As Dustin and Molly McWilliams walk through their massive workout space, they appear to be just like any young married couple with kids talking about the happenings of their day—and then they start doing walking handstands in unison. It has become an everyday movement for each. Along with other movements like rope climbs or KIPs (a term for a pull-up technique used in CrossFit competitions) the McWilliams use the walking handstand as a training element in their CrossFit regimen at a gym and personal training facility they opened a year ago. In many ways, Dustin and Molly are also very normal. They have a mortgage, eat Doritos (maybe not as much as you or me), aren’t sure how to navigate the social distancing way of life as business owners and love spending as much time with their son and daughter as possible. In many other ways—as the images in this story of the couple working out together in an unusually quiet gym shows—they have gifts and skills for physical achievement and mental motivation that is rare with most. Dustin and Molly have tapped into something that helps them take on and overcome the mental and physical obstacles we all face as it relates to overall wellness. Thankfully for all of us, they’ve also learned that helping others achieve better wellness, do another rep or maybe a first one, or grind through those times when the body and mind urges us not to take on a challenge (Molly calls it “the suck”) is the true fire behind their dual passion and the ultimate soul of everything they do.
The Origins Of CrossFit SoulFire When Molly met Dustin, she was working on the operations, sales and administration side of a local 24/7 gym owned by her father. Dustin was a regular at that gym and a soon-to-be personal trainer. That was all ten years ago. Dustin was working out as much as he could, but his routine was stale and his interest in any of it was slim. Molly loved working for her father, but she also wanted to expand her reach and duties. After falling for each other, Molly and Dustin helped expand Molly’s father’s gym brand into other communities while they continued to increase the membership and support at their Grand Forks gym.
According to Molly, although Dustin may be a reserved, quiet person to most, his demeanor and motivational acumen in the gym is something special. “People were paying individual rates and coming in seven at a time to work with him,” she says.
Around that time, Dustin had his CrossFit epiphany. The two were at home sitting on a large sofa sectional (you’ll recognize the sectional when you visit their current gym) when a CrossFit competition started playing on the TV. “I’ll always remember Dustin standing up and walking to the TV and asking with a strong tone, ‘What is this?’,” she says.
According to Dustin, what he saw was a new, fresh and exciting approach to fitness. There is competition if you want there to be, there are new workouts every day and it promotes all participants to work towards becoming the fittest version of themselves in any regard. The fitness approach doesn’t focus on one thing—ever. CrossFit pushes people to be good at running, agility, strength, mobility, gymnastics and anything else you can think of that relates to wellness. When Dustin found CrossFit, he immediately started infusing the concepts into his workouts and those of his clients. CrossFit Soulfire, a huge workout facility designed in a new commercial condo space tucked away in the middle of Grand Forks, is the result of Dustin and Molly's beliefs in themselves, their business abilities and their commitment to the CrossFit way. When they asked their banker about the idea of opening the space, Molly recalls him looking at her as if she asked a dumb question. “Of course you’ll get the loan for this,” the banker said.
Opening their own gym and drastically changing their lifestyle has had its challenges, they both agree, but it has provided them with an opportunity they couldn’t and didn’t fathom prior.
The SoulFire Way “You need to have more than just equipment to drive people through the door,” Molly says of any gym. From the start of SoulFire, both knew that their operational dreams for their members and their personal bank accounts were linked to their ability to create a community.
“If what you do in the gym isn’t enhancing what you do outside of the gym,” Dustin says, “you are going to the wrong gym.” In many ways, it is hard to even call SoulFire a gym. Molly and Dustin have created a place of their own there. People miss it when they aren’t there. Members hang out together on Friday’s after a grueling workout. During the COVID-19 situation, most members are still paying monthly fees even though the gym (as of March through April) has had to close due to social distancing. One side of the facility is set-up for regular, more traditional workouts and personal training sessions. On any given day or night, a 90-year old could be working out near a 19-year old. Every level of fitness is represented at SoulFire. People there frequently talk to each other during their workouts, everyone interacts. Kids are there interacting and staying busy while their parents do another set. Bowls of fresh fruit are always on the front counter. Photos of gym members in their various forms of glory are posted on some of the walls. There is music overhead, people smiling with gritted teeth, Molly or Dustin walking the floor coaching clients or just taking in the vibe.
“All of it is about expanding what people think is possible,” Molly says. “When that happens you see people blossom.”
She believes a large part of that client blossoming process is related to her obsession with making the physical space of the gym, and its amenities, something special. “Someone told us to create something that we would want to be a part of. We like it when people walk in and feel like the place is theirs.”
Dustin believes the space has unleashed his inner programmer. For CrossFit-inspired clients or others at the gym, the space and equipment there has allowed him to create exciting and results-oriented workout programs for every member. The space has also allowed the athletes there to come more frequently, he says, and those that do compete in regional CrossFit games are doing better than most athletes from other regional gyms.
Both Dustin and Molly stress that they can help anyone at any fitness level. They work with young kids, hockey players and moms. “For the moms out there feeling like crap in their clothes, I’ve so been there,” Molly says. “But with us they can get a taste of what they are capable of doing and of who they are or can be with us.”
In addition to the equipment, showers, and general coolness factor in the space, the McWilliams enjoy an office space that features furniture and amenities for their son, Jaxson and daughter, Mila. The kids spend a lot of time at the gym, according to Molly, and the ability to have them with her has been a major plus to SoulFire.
Through events hosted at their gym, they can bring in attendance and participation revenue and help grow the greater CrossFit world. CrossFit is a pseudo-brand that allows and supports gyms like SoulFire to affiliate with the term. But make no mistake, Dustin and Holly aren’t franchise owners. Everything they are doing is on their own, with their own sweat, tears and blood. Although near-term plans (like hosting competitions) have been altered due to social distancing restrictions, Molly and Dustin are unsurprisingly upbeat and energetic about their future. They’ve worked hard to see their dual passion come to life on a floor of black workout mats in between walls that hang dry erase boards with the writing of a WOD (workout of the day). They’ve come to love and yearn for the next day they have to spend at their gym, when it's filled and people are grinding through their own version of suck.
It’s easy to understand why they had a hugely successful opening that saw the same number of gym members on day one as others struggle to gain after years in business. When they explain what they do and what they are about, its like you are there with them even though you aren’t. It’s like you and their words have snuck away into the corner of the gym and you are staring at the black mat thinking about how many walking handstands you should do even though you’ve never even tried one before. You get a sense one of them is watching you, cheering you on. The more you listen to them, the more your mental wall blocking your physical ability seems to break down.
By the end of your conversation, you look at each of them and wonder if you actually just did some kind of mental workout and hope that somehow you even pulled off one of those cool handstands. As the talk draws to an end, you start nodding your head up and down without knowing it and you tap your foot on the ground. Energy is running through your body you didn’t know you had or maybe forgot about. There is probably no music playing anywhere, but it seems like some pump-up song is on in the background and at that moment, or a moment the next day or the next day, you know you’ll be trying a KIP in a WOD in your own version of suck. G
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From Issue 2, 2020
PHOTOS BY: Manstrom Photography