Elisabeth Akinwale’s new gym on the South Side of Chicago has a unique spin on “functional fitness”.
When it comes to being strong and fast, Elisabeth Akinwale is legendary.
She is recognized as being one of the fiercest black competitors the CrossFit world has ever seen. From 2012-2017, Akinwale won two consecutive Regional titles and made five CrossFit Games appearances. She did all of this in her 30’s, while raising her son, Asa, and working to make living.
The Minneapolis-native has certainly created a legacy that’s inspired many mothers and people of color who often feel marginalized within the sport. But this legacy is only a fraction of who Akinwale is as an expert in the fitness world.
“CrossFit was just one thing on a really long road,” she told the Shadow League.
It was a long road that included 15 years of competitive gymnastics, countless months of healing from five ACL reconstruction surgeries, many days studying weight training and other modalities — and innumerable hours spent working towards her Master’s degree in social work.
Today as a coach and business owner, Akinwale brings all of these layers to the table, making her approach to fitness uniquely nuanced and contrary to the current “get flat abs” mainstream gym culture.
Perhaps her philosophy can be best explored through her latest venture, 13th Flow: a functional training facility that seeks to improve the performance and well-being of those who live on the South Side of Chicago.
Despite its looks, 13th Flow is not a CrossFit box.
You’ll find the barbells, kettlebells, rowers, and ropes and all sorts of equipment. The programming even includes some Olympic weightlifting. But when Akinwale and her partner Kevin Brathwaite opened their doors in January, their intention was to create a different environment. Their vibe all starts with the name.
“Thirteen”: It’s typically a number that people want to steer clear away from because some people believe it brings bad luck. “But we look at 13 as a lucky number,” said Akinwale. “It’s something to go towards. Similar to a lot of things with training, [there are] a lot of the things that people want to avoid. We’re not afraid to face those challenges.”
“Challenges” may include physical discomfort, fear, anxiety, doubt, self-criticism and many other discouraging feelings. Akinwale is prepared to guide her clients through those friction points. But she isn’t going to pressure anyone to grind through unnecessary pain. She wants to help people to feel empowered when they leave the gym.
That’s where the “Flow” comes in.
It refers to the nature of water — how powerfully it moves without being forced. How it always finds the path of least resistance to get to its destination. How it always persists. With enough time, water can erode the largest of boulders.
At 13th Flow, it’s not about getting quick results or pushing your body to a limit it’s not quite prepared to reach. To achieve long-term health and athleticism, one can be fluid according to Akinwale.
“It’s taking things as they come,” she said. “You don’t have to force things. You don’t have to run your head into a brick wall. It’s just [about] a more fluid response to your body and how you address your workout.”
On the gym’s website, you’ll find classes that include intense functional fitness training and other restorative/foundational classes that feature movements “that make your body feel good”.
The language of 13th Flow is refreshing in a media world that pushes people to get their “beach bod” yesterday. It’s the type of inclusive, wellness-focused language that’s important in a community like Chicago’s South Side, which has a large African American population.
Black Americans — among many other minority groups — are still not well represented in the latest health and wellness trends. Many people of color fear experiencing racism when they enter certain fitness cultures, while some are continuing to fight obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other health epidemics with very little financial and emotional support.
“You see class and racial and ethnic disparities in so many areas in everything in American life,” said Akinwale. “It’s no different in fitness and health resources so it’s super important to me that we have created a space in an underserved community. We’re creating a space that people of color, black people, queer people and all kinds of people can come in and not feel so many of those micro aggressions and direct aggressions that they might feel in a lot of fitness spaces.”
When it comes to creating safe spaces and looking at fitness through an intersectional lens, Akinwale says her background in social work has taught her how to ask the right questions.
“Social work and doing what I do now feel completely in sync,” she said. “Some of the underlying social work values [are] looking at a whole person in their environment and how [their environment] influences their ability to go where they want to go with their health and fitness goals.
“So it’s ‘How does your family impact that?’” she added. “’How does being a food desert impact that? How does having access to quality training impact that?’ It’s not just the individual having the willpower to do something — which is part of it — but it’s ‘what is the system that they’re doing in?’”
For Akinwale, coaching a person in this holistic manner also means building on someone’s strengths rather than focusing on obliterating weaknesses.
“That’s actually very contrary to CrossFit culture,” she said. “The more you can focus on the things that you do have, it’s actually much more productive than that deficit focus. So as an athlete, my strict upper body strength has never been something I’m awesome at but I’m explosive. So how can I apply that explosive ability to even a strict handstand push up? There is a way to do it.”
So far, Akinwale says that 13th Flow has been well received in the South Side community and they’ve developed a solid membership over the past five months. Their clientele includes families, young athletes, older adults and people across many other demographics. For a while, their gym had been a vacant building in a neighborhood, and as the construction was nearing completion, she could see the excitement build around around the gym. It was clear that 13th Flow is filling a need.
“We’ve literally had people say, ‘Thank you for coming to this neighborhood,'” said Akinwale. “I think that there is — if you’ve spent any time in more underserved communities — I guess what you call, ‘urban blight’. You know vacant buildings and trash. I think there’s a psychological impact to those things, whether it be every gas station you go into there’s thick plexiglass and every street corner has garbage. I think people feel good when they see black people coming in to be part of revitalizing the community. And a lot of people are really excited to see a Black-owned fitness facility in the neighborhood instead of having to drive across town because they want to do functional training. It’s right here.”
Part of the buzz, Akinwale believes, is also because the gym features coaches who racially represent the people of the neighborhood.
“There’s no question that we’re offering a beautiful facility and top notch training,” she said. “And I think it’s icing on the cake when the coaches look like you.”
Besides offering people a good workout, she also hopes 13th Flow can be a space where people can feel comfortable enough to be creative.
It can be easy to get stuck in rigid sets-and-reps gym routines, and some ways, 13th Flow has become a place for Akinwale to explore play as well. Her son, Asa, often reminds her of that when she brings him to work.
“My son doesn’t love structured athletics but he’s incredibly athletic and strong,” she said. “He loves to be in the gym but he’d prefer to just do whatever he wants and run around and climb on the rig than have structure. And I kept wanting to push him into structure. But I was like, ‘Wait a minute: That’s what I actually I want. I wish I had that playfulness and I have to reconnect to it.’”
Through her own “reconnection” she’s encouraging others to follow suit.
Above all, both Akinwale and her partner Brathwaite want to remind people of the reason they come to the gym in the first place: To be healthy, to be present and to enjoy life to the fullest.
“Yes, I hope you’re learning skills. I hope you’re enriched,” said Akinwale. “But the real underlying purpose is for you to do the things that you are most passionate about. Because otherwise, what is it for?”