Cumming Strength & Fitness is close to the furthest thing from a museum. Its entrances are open garage doors, the space is crowded with weights and racks set on a rubber floor, and upbeat music blares as men and women tackle the day’s CrossFit workout.
But as Jill Thornton, the business’ owner, sits at the desk in her slightly quieter office, she offers a different perspective on the action around her.
“I love watching people lift weights,” said Thornton, a 36-year-old mother of two. “It looks like an art to me.”
Hanging on the wall in a frame is evidence of Thornton’s accomplishments in the sport: A medal and photo from her win in the 58-kilogram weight class in her age group at the National Masters Championships in 2016. Just two years after her first meet, Thornton has become one of the best weightlifters in the country at her age, with multiple national titles and record-breaking performances to her name.
Thornton has been an athlete for most of her life: She went to Kennesaw State on a softball scholarship before transferring to Berry College. She and her husband, Hunter, went to CrossFit Atlanta, the first CrossFit gym in the state, when they lived in the city in 2006, but stopped going when they moved up to Forsyth County.
Thornton shopped different fitness options – boot camps, Zumba, BODYPUMP, even a marathon – but weightlifting always held a special appeal for her.
“There’s just something about weightlifting that lit me up,” Thornton said. “I enjoyed getting stronger. I enjoyed learning how to perform the movements with efficiency, so there’s a lot to learn with it. When someone does it really well, it looks easy, but it takes years and years and years of training to get to the point where you perform the lifts efficiently. I liked the challenge of that, too.”
Thornton got back into CrossFit when CrossFit Dynamo opened in the county off Bethelview Road, and she soon started entering competitions. CrossFit competitions aren’t grouped by weight class like weightlifting is, so while Thornton was competing against women much bigger than her, she noticed that she wasn’t at as much of a disadvantage as it appeared.
“For a smaller person and an older person, I was able to hold my own,” she said. “I definitely noticed some raw strength I had, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not bad at this. I’m actually pretty good at it.’”
Thornton is certainly a competitive person, but over the years, her perspective has shifted from comparing her performances against others to focusing more on self-improvement.
“She competes with herself all the time,” Hunter Thornton said. “It may not express itself to her in the form of being extremely competitive, but she’s almost to the degree of perfectionist. She’s always in the pursuit of having or trying to find the perfect day of training and stuff like that. It’s kind of like a daily form of competitiveness that rolls over into competition.”
Jill Thornton’s most recent victory came at the American Masters meet on Nov. 12, when she won 63-kilogram category for her age group with a 73-kilogram snatch and a 93-kilogram clean and jerk, the latter of which was a record-breaking lift. Her total between those lifts was 26 kilograms more than the second-place finisher in her category and was the second-most among all women in all weight classes.
Thornton can’t decide whether she likes CrossFit or weightlifting more, calling it the “question of my life.” So she does both, on top of owning and running Cumming Strength & Fitness, which she has done with her husband since 2013, and raising her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.
“It’s a balancing act, but I’ve been able to balance it pretty well,” Thornton said.
She has multiple competitions planned for the future – the Wodapalooza Fitness Festival, a CrossFit event, in January, and hopefully the Pan-American Masters Weightlifting competition in Canada in June – and has no designs of stopping soon.
“I’ve always said that I’m not going to hang up my competitive shoes until I’ve stopped improving,” Thornton said. “So if I’m going to continue to see improvements in my numbers and my performance, I’m going to keep going as long as I can, as long as my body can hold up.”