"We're stoked. Absolutely thrilled!" This was the reaction from Rock Solid Fitness owner and Taree local, Linda Bryant, after taking out the 'Outstanding Start Up' accolade at the recent Mid North Coast Business Awards.
The award recognises a start-up business that has effectively driven growth and is able to demonstrate the potential to achieve future success.
Opening in January 2021, the gym has been nothing short of a major career change for Linda, who'd previously worked as a photographer for 15 years, managing her own photographic studio.
But it was a trip hiking the infamous Kokoda Track that set her upon the new career path.
"I guess the most pivotal part was when a few of us went and hiked Kokoda, and that was life changing to me, mentally more than anything else," Linda said.
"For me the connection between mental health and physical hard work - it became apparent how important that was and I wanted to share it."
I wanted to create a place that people could feel comfortable, no matter their fitness level, their age or physical abilities or mental health- Linda Bryant
Struggling with career burnout and exhaustion, Linda set about redirecting her energy into creating a space that was as much about interpersonal connections as it was about burning calories. She's almost surprised at just how successful it has become.
"I realised how intimidated I felt in a big gym and there was nowhere really that I felt comfortable.
"So I wanted to create a place that people could feel comfortable, no matter their fitness level, their age or physical abilities or mental health. This place has been designed around making people feel welcome, and that must have been really needed because it has thrived," Linda said.
With the fitness industry being among the most affected by COVID, starting a gym in the middle of the pandemic was always going to be a risky proposition. However, by carefully navigating the guidelines and aided by the riverside location, Linda was able to keep her business running while many others were forced to close.
"We opened right in the thick of COVID so I went in with eyes wide open that there was every chance we'd be shut down. We did things like creating a Facebook group for our members and setting little challenges along the riverbank - because people were allowed to walk in pairs - writing out in chalk circuit exercise stations along the way," Linda said.
"With people planning on doing it around the same time, they could at least wave to each other as they went past and keep some of that connection while staying within government restrictions."
With a clientele ranging in age from teens to those in their 70s, Linda has built a fitness culture that is reflective and supportive of the local community, rather than perpetrating an idealised myth.
"Personal connections are what we're built on. You can walk into a big gym with lots of people and be very alone. In here you won't. In here, people are part of our community," Linda said.
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