Strong Communities:
How CrossFit is creating connections in an era of isolation

By Wyatt Massey Nov 16, 2018

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When Jessica Burchick moved back to Frederick, she was bringing a new life with her and, she thought, leaving a life behind.

Along with boxes of belongings, the 32-year-old had a husband and two children. But the move in the summer of 2014 meant leaving behind a life in Annapolis and the community she had formed.

But Burchick made a new community by continuing a hobby — CrossFit.

On a Monday evening in East Frederick, Burchick was one of 15 people pushing and squatting dumbbells at Odin CrossFit. During the pumping rhythms of Outkast and Beyoncé, the group encouraged one another to complete the workouts.

“Most of the friends that I have made in the area, I made here,” Burchick said. “When I came to Odin, I felt like I was meeting cousins of friends I made before.”

At a time of increasing social isolation created by technology and the ever-increasing haste of modern living, people are finding new ways and spaces to form communities.

Odin CrossFit, and gyms like it across the country, are one of those spaces. CrossFit was founded in 2000 and has since risen to a company with $4 billion in annual revenue, according to Forbes. There are reportedly more than 13,000 CrossFit gyms in the United States, an industry with more American locations than Starbucks.

The descriptions of communities there and the ways in which those groups are created mirror those that had historically been ascribed to the church. Meanwhile, more and more Americans are moving away from religion. Churches are no longer holding their role as a central spot for community building. Burchick said she grew up attending church but has since moved away.

“These older religions’ rigid guidelines are not really relevant today for people my age,” she said.

The services that historically have been filled in by church members — people in times of need, people to provide daycare — Burchick said she can find at her gym.

“There are definitely people from here I’d call if I had an emergency,” she said.

Searching for deep community

Angela Thurston has become a leading voice in identifying 21st century communities in part because she knew she wasn’t the kind of “non-belonger” she thought she was. The former New York City playwright, like many of her friends, was searching for a spiritual community.

She is not an agnostic or atheist but she was not turning to a religion to fulfill her. She was part of a trend that she felt was incomplete.

“There was an assumption built into that when I saw it reported in the news, it just meant that everyone was becoming secular to the extent of atheistic or agnostic and that they were just not going anywhere,” she said.

Her inquiry in the early 2010s led Thurston to Harvard Divinity School and the How We Gather projectbetween the university, the Fetzer Institute and On Being. The group’s work shows where millennials are engaging and what similarities these groups have to each other — as well as to religious communities despite using secular language.

The work provides nuance to statistics showing an overall decline in religion in America.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has risen from 1 in 10 in the 1970s to almost 1 in 4 in 2016 with Christianity losing the largest amount of followers among American religions. Younger generations are driving this growth in not replacing more religious older generations — 85 percent and 78 percent of the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers identify as Christian, while just over half of Millennials say the same.

That population of religious “nones” has reached nearly 56 million, according to a separate Pew report. The majority of these unaffiliated individuals reported not finding the church relevant, questioning its teachings or not believing in God.

Many religious leaders and followers misread those statistics, Thurston said.

“There seemed to be an assumption, at least in some cases, that a given person is waking up on a Sunday and making a decision not to go to church,” she said. “That there’s an active rejection of it on a daily or weekly basis. What I’ve encountered, it’s not in the set of considerations at all.”

Instead, a growing number of young people are raised in households where religion is not emphasized or they are raised in a mixed-religion household so not belonging to a single religion is normal. Between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as spiritual but not religious increased from 19 to 27 percent, according to Pew.

Religious politics, rigid rules or perceived hypocrisy of its leaders can be off-putting, Thurston said. People are seeking out community and spirituality in other places. Humans crave connection as deeply as air and water, Thurston said.

“We are living at a time of crisis-level isolation and disconnection that we feel in terms of our polarized society and these record levels of anxiety and addiction and the like,” she said. “The result of that is that a lot of us just don’t know what deep community feels like.”

CrossFit boxes offer that kind of deep community in ways churches historically did, Thurston said. First, a participant’s success is connected to the progress of others. There is a sense that development is happening as a group and many boxes compete as teams against others. Second, the progress brings about a deep desire to share that experience with others, which promotes the evangelical elements of the industry. Third, the communities support one another — from when people are sick to philanthropic events to even watching each other’s children.

Finally, boxes attract a diverse group of individuals who are using the experience for a variety of reasons. The workout becomes a “flexible sacred space,” Thurston said.

“You have a blank canvas on which people can make meaning on their own terms,” she said. “That’s very appealing at this moment.”

‘The gym is not just a gym’

Rob Pugh stepped into Odin about two years ago looking for a hard workout. The 47-year-old did not want to think about designing an exercise or nutrition plan, so he was drawn to CrossFit.

The short workouts were a plus, too, he said, because he has a tight schedule with a wife, children and his work in commercial real estate.

Pugh found more than a workout. He found a group of people who cared about their health and wanted to see each other succeed.

“You’re touching everybody three, four, five times a week,” Pugh said. “You’re not meeting once a week, like church.”

Allison Jachowski, Odin CrossFit owner, said the box has always focused on people first.

Coaches invest in what she called a person’s emotional bank account. Little things — such as asking someone how their day is going and actually listening to the person’s response — become deposits. Each interaction builds the account and builds trust, shifting the workouts from a business interaction to one among friends.

“The bigger the bank account, the easier it is to coach someone,” she said. “It builds loyalty and now the gym is not just a gym.”

Jachowski said the Odin box hosts at least one event a month for its members that is not a workout. By taking away the exercise, the get-togethers offer people a chance to build personal relationships, she said.

Laura Smith said she had tried other gyms but usually felt out of place. Coming to Odin and getting into CrossFit helped her overcome an eating disorder, she said. Learning the movements and doing the intense workouts helped reframe the way she views food.

“I knew that if I did CrossFit, I needed to fuel my body for it,” Smith said. “It’s been a big confidence boost, personally.”

The community does not care about looks or how strong or fast a person is, she said.

Dinambi Butler said the humbling nature of the workouts creates a strong feeling of camaraderie. People are at different levels of fitness — or they may not share the same love the 26-year-old has for Olympic lifting — but everyone is in the workout together, he said.

“Even though we’re suffering in that moment, to have people cheering you on, yelling your name, that can be a big deal,” Butler said.

The CrossFit community is a welcoming place at a time when other groups isolate, he said.

“There are different rules that guard different groups, like religions or politics, and people are feeling isolated,” Butler said. “Individuals are starting to not feel a part of that, that they can’t grow with it. Then, there’s CrossFit where they can come.”

Article by Wyatt Massey @ The Frederick News Post November 16, 2018