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‘Our goal is to be all-inclusive’

WESTMONT – Ever since he played three sports at Downers Grove South High School, Jared McGriff-Culver knew he wanted to help people and have a facility to train athletes.

His wife, Kelly McGriff-Culver, a basketball player in high school, aspired to go into fitness.

Their gym, Iron Flag Fitness, is one they say embraces all ages, fitness levels and backgrounds. Equality and inclusion is at its core, a philosophy that’s been made clear in its recent stand.

The 8,000-square-foot facility, located at 20 E. Chicago Ave. in Westmont, reopened about six weeks ago. The woman- and Black-owned gym rebranded itself from CrossFit Iron Flag to Iron Flag Fitness, a plan already in the works but accelerated by racially charged tweets and other controversial statements made by CrossFit founder Greg Glassman in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“Something we’ll never compromise is how we live,” Jared said. “We have an amazing community here, extremely diverse – men and women, heterosexual, homosexual, different ethnic groups. Our goal is to be all-inclusive.”

Jared was a three-sport star at Downers Grove South, went on to play football at Missouri and had a short stint with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders. Also a football coach at St. Francis in Wheaton, he’s trained athletes for 12 years. He saw a need for a place where athletes can come three to four times a week, where every day is a little different, from sled pulls to treadmill running to TRX training.

“They come here to get faster, jump higher – it’s all-inclusive,” Jared said. “My mom couldn’t afford a place like this to train. I was blessed to have an older brother and a dad who knew somewhat, and going to Missouri with amazing mentors and strength coaches. It builds a well-rounded, less injury-prone athlete.”

Jared was back home working as a speed coach after being cut by the Raiders when he met Kelly while training her oldest son.

Kelly played basketball in high school at Quincy Notre Dame High School and studied exercise science and kinesiology at Illinois State University. She interned at Get Fast Sports Performance Training after college, became a mom and transitioned to corporate wellness.

She didn’t like that, got into CrossFit and started as a speed coach at a CrossFit gym. She and a co-worker opened their own place about seven years ago, a few months after Kelly met Jared.

“I was Googling things and found CrossFit, saw there was a gym in Downers Grove and she heard me say CrossFit and stopped by my desk and told me she opened a CrossFit gym, that I should check it out,” Jared said. “We hit it off after that.”

They eventually grew out of their smaller warehouse-style place near Ty Warner Park and fell into their current location about two and a half years ago.

Iron Flag touts itself as a “one-stop shop for health and fitness,” more than just a workout. The facility offers free nutrition consultations, injury screenings and quarterly goal-setting sessions. Classes are offered for a young athlete seeking increased sports performance, an adult wanting to achieve better health or a “masters” athlete for those ages 50 or older.

“Our goal is to be all inclusive,” Kelly said.

Classes, sometimes 10 a day, start at 5:30 a.m. and go through the evening, the last one at 6:30 p.m. The facility is open seven days a week, with early morning classes Saturdays and Sundays. With three children at home – ages 4, 9 and 15 – Kelly and Jared structure their schedules.

“When we first started the gym, it was only us but we’ve been able to grow,” Kelly said. “Jared does early morning classes, I do midday and we have seven coaches on staff.”

Jared started out training nine to 12 mostly junior high students and slowly grew from there. Now he trains close to 100 young people, and is getting more college and professional athletes.

Athletes he trains also must perform 80 community service hours and maintain a certain grade-point average in school. He said during his two and a half years he’s only had two kids not come back.

“A lot of parents respect the fact that we’re teaching more than just sports,” Jared said. “I’m doing what I wish someone would have done for me with the mental component and also the nutrition.”

During the coronavirus shutdown, Iron Flag held Zoom classes and online training, and loaned out its equipment to members. It reopened June 6 with classes limited to nine people and an instructor. Everybody has to clean equipment, and people wait outside for five minutes before class while things are sanitized.

Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan allows up to 50 people in the gym, but Iron Flag decided to increase class sizes to only 12. Sanitation policies have been enhanced, and floors are scrubbed twice a day.

Close to 70% of members have come back since the reopening, 120 to 150 coming through in a three-day span. The members in classes for ages 50 and over have been most cautious about returning.

“We only had 10 to 12 members go on hold; everyone else said we’re going to stick by you, which is fantastic,” Jared said.

Smaller class sizes, requiring people to register for classes and adjustments to the sense of community have been the biggest changes.

“CrossFit is a big committee-style workout, a lot of partner workout and sharing equipment, so it’s different now,” Kelly said. “We can’t high-five each other, can’t do team workout, share equipment. I think that is the hardest thing for our members is not getting that community. They’re happy to be back in the gym. It’s just the atmosphere is a little different.”

The McGriff-Culvers said they had plans to rebrand from CrossFit since last fall. While it changed their lives and helped them start their own business, they wanted a softer shell.

“A lot of people see CrossFit and stay away. We wanted people to come in our doors and see what we’re about,” Jared said. “We have a lot of people walking through our doors and realizing that CrossFit is intense, but here it’s intense at your pace and your style.”

The plan to separate from CrossFit came into focus in June, further sparked by the controversy swirling around the company founder. Glassman resigned as CEO and sold the company after criticism from a series of tweets and comments he made in a Zoom meeting with CrossFit employees about Floyd and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

Responding to a tweet that “racism is a public health issue,” Glassman tweeted “It’s FLOYD-19.”

Iron Flag joined thousands of other affiliates around the world in cutting ties with CrossFit. Reebok also has ended its partnership with CrossFit.

“Our goal was to be all-inclusive and a lot of places took the same stand to distance themselves [from CrossFit],” Kelly said. “We’re a Black-owned, woman-owned business. We said we’re going to step away.”

Jared said Iron Flag has lost a few members – people they’re close to – since the decision, but many others support the move. What’s most important to him, as a business owner and parent of three children, is sticking up for what is right.

“I will never remain neutral when it comes to humanitarian issues,” Jared said. “If you want to talk politics, that’s fine, I’m an independent, but when it comes to being an awesome human being, I won’t debate that.”

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