitness.
Jeremy said they have had to ask questions, like “Why did we start this in the first place?” and “What makes CrossFit at Beer City better than anywhere else?” in order to stay true to their mission.
Because ultimately, the thing that can make your business stick out is the consistent service you provide, a service that goes back to the root of your business. “I think it’s really important for gym owners to know who they are and who they want to be and keep coming back to their original words,” said Jeremy. “Come back to your roots whenever you’re a little bit confused, because confusion will happen.”
So across three cities and two states, Jeremy and Abby are keeping it raw and real, and finding success through that. “The reason that people stay with us isn’t because of any sort of polishness. It’s because of what we provide and the vibes that we have,” said Abby. “Our laid-back approach to everything, and our super-solid dedication to the athlete and their success, is ultimately why we’re doing as well as we are.”