How it All Started

It feels like I’ve told the story 1,000 times, so I figured it’s time to put the story down as a blog post in the cyberverse. And this, ladies and gents, is how Fit 4 Recovery was born.

Sometime around 2012 I decided I wanted to open a CrossFit gym after I finished my degree.

Five years ago, May 2014, I finished my degree with an BA in Exercise Science and Athletic Training as a working adult. Honestly, looking back on working my way through that degree is painful. It was an absolute grind to work full-time and go to school full time. Somehow I pulled that off and became the first person in my family with a Bachelor’s Degree.

I was working as a very part-time trainer at a YMCA and a Coach at CrossFit Eden Prairie. While I desperately wanted to open a gym, I had absolutely no money and a fair amount of college debt, so it was time to get a full-time job to replace the part-time gigs. I wasn’t having any luck on the job search for a few months, almost never looking at Craigslist. One day I decided I’d hop on CL and see if there was anything out there. I stumbled on this listing for a “Paralysis Recovery Specialist”. Intersting, I thought. I had no idea what that would be, figured I wasn’t qualified, but decided to check it out anyway. Turns out, the requirement was a degree in exercise science, so I actually was qualified. My interest was growing. It was an “Activity-Based Therapy Center”, whatever that was, out of San Diego, California. Still, no idea what that is. The more I read, the more my interest was charged up. Project Walk had decided to start some franchises and in a round-a-bout fashion, one of these franchises was going to be in the Twin Cities. Turns out, this gym that started out in San Diego some 20 years ago, called Project Walk, was a world-wide leader in exercise-based rehab for individuals with neurological impairments. Whoa. The deadline to apply was a day or two away. I relentlessly dug into as much as I could find out about the company and got pretty excited about it. I figured I didn’t have much of a shot, given the short deadline, but emailed my resume anyway. Bingo! I had an interview.

I met with a retired accountant (future franchise owner) who was looking for a fun retirement job, and some tall, dad-hippie-looking man (to be the on-site manager) at a coffee shop for an interview. Uh, interesting start. I immediately had strong reservations. At this point in my life, I had worked for loads of small businesses. Some of which I enjoyed. I didn’t have the best boundaries and would always go above and beyond for a lot of these companies, only to be saddened when the effort wasn't being rewarded. I had loads of broken promises from small business owners. Growing up in my mom’s restaurant and learning the ropes at a young age, I tend to gravitate towards small businesses. Back to the story, accountant and crazy looking hippie dad interview. :) One of my most concerning questions was, “Is this legit? I can’t risk putting everything on the line for another small business that isn’t willing to support the ground work.” The response from the hippie guy got me. At this point in the interview they had already sold me. This is a community in need, and this is something badly needed for a lot of people. Mathew, hippie-dad guy, responds to my question. “Frankly, I hope it to be legit. We need it to be legit. Our community needs it to be legit.” See, Mathew has a son, Gabe, who had been injured for around 5 years at that time. Turns out that Mathew had decided he wouldn’t cut his hair until his son was out of his chair. He had five years worth of dread locks almost to his shoulders. That’s some heavy shit. It weighed on me and, I was in. Also turns out, Mathew is a man who’s been LIT ON FIRE about moving the dial towards functional restoration for those with a SCI since Gabe was injured. There’s a very, very, very small population of people who have been as effective, and as on mission as Mathew with his purpose. This is a guy who is getting SCI research funded by state governments. He’s getting shit DONE. So, while there proved to be risk of the Twin Cities Project Walk failing and not being a career, I decided this was absolutely worth the risk. One month later I flew out to San Diego for training.

We had a few meetings prior to Nikki, the other trainer hired, and I flying out to San Diego for training. The new franchise system that Project Walk had built required new trainers to go to the Project Walk headquarters for a 4 week training period. Pending passing the preliminary mandatory studies. The first couple days were a lot to take in. Thoughts of, “holy shit, this place is insane!”, “whoa! I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that”, “do I know enough to do this”, “can I say…”, etc… It was a lot to process. The training program was phenomenal. The trainers and staff were class act. There were a few people who had been doing it for quite some time that I really latched on to and hounded them with questions. These guys knew their stuff and it was impressive being able to tap into that knowledge base. They had Nikki and I training hands-on from day one out there while also going through hours of safety practices, methodology, modalities, injuries/impairments, goals, etc. In short, the training was some of the best I’ve ever had access to in the fitness industry.

We also were invited to meet with the CFO and the CEO during our time out there. This was a bit deflating to me, to be honest. It gave me concerns for Project Walk as a whole. They talked about “opening up shop” across the street from “the competition” and running them out of town. This immediately made me feel uncomfortable given what the mission was. I didn’t know enough about all the layers to it, but my reservations were correct. One year later, Project Walk fired their CEO. On August 4th, 2017 the headquarters shut their doors, permanently as Project Walk. Thankfully, those wonderful trainers have found a way to move forward and now operate Adapt, a class act organization.

Nikki and I flew back after passing both of our certifications and our Twin Cities Project Walk opened October, 2014. That week it was a bit of a ghost town. We had a sweet new facility with loads of state-of-the-art equipment but almost zero clients. Our very first session, Lynne comes rolling in, and I was certain she wouldn't be back. We were so excited to have her there, two trainers still wet behind the ears, one hippie manager guy (the only credibility we had), and one owner, all crazy excited to be working with our first client! Somehow, we convinced her to come back and she continues to train with me to this day.

We slowly built up a very small client base. One of the larger issues, no one can afford these crazy Project Walk Prices at $100 or $130 per hour with most sessions lasting 2-3 hours. That adds up quick. Clearly, not a sustainable model. We had a hard time finding any clients that could afford it. There was a fair amount of interest in the community but it was limited accessibility.

We all gave it some crazy effort to make the place work. If I remember right, Mathew never even took payment. He was there to try to get the thing to take off and trying to convince the community that this was a genuine place and that we had their best interest at heart. And, honestly, we did. The overhead was just too much.

Three months into it, franchise owner and Project Walk Headquarters terminate the franchise agreement and the joint was closing. Nikki and I were told Monday that our jobs would be over by Friday. Shocked. I couldn’t believe it. Another small business failure. Just three months in.

Monday afternoon I remember looking at craigslist for construction jobs after hearing the news. I needed a job and as of that Friday, I wasn’t going to have one. Construction was always my go to, I enjoy it. Nikki was planning on going back to nursing school and this was fuel to her motivation. Tuesday, continuing to train clients and job search on down time, all while this was weighing on me. I remember training with Jake that afternoon and thinking how much this sucks for him to be losing a brand new gym. He was maybe 6 months post injury when this was going on, just 19 years old and had a lot to process with his new circumstances. The gym was a place for him to come in, put in work, and move closer to his goals. Plus, it wasn’t a hospital, and, I would assume that alone counts for something. Wednesday of that week I let a thought entertain my mind, “What if I try to train at CrossFit?”. I brought it up to crazy, hippie-dad guy, Mathew. He understood why I’d want to go back to construction, but he also re-assured me how badly the community needed a place like this. He brought up the fact that it was so badly needed, he was going to try to open something up prior to hearing about PW coming to town. In short, he was beyond supportive if I were to decide to make an effort out of it. His confidence in me at that point in time was game changing and I’ll be forever thankful.

Could I pull this off? Could I train clients at a gritty, CrossFit gym, with next to no equipment? At Project Walk we had everything we needed. We had space, accessibility, equipment, etc. It was a tough job to learn even with having all of those items readily available. I talked to my wife, Christy, regarding the situation. She was 100% supportive. While she understood my motivation for wanting a full-time job, she also believed in me if this was something I wanted to pursue. There was a big part of me that thought it would be a disservice to the community that I receive the training i did, only to go back to working construction. I had a pretty unique background at this point. I grew up as a dishwasher at my mom’s restaraunt, cook, oil change guy, construction guy, hardware guy, supplement guy, more construction, more landscaping, CrossFit coach, degree in exercising, and now, paralysis rehab guy. What?

I talked to the owners of CrossFit Eden Prairie and we worked out a few of the details in a quick Wednesday afternoon conversation. And like that, I had clearance to train clients the following week at CrossFit Eden Prairie as an independent trainer. Thursday I made my choice and decided I’d try to continue to train clients. My job terminated a day later. I was a part-time CrossFit Coach and knew of a few disappointed clients that used to go to Project Walk Twin Cities.

The Project Walk owner told me to round up the small equipment I wanted and to make him an offer. Somehow I scrounged up about $400 to buy a random collection of equipment from the Project walk Franchise owner before all the equipment got shipped out to the new Denver Project walk that was about to open. I’m pretty certain my wife and I had overdraft fees the following week. Without Christy’s support, this place simply DOES NOT exist. I spent all weekend scrounging up equipment, searching craigslist, and moving my small pile of stuff over to CrossFit Eden Prairie.

So, here I was, $400 got me a gymnastic’s wedge, 2 bolsters, 2 yoga mats, 1 yoga block, 2 gait belts, one dowel, 4 gymnastics mats, and three pairs of grip-assist gloves. It was actually a really good deal. And no idea what the hell I was about to do with them.

Tuesday, Jake came in for his first workout with me, the former Twin Cities Project Walk Guy. No business name, next to no equipment, minimal credibility, no idea, really, what the hell was going on, just a passion to help a few client’s who’ve had life throw them some serious curve balls, to keep moving forward.

And, that’s what we’ve done around here since day one. Grit like you’ve never seen before. We grind when others quit. We build when others buy. We’re not interested in protocol, we’re interested in progress. We find a way.

We’re five years in now and it’s just the introduction. I confidently believe we’re going to change the way Neurological Rehabilitation is done.

Joe Hennen | Featured Athlete


Meet our new Featured Athlete - Joe Hennen! Read below to learn more about Joe, his interests, goals and why he believes activity-based fitness is beneficial in so many areas of his life.

Q. Share a little about yourself...

Joe: I graduated high school from Shakopee, MN and later on went to technical college in Bemidji. After school I got a job working as an electrician but called in sick a lot because the fish were just simply biting too well. My awesome family consists of parents Bill and Pam, sisters Kim and Kelly along with their husbands Justin and flatlander Mike, and my little nephews. My interests include anything outdoor-related like hunting, fishing, golfing, grilling, and other sports. 

Q. Do you mind sharing a little about your injury?

Joe: I broke my c5 vertebrae and severely bruised my spinal cord in a diving accident in northern Minnesota about 2 years ago.

Q. How long have you been training at Fit4Recovery?

Joe: About a year and a half, and it's the bomb!

Q. Before Fit4Recovery, what kind of training or therapy did you utilize?

Joe: I trained on a FES bike (electrical stimulation) and did some pool therapy, along with shoulder and core exercises. 

Q. How has Fit4Recovery benefitted you outside the gym?

Joe: Fit4recovery has simply done amazing things for me mentally and physically. I've become a lot more independent around my house and have made some great friends. It also really helps to keep me plugged into the SCI community. 

Q. What is your favorite exercise/movement in a training session?

Joe: My favorite/most beneficial exercise might be the EZ glider machine where you pump the arms and the legs move, like an elliptical. I really enjoy getting out of my chair for a few hours and stretching out. I'm also obsessed with the lacrosse ball.

Q. What training goals do you have - short term and long term?

Joe: To keep getting stronger and stronger especially in my core which will help make me more independent. Long-term goal would be for me and my friends to walk out of there and see Fit4Recovery close its doors because it's no longer necessary.

Q: One more, just for fun - what is your F4R nickname and how did you get it?

Joe: Sir Joseph. 🤙