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10 Years Strong - The Story Behind IST

As I reflect on the growth of IST I am humbly reminded that I have not been alone in this endeavor. It is by God’s grace that we have made it through these 10 great years, and by God’s power that we will continue for many years to come. I thank my wife Melissa who has guided and encouraged me to pursue this venture, and I couldn’t have done it without her endless love and support. She has a much tougher job at home raising our three young boys, Nathan, Peter, and James. My mother and father-in law , Deb and Karl Johnson have helped us through the process of owning a business and provided a great resource over the years. You have all enjoyed the handy work of Karl, from the monkey bars, to boxes, to setting up the new wallmount rig. The list of equipment and time that he and Deb have generously donated is too long to list. My parents, Val and Bruce have always been supportive of everything I do, although my mom thought I was nuts in 2006 when I told her I needed to start a business. Business was very foreign to them, as they were both government employees of Canada their whole lives. As fate would have it, my sister Carla now owns a veterinary clinic in Victoria.

The beginning - Looking back to 2006, we were living at Melissa’s grandparents home, Nathan was 1 yr old, and I thought it would be in our best interest to start a business with a barbell, squat rack and some wooden boxes that Melissa’s grandpa made. It was February, and I told Melissa about a month later in March after I had some time to think about it. She was busy shopping for a house in February, and we settled in nice old home about a block from Denfeld high school sometime in March. April 1, 2006 was the first day of business. It was also April Fool’s day ironically. I thank Mark Wick for allowing me to rent space from him at his gym and letting IST rapidly grow.

What is IST? - IST stands for Impact Sports Training. My experience through 2006 consisted only of working with athletes from the middle school ranks to college, Olympic, and professional. I won’t bore you with my resume, but I did not have any interest or intent to work with adults. All I knew was how to train athletes to be stronger, faster, and more powerful than ever before. Basically I thought I was too good to work with people who didn’t play sports. Working with kids from 3-5pm after school wasn’t going to pay the bills though, so I started doing some personal and small group training throughout the day and evenings to fill those hours. The name IST did not really appeal to adults which was demonstrative of lack of business sense in choosing a name at the time. I stuck with it though, and figured I needed a simple logo with a cool font style. Being from Canada, I would routinely watch TSN which stands for “The Sports Network” and has the same style as ESPN. That font would become what you see today in IST. Some people mistake the logo for “first” but I guess that’s better than “last”.

2006 - Our first summer at IST was pretty basic between running sessions in Superior 4 days per week, Hermantown 3 days per week, and a couple sessions each day with athletes at IST. I had the pleasure of working with my first intern that summer, Jake Bonacci ( After graduating from UWS he went on to earn his master’s degree from CSS in exercise physiology. From there he moved to Las Vegas to intern at a UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) training center owned by Randy Couture. They liked Jake so much that he became Randy’s trainer and became their first full time strength coach. Jake has traveled the world with Randy and has been beside him as he became a three-time UFC Heavyweight Champion. I had the pleasure of visiting Jake and meeting Randy a few years ago in Las Vegas.

2007 - 2008 - I had the pleasure of working with several interns from UWS and CSS. Josh Gorham was an intern in 2008 and became our first employee. He played football at Bethel College and was very good with athletes and adults. He went on to earn a master’s degree in Ex Phys from CSS in 2009, and then chose to pursue nursing the following year. He and his family remain in Duluth as he is employed by St. Louis County as a nurse practitioner.

Jeff - In the fall of 2009 I was teaching a class at UWS and my student assistant was a guy name Jeff Ellison. It wasn’t long before we discovered we shared many of the same interests. Following that semester Jeff started an internship with us in 2010 which quickly progressed to employment. The timing was ideal for myself and Jeff, as Josh was ready to fully commit to his nursing school. IST experienced significant growth as we brought Jeff on, and it continued to grow with him. In the fall of 2014, Jeff decided to pursue his dream of opening his own gym. Many current folks at IST remember him well and share fond memories of his time here.

Brendan - Two years later, a young fellow named Brendan Willis contacted me from UWS looking for an internship in the fall of 2011. We met, I asked him if he was qualified, and he said that he was Canadian. That was good enough for me, because we didn’t have any other applicants that semester. I also knew him previously as a student in a Field Sports class that I taught at UWS. I gave him a B+ in that class. Brendan was eager to learn, trustworthy, punctual, and was very genuine in his desire to get to know every single person who walked through the door. Believe it or not, he was in very average physical condition as well, and not happy about it. He worked tirelessly to get better at every single aspect of training athletes. He became stronger, very proficient at the Olympic lifts, and improved his conditioning to levels rarely seen (as we have all witnessed).

Alex – Alex and I go back a little further, because Alex started training at IST in the spring of 2011 as a high school athlete. Despite being quiet and shy, Alex was engaging, focused, and had a passion for strength and conditioning. He was 18 yrs old. While in college, Alex contacted me regarding a summer internship for 2012. He began in May of 2012, starting his career at IST by assisting Brendan and I with our summer programs. That fall, he began the Exercise Physiology graduate program at CSS with Brendan. Since then, Alex has proven to be a valuable employee and a great friend. IST is very blessed to have such great coaches in Alex and Brendan because they are truly genuine, and show that they care about everyone who walks in the door. I should add that their knowledge base in the field of sport, strength and conditioning, and CrossFit is extremely high.

CrossFit - Late in 2012 we began exploring the idea of IST becoming a CrossFit affiliate, a time when there were no CrossFit gyms in the area. Brendan and Jeff are the main reasons why we became an affiliate. They both had competitive interest in the idea and were both very good at most elements of CrossFit at the time. We thought we were going to be the first CrossFit in the area, but as luck would have it, others in Duluth thought the same thing and beat us to the punch. Not a big deal, but in a matter of 5 months there were four CrossFit gyms in the area! Much of our adult programming had already been using CrossFit methodology in the workouts for years, which is why we resisted the affiliation and $3000 annual fee for so long. April of 2013 was the birth of our CrossFit affiliation. The transition from casual group classes to running actual CrossFit classes was challenging for us, and our members. It took time, but we all figured it out and pretty soon sessions started and ended on time!

Summers - Summers have always been the busiest time of year for us at IST. Between running camps with athletes in Hermantown, Cloquet, Marshall, and East high school, as well as in the gym, our coaches can get spread pretty thin. Fortunately, we have had great interns and support staff to fill in the gaps and assist when needed. In June and July, we routinely see around 400 or more kids each week between sessions in IST and around the community. It gets pretty tough remembering names! Each summer seems to get busier and busier with athletes and programs that we are involved with. The credit for such growth goes to the great team of coaches that we put together every year, who care about what IST represents, and who care about the athletes they work with. Caring about what you do and caring about every person we work with isn’t something you can fake. A group of 50 kids can figure out pretty quickly if you care or not. Adults can figure out if we’re genuine or not as well.

The present – IST has experienced significant growth in the last 6-8 months. Much of that growth has been generated from our bootcamps that we started in September of 2015. A result of that growth has led to us improving the client experience with the addition of new equipment, zen planner client management system, and more class times. We are also fortunate to have added Austin Gotchnik to our coaching staff. Austin has been a great addition, willing and able to fill many roles for us. February marked the launch of our Friday Night Lights (FNL) competition in conjunction with the CrossFit Open. The success of our first in-house competition is due to the great show of support by you as competitors, volunteers, and spectators. The 5 FNL events were hard work, but so much fun. Many of overcame fears and achieved what you never thought was possible. That itself is a huge accomplishment!

Regionals! - We are in the midst of an exciting time in preparation for the CrossFit Regional competition in Columbus, Ohio, at the end of May. As most of you know, Brendan finished the 5 week competition in the top 20, qualifying for the Regional competition. Not only is this a huge honor, but Brendan also earned the distinction of being “The Fittest in Minnesota” and being one of two representatives from this state. I must say that is truly remarkable, and a testament to his work ethic, drive, and commitment to being the best he can possibly be so he can be a great example to all of you whom he coaches. I think we would all agree that qualifying for Regionals truly is a huge honor and accomplishment. Congratulations Brendan! We look forward to cheering you on in Columbus!

The future – We will continue to refine and expand our skill set to provide great service and experience unmatched anywhere else. We will add a new coach or two in the near future, incorporate more community events and greater engagement in all that we do to help you create balance in your life and achieve your goals. We will continue to add great equipment for you to use and enjoy, and are looking at expansion possibilities upstairs (which we don’t have yet…) above the current IST location.

Thank you to everyone who has walked through the doors of IST and made it what it has become. You have all influenced it in some manner, and are the reason we have such a great community of people with similar values and passion for health, fitness, and balance in our lives. Let’s continue this together!

Thank you,

Chris Bell

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