For Jonnie Ellis, fitness is a lifestyle. Even more than that, it has always helped him find purpose and healing.
“It’s always been a really powerful thing in my life to keep myself grounded. I’ve also seen the impact and change that it can make on people,” he said. “My dream was to be able to create something that can give back and empower people and change their lives for the better.”
This spring Jonnie opened up Fitness Solutions, or Fit Sol at 44th and Zuni in Sunnyside. The gym is inside of a century-old mechanic shop with a large sign reading “Phillips Automotive” on the outside.
The building looks the same as it always has, but with a modern interior filled with weights and equipment. Two of the four walls are taken up by open garage doors. The space is small, but the environment is filled with good vibes. With such an open area, members can feel connected to each other, and to the rest of the street.
The idea for the Fit Sol gym was not Jonnie’s alone. It was a dream that he shared with his brother, Lane. Lane was an NCAA National SpringBoard Diving Champion at Colgate University, where he was also on the Dean’s List. The brothers shared this passion for fitness and recognized the benefits it had toward physical health, and also mental health.
“He was a professional high diver, a coach, a mentor, and most importantly my best friend. He was the best guy you could ever meet,” Jonnie said of his brother. “Always the one to light up your day with charisma and charm, but inside he was often struggling.”
Lane’s struggle was with mental illness and addiction, and it lasted several years. He found that the most solace and healing times were those when he was working out with his brother. In July 2019, Lane passed away after a drug relapse.
“He was sort of losing himself again,” Jonnie said, with tears threatening in his eyes. “In the years leading up to his death, I knew with complete certainty he was happiest when he was exercising, and doing that in a community.”
After Lane’s death, Jonnie felt the effects of mental illness himself. Like Lane, he struggled quietly, and the people around him had no idea. Jonnie found that working out did more than give him strong muscles; it helped heal his inner wounds.
On May 12, 2022, Jonnie saw to it that the Ellis brothers’ vision came to life. Lane may not be here to see it, but Jonnie has built an incredible community, all to honor him. He knows that people all have their struggles.
“There’s always people suffering in silence all the time. I’ve had this passion and this vision in my mind to create a place that creates community and creates a culture of empowerment and acceptance and kindness to all people, and understanding that we don’t know what people are going through,” Jonnie remarked.
Millions of people suffer from these illnesses every day. Mental illness can be isolating and lonely, which is why Fit Sol focuses on creating community and accountability for everyone, including those who may be struggling internally.
“You have people who are expecting you to show up. If you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, you can know that I got out of bed for you. We come here together and we do this as a team,” he said.
The most important part of the Fit Sol brand is the community that it creates. Connections with others are so important, and as Jonnie has forged these relationships, he knows that he is exactly where he is supposed to be.
“I saw that I have the ability to connect with people and to understand all different types of people. More often than not I found that we all have similar experiences. We all feel pain, we all have loss. When you connect with people, that’s a powerful thing. It helps you to work through those things together,” Jonnie said.
Fit Sol is a project which allows Jonnie to carry on his brother’s memory. It lives on in the atmosphere of the gym, and in every interaction that Jonnie has with the community members. He sends the message of acceptance and understanding. Through this, Lane’s legacy will continue to touch the lives of everyone who walks into the gym at the old automotive shop on 44th and Zuni.
He doesn’t preach this message in class, and he doesn’t often share his story. But openness and kindness is not something that can be written on the wall; it’s just something that simply is.
“I want to get people really fit and have the best workout in town,” Jonnie said, “But more important to me is that people have a place where they come and they can let things out of themselves and can leave with a smile on their face.”