Creating Community at the Gym: A Lesson in Support


Let me set the scene for you: it’s a Tuesday, the week of Thanksgiving break, sometime before 6 am. I was in-between jobs for the week and I craved the calmness and familiarity of the suburbs (something I never thought I’d say). I took a few days to lounge around at home – akin to a typical college fall break (in fact, I was mistaken as a college student three times – something that I can’t decide I am happy or sad over). I wanted to sleep in (that’s what “college break” is all about!), however, my mom and my alarm clock had other plans.

Beep, beep, beep, beep … Ughhhh. It’s never easy getting out of bed when the first number on the clock can be displayed with the fingers on one hand. I stared blankly into the darkness and listened hard. Just as I was about to succumb to the warmth and comfort of my covers, I heard her. By the time I mustered up the energy to leave my room, her coffee was in hand, gym bag packed, outfit complete. How does she do it?

Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I threw on whatever was spandex was closest to me, haphazardly brushed my teeth and threw my hair in a ponytail. This will have to do; my mom hates running late.

I hop in the car to notice a coffee in the cup holder thoughtfully waiting for me. I glance over at my mom, she’s somehow beaming before 6 am, which is unfortunately not a hereditary trait. Without missing a beat, she cranks the music up and off we go to Lifetime Fitness to meet her friends for class.

When we walk in, we are bombarded by several people sincerely excited to say “hello” and “how are you?” (as if they didn’t see each other just yesterday). My mom’s suburban fitness pals are the definition of squad goals: they support each other, challenge each other and show up for each other. They are each other’s celebrities and biggest fans.

My mom walks in the studio and her friends already have her station set up: dumbbells, body bars, a step, a towel and more weights for good measure. Who knows, she might want to bump up the weight on her lunges this morning, in which case she has the option at the ready.

My mom has been friends and working out with a woman named Patty O’Connor for 14 years. Patty is simultaneously a calming presence and a force to be reckoned with. She teaches a fitness class at Lifetime a few days a week and has the biceps to prove it. Her smile fills her whole face when we walk in.


In 2011, the ‘two Pats’ (my mom and Patty O’Connor) welcomed in a third member of their #girlgang, Kellie. Kellie is vivacious as they come – a short (and strong) woman with spunky blonde hair that complements her firecracker personality perfectly.

The Real Housewives of the southwest suburbs are nothing like those in Orange County or Beverly Hills. They are accepting and welcoming. When Kellie stopped working full time in 2011 and started working out with the “two Pats” she said, “they opened their arms to me almost immediately – now I am not sure that is a good thing … maybe it means I am as wacky as them.”

And they aren’t just hanging out and laughing (though that’s a big part of it). These women mean business in the gym. Every time I am privileged to join them for a workout, my muscles ache with a satisfactory soreness the next day.

“When we are all together for a workout or personal training we really do motive and push each other, either through gentle persuasion of upping the weights OR by just placing the weight pin up higher so you have no choice,” Kellie explains.

“We have been working out together for a long time,” Patty says, “we push each other in a friendly-competitive way.”

But it’s not just about pushing, but also about motivating each other along the way.

Kellie says of her fitness friends, “they believe in you. They tell you that you can finish that last rep. You can go heavier. You run faster, longer. Even when you can’t, they make you feel like you can and when you are done they are as happy and proud for you as you are of yourself.”

I told you! My mom and her friends define squad goals!

As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to deeply appreciate and respect the relationship my mom has with these women. I get it. When I first moved to Chicago, the most accepting groups of friends I met were in run clubs or gyms. Maybe it’s the endorphins, but I am truly grateful for the friends I’ve made on the trails and sweating in the gym. I was always a solo runner (and solo at the gym) in college. Looking at my mom and the friendships she’s created over the years that started from sweat, I learned to let down my guard a bit at the gym. I’m much more likely these days to sign up for a class with a friend than by myself – and I am so much better (and happier) for it.

After pushing themselves in class and in the gym (you should see the weights these ladies put up), my mom and her friends can be found at the coffee shop. As my mom knows well, these friendships transcend the walls of the gym. These ladies talk about everything, and according to Kellie, “somehow there is always something we have to talk about at coffee like we haven’t seen each other in days.”


My mom always says that they have raised a lot of kids over those coffees. “We have been there for each other through parents dying, kids getting married and divorced, grandkids, sick grandkids, all the highs and lows,” Patty explains.

It’s easy to get into a solo gym and workout routine. It’s easy to look at the bonding and community at gyms and mock them. But when I look at these women that wake up at the crack of dawn to make each other better, I understand it. And I hope to one day have what my mom has in Patty and Kellie.

As Patty puts it best, “It’s nice to have such a good friend who has been there for me through everything. Having such a good friend is rare in life. The friendship is more important than the work out.”

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About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.