This article appears in the January issue of 400 Life.
Jill Thornton has never really done life without fitness. She played competitive softball throughout high school and college, she’s run marathons, participated in group fitness classes and done all kinds of boot camps.
With each, she found a great resource for calling on a workout buddy, but something was missing. She missed competition, she missed community and she missed a sense of accountability. So, just three years after having their son, Thornton and her husband, Hunter, opened their own CrossFit gym, Cumming Strength and Fitness, to satisfy her need (and Forsyth County’s) for all three.
“We were exposed to [CrossFit] early on in 2006; so when we moved out here to Forsyth County, we saw a local need, and we knew we wanted to do it,” said Thornton. “We love helping people and we love sports and those two worlds kind of merged into a gym for us.”
It wasn’t just the formula of CrossFit that the Thorntons fell in love with. They were most excited about the unique community setting and what that atmosphere was doing for people’s health. The Thorntons admittedly had zero expectations going in, but perhaps what has grown their original 10 members to more than 200 in just under seven years is the fact that this couple knew they wanted to be different.
“We really wanted to focus on community. The people that are a part of our gym — we care about their fitness, their health, their nutrition, but we also care about them as people, as friends,” said Thornton. “We wanted to set ourselves apart by creating that kind of community, while also making it a professional product.”
That includes 12 professional coaches on staff and professionally rated classes to raise the bar on the group class experience. They also offer a coach-to-athlete relationship once you join the gym, which means every new member is connected to a coach from day one. That coach is their “coach for life,” and holds them accountable, helps them set goals, monitors their progress and meets up for regular assessments.
“I believe our approach to fitness is a great set up for anybody — young moms, grandmothers, dads, elite athletes, people who’ve never worked out a day in their life,” said Thornton, rebuking the stigma that CrossFit is only for seasoned athletes. “Having someone hold you accountable for what you’re trying to do with your health and fitness is 100% the magic pill. That’s all — it doesn’t matter your fitness level.”
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As a mom of two, the co-owner of a business, and a competitive weight lifter, she thrives on accountability — to stick to her goals, but also to stay realistic about what it takes to enjoy life.
“It’s a balance,” she admitted. “Number one for me is my family, then our gym/business and my competitive goals come next. But people are shocked to hear that I eat Lucky Charms every single day. I don’t believe in putting extreme restrictions on your life to see results. You have to be intentional — yes — but you have to be able to enjoy life.”
When she’s training for a competition, she focuses much of her time on working out, lifting and dialing in on her diet and lifestyle habits. It’s paid off — this past year Thornton won second place at Nationals, first in her debut international competition (Pan American Championships) and won the Masters Worlds Championships setting a new world record in the snatch lift. She heads back to Orlando for Masters Weightlifting Nationals in 2020.
“I did years of CrossFit, and I noticed how much I loved strength training and weight lifting. A friend encouraged me to do a weight lifting meet … and I was hooked. I loved how technical it was, how difficult and how artistic each lift could be. It requires so much focus, and combines balance, strength and mobility in a beautiful way. I can’t get enough of it.”
But even during competition season, she finds time for the things she loves and does them with her family. They all love to travel, so the entire family accompanied her to Park City and tagged on skiing after the competition. After Nationals, Disney World. When she’s not training, enjoying life leans toward local indulgences like Dutch Monkey Doughnuts and Friday night Mexican.
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“Being an owner of a gym, my perspective of fitness has completely changed over the years,” said Thornton. “When we first started our gym, I thought CrossFit was the only way people could reach their fitness potential. But now I realize it is one way — not the only way. People just need to move. We encourage our members to use their fitness outside of our four walls, to get outside, play sports and be active with their friends and family.”
The Thorntons practice what they preach, having spent this past summer lake surfing, tubing, water skiing and wakeboarding in their backyard (a.k.a. Lake Lanier).
Thornton practices community outside the gym walls by serving at Meals By Grace with her family, being character coach for Forsyth Central softball via the FCA and as a student mentor for a local middle school. Cumming Strength and Fitness also facilitates adopting children for Christmas through local organizations.
“Yes, our mission is to change lives, through fitness, but what we really care about is our people as humans first. We strive to make sure that what we do is something that is approachable for any level of fitness — so that no matter who you are, this can be your community where that change will happen.”
For more information, visit cummingstrengthandfitness.com.
Story by Jennifer Colosimo for 400 Life.