New gym aims to energize Rappahannock

Stonewall Abbey expansion builds on needs of growing community

Scores of people turned out for the grand opening in late April of Stonewall Abbey Wellness center in Sperryville. The crowd was validation to owners Susan Huff and Gordon Wicks that a full-service gym was something Rappahannock wanted.

By Sara Schonhardt
Gordon Wicks leads the 4-12 age group Kung Fu class. Following his instruction are, from left to right, Mason Hawkins, Declan Perrot, Jacob Pritchett and Eva Perrot.

When the gym unlocked its doors two days later for clients, however, no one came in.

Starting a business always has risks, particularly in a small, rural county. Despite the challenges, Huff and Wicks saw the need for a space dedicated to personal fitness and wellbeing and were committed to building it.

Any anxiety they might have felt that first day proved short-lived. On day two people started showing up, and they haven’t stopped. Nearly two months later, the center is adding multiple new members every week and word is spreading, with clients from their sister gym in Culpeper shifting over as they consolidate their work in Sperryville.

“There’s not anything here like it,” said Huff, who started offering yoga classes in the village back in 2012.

With the new facility they’re aiming to appeal to a wider range of clients, from kids to seniors, and by offering personalized instruction as well as martial arts and cross training classes they’re setting the gym apart from businesses already in the county focused more on physical therapy.

They’re also aware that what they’re offering won’t meet the needs of everyone.

“We try to be as broad spectrum as possible and that’s how we really reach the most of the community,” said Wicks. “We can’t be all things for everybody, but we can be a lot for most people.”

Whole family space

On a recent Monday a small group of kids lined up on the mat in the martial arts’ space for Kung Fu practice. Wicks had them shout out the names of the movements as they went, looking focused, engaged and amused.

By Sara Schonhardt
Martin Raiter gets a hand-on Kung Fu lesson with instructor Aric Conto and Gordon Wicks.x

“It’s helped his confidence a lot,” Josh Perrot said of his 10-year-old son Declan, who has been training with Wicks for more than two years. Having a workout space near home in Sperryville has also gotten Josh to consider signing up.

Devising tandem schedules where kids can take martial arts classes, for example, while their parents do yoga next door is something the center hopes to build upon, especially since some families are coming from outside Rappahannock.

They also plan to work more with the school system and other child-centered programs to provide after-school activities for kids who aren’t involved in school sports.

Justin Hawkins comes from Madison at the behest of his five-year-old son Mason and nine-year-old daughter Ava who recently joined the Kung Fu classes.

“It’s something that’s offered locally that they really enjoy and it’s good for them,” said Hawkins, who’s willing to make the trip in large part, he says, because there are few things for kids to do in Madison.

A natural progression

Stonewall Abbey began six years ago with personal yoga classes led by Huff in the large A-frame abbey that dates back to 1901. Her focus was on meeting the needs of the community, much of which is aging, and that meant taking care of people and respecting where they are in life and their abilities.

By Sara Schonhardt
Susan Huff leads a Vinyasa Flow yoga class, one of several she offers inside the old abbey.

“I came in with a very small business plan,” said Huff, who aimed to get enough people in to not stress about money. It grew slowly, but steadily into what it is today. And as more people expressed interest she added more classes.

Wicks came on board in 2014 and they began expanding. Though Culpeper has a larger and younger population than Rappahannock, Sperryville is where they put down roots so it seemed natural to focus their efforts there.

They started talking to clients and people in the community and realized they weren’t the only ones who saw potential for a gym in the county.

“We’re excited about our neighbors doing stuff for the community, doing stuff for themselves as a business. And we want to share in that,” said Wicks.

The gym came together with the help of small business loans and a fair bit of number crunching. They don’t currently offer subsidized rates for lower-income residents because their license limits the number of members they can sign up. They do offer a range of memberships with discounts for students and families and lower rates for kids’ programming.

As much as the gym is a business, it’s also a part of a community that is adapting to fit the needs of its residents, some of whom are weekenders or retirees or entrepreneurs. They’re serving the community, Wicks believes, by giving people a space to work out and gather and a reason to come to town.

“It’s like a mom and pop shop, you know everybody’s name, you know everybody’s face, you know what time they’re coming in, you know what workouts they’re doing.”

The yoga and Qigong classes have a solid base of regulars, with average class sizes of around a dozen people. Through the expansion, they’ve added two part-time employees and are looking to bring on a third, Huff said.

Members’ median age is 55, but they’re also drawing in more middle-aged business owners and younger clients who have come back home after college. And they’re seeing members bring in friends and family.

Lois Markee is one. She has practiced yoga with Huff since retiring several years ago and deciding “what I need to do was work on my body.” The practice has kept her moving and she’s pleased to see the facility grow. Since the expansion, she’s started attending more classes and considered adding a gym routine.

Her 76-year-old husband, Ralph, has also gotten involved, using the time while Lois is in class to lift light weights and work on improving his balance and flexibility.

“It’s helped me a lot,” he says, indicating a record sheet where he tracks his progress. “It brings something different to every person.”

Sara Schonhardt
About Sara Schonhardt 19 Articles
Sara Schonhardt is the summer fellow for Foothills Forum. A former staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Indonesia, Sara reported from around Southeast Asia for more than 10 years for the International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Voice of America, among others. Her most recent reporting has focused on rural communities in southern Ohio.