This story could take place anywhere. Anywhere can be a crucible for change. This version happens to take place at Ford’s Gym, 2114 Winnebago St., the former warehouse that became a popular no-frills, blue-collar gym.
“We attract a lot of different types of people — a very eclectic group,” says Ford Sheridan, 53, the gym’s namesake and owner.
I was drawn there because of the exposed brick walls, the hanging chains, the giant tires, and the atlas stones in the window. It was like I was window shopping for my life. Though I knew some of these tools were beyond my beginner’s abilities, they shone in my mind. My vision for freedom was a temple of iron and sweat. I wanted — needed — to get primal: to feel alive again in my body. I came here to feed my inner beast.
Everyone has a why — why are you here? In every physical journey, there is a deeper one. I asked a handful of people to share their stories because regardless of where we find our source of strength and community, we must find ways to meet ourselves first. We meet ourselves at Ford’s.
Richards, working out with coach David McKercher: “How do you keep going when the going gets tough? How do you hold yourself accountable when no one is looking?”
In October 2015, I broke my back. It was like a Trojan horse — the breast cancer from my first diagnosis had migrated undetected. A tumor inside my T8 vertebrae shattered it to pieces. I was in the worst pain of my life. I was rushed into surgery, and they packed a cage full of bone graft where my vertebrae used to be and took out a rib to get there. My spine surgeon told me I was very lucky, and between a sliver of space between the pinch of his thumb and his index finger he emphasized: “You were this close to being paralyzed. I’ve seen people become paralyzed for life after 24 to 48 hours of this.”
One of the gifts of a brush with mortality is that it distills life, and one question guides me: “What makes me feel alive?”
I was having a hard time being in my body; I had to rebuild and feel strong again as my body continues to change.
Last spring, I received clearance to start strength training, and I looked up David McKercher, whose company, Train 608, runs out of Ford’s. It was one of the best things I could have done for myself. He never treated me with kid gloves. As a result, I met a part of myself I hadn’t met before, something big, primal, fierce, hungry.
My initial intention in strength training was to keep my bones strong. He suggested we pick a defined goal. I knew I wanted to be outside — give me trees and rocks. He suggested a GoRuck Light event, which entails carrying a weighted rucksack and doing physical challenges in the elements over the course of four to six hours.
Since spring, I have been preparing with a variety of activities from traditional barbell lifts to “grindy” workouts involving pushing my friend “The Prowler,” a metal sled with a warning label: May cause respiratory distress. I completed the Pearl Harbor GoRuck memorial event in my birthplace of Honolulu on Dec. 10, just four days before my 34th birthday. I realize that beyond preparing for any one event, I have been training to be a warrior.
In our last session before I left for Hawaii, I thanked McKercher and said, “I feel like a new person.”
In those moments in which I feel like giving up, there is something that turns on inside and rises: How do you keep going when the going gets tough? How do you carry the weight of your world? How do you hold yourself accountable when no one is looking? When I am trudging across turf with a sandbag on my shoulder, I am grateful for the struggle. I almost lost my ability to do all of these things, and my journey at Ford’s touches all other parts of my life, too. I am getting strong to be strong in the world.
Carolynne Shurna, 62, repaired sewers for the city of Madison for 35 years. She started lifting 40 years ago because she wasn’t strong enough for her job. She’s still working out into her retirement. “It gets me up in the morning,” Shurna says. “I’m kind of surprised at how I am keeping up my strength. It certainly improves my mood to do something physical.”
“It’s almost like another family,” Shurna says of Ford’s. “They tell you you’ll live longer if you go to church. This is sort of my church.”
Shurna recommends lifting for women because it improves strength in bones and muscle. Her father died at 93 of congestive heart failure, and she had her own cancer scare; both events spurred her to action: “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for people as they age to keep going and have the social aspect. Ford’s is a great place to work out. It’s not just the lifting; it’s the camaraderie.”
Plavcan, sparring with her husband, Mark: “Most people can find plenty of reasons to quit things in their life. I wasn’t willing to accept that.”
Sonya Plavcan, 49, owns Twisted Fitness with her coach and husband, Mark Plavcan. They lease space in Ford’s, where Sonya teaches and trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. She is a double gold medal world champion in that sport, the first person in Wisconsin to have that honor. She’s one of only two women in the U.S. to be awarded a black belt in the sport by her teacher.
In jiu-jitsu, with only four belts, the journey is supposed to be long: One learns patience with persistence. She has been tested by an ACL injury and a diagnosis of congenital hip dysplasia, which caused bone-on-bone pain. Doctors said she needed a hip replacement and wouldn’t be able to return to the sport. “I could have taken that as a reason to quit, just like most people can find plenty of reasons to quit things in their life,” she says. “I wasn’t willing to accept that.” After being treated overseas with alternative therapies, she continues to compete.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a ground art that uses some judo; the name translates to “the gentle art.” Many call it “chess on a mat” because it’s so cerebral, which is perhaps fitting for Plavcan, who used to be a chemical engineer. It’s heavy on strategy and playing off the other person’s mistakes in relation to your own “game.” As a small person, Plavcan has a different game than a bigger person. She’s learned to leverage her strengths in relation to her opponent.
Plavcan, who grew up a perfectionist, says the gentle art has been healing because “it rewards the ability to adapt, to not be rigid and to not take your mistakes as a mistake but as being an opportunity to change something.”
Tory Miller has been coming to Ford’s since March 2015. “My whole life I’ve been kind of overweight,” says Miller, 41, Madison’s best-known chef and owner of four area restaurants. “Growing up, I had a lot of issues that affect your body image from very early on.” He was a Korean American adoptee, and “bigger.” People who asked, “Are you a sumo?” didn’t understand all the ways that cut. “I would laugh it off, and that helped me develop my sense of humor,” he says. “At the same time, as a kid you just don’t know how to deal with that.”
As a lifelong lover of “food and eating and flavor,” Miller struggled with his body image and weight. He noticed his chef coat was getting too tight — and, feeling “heavy” at 212 pounds and 5’6”, he sought out McKercher as a coach (McKercher had worked at Sujeo, one of Miller’s restaurants).
Though he had felt that work and family would leave him him “zero time” for workouts, now the commitment to himself is paying off . He’s met his goal of slimming down to 180 pounds, and is becoming more athletic, deadlifting 300 pounds and challenging himself with cardio. “A trainer does hold you accountable, and you realize you’re making an investment in yourself,” says Miller.
He credits his new self-image to McKercher, the support of his wife, Kristine, and seeing his own reflection in his kids. When his son Miles was born, he says, “He had the big cheeks, and I was like, ‘I guess this is just how we look!’”
David McKercher, 33, is a strength and conditioning coach who works with clients out of Ford’s; he’s among a few in-house trainers. McKercher’s company, Train 608, started in 2010 and moved to Ford’s in 2014.
To make his coaching dream happen, McKercher quit his full-time cooking job, “took out a scary loan” and traveled the country taking seminars, including Power Athlete HQ’s graduate-level academy.
He’d spent his younger years outside, playing hockey and riding dirt bikes. Later he discovered weight lifting, but it was CrossFit that showed him expansive possibilities beyond a trend of fitness club cultures that focus on appearances over substance.
“I was always more concerned with jumping and doing pull-ups and sprinting, and not with how my legs or biceps looked,” he says.
Hang out in Ford’s long enough, and you’re likely to overhear someone calling McKercher “muscle Jesus.” With his long hair and aptitude for lifting heavy, the name may fit, but he most prides himself on the mental “sharpness” that this work develops and requires.
“Breaking down physical barriers accelerates the process of breaking down some mental barriers,” he says. “Mental toughness is [a term] people throw around a lot, and, when you do go to a gym on a regular basis, the battle you take part in at the gym is huge for mental fortitude.”
Colin Gillis, 35, is a nursing student who used to struggle with his weight. He’d been weightlifting off and on since 2006, but after moving to Madison in 2010, he took a hiatus until joining Ford’s in 2012.
He started working out with Ford coach Sam Masino and taking McKercher’s metabolic conditioning class, a high-intensity class that may include kettlebells, sandbags, dumbbells, running, jumping, pushing, pulling and crawling. He became that guy going for a double-digit run even after class.
“When you get in better shape, so many activities you couldn’t do suddenly become possible. A year ago, coming into the gym, I felt like I was just trying to maintain a basic level of health and fitness. Now when I leave the gym, I’m not thinking, ‘Thank God that’s over,’ I’m thinking, ‘What other things can I do with my body?’” he says.
In November, he ran a half-marathon. He’s in the best shape he’s been in since high school, maybe ever. The routine is important in maintaining his mental and emotional health, and his blossoming in the gym has come after, earlier this year, getting his anxiety “under control” for the first time in his life. The work allows him to be “engaged with the world in a totally new way.”
Gratitude guides him, too, as he realizes the resources and time to make this journey possible are a privilege. “Ford’s has become a real sanctuary. Kind of a safe harbor, a place where I feel at peace,” he says. “I think I carry that peacefulness out with me when I leave.”