Katy and Rick Leonard just celebrated their 20th anniversary. Not their wedding anniversary – their gym anniversary. Twenty years ago, on a nondescript stretch of Route 15, they found what had once been a pencil factory, leased it, gutted it, laid out what they wanted, and built a gym from the ground up. On March 14, 1998, Black Bear Fitness opened to the public.

Two decades later, friends and family gathered to celebrate at Gatwyns II, a small, friendly, jam-packed restaurant. The crowd – hailing from Lake Hopatcong, Sparta, Byram, Oak Ridge, Newton, Andover, and towns farther out – enjoyed a great deal of bear-hugging. Dress was informal, but nobody was in gym clothes, either, which caused some delayed recognition. Gym patrons who had seen people only in exercise clothes did not always know right away who they were.

It was a rollicking, roistering good time with abundant food. Everyone had a glass of something to raise for the hip-hip-hoorays. An artwork of a cake – ringed with black bears and featuring dumbbells made of icing – sat, resisted, until it was time to dig in.

Black Bear Fitness anniversary cake. (Photo provided by Katy Leonard)

At the center of it all were Katy and Rick Leonard, marking the milestone anniversary with their “family,” as they refer to the membership of Black Bear Fitness. It’s not what you might expect in connection with a gym, but Black Bear is the sort of place where it is precisely what people do not expect that keeps them coming back.

What has kept Black Bear going and growing for 20 years is a unique combination of the physical space and the culture that lights it up, which is the achievement of two people. “We steer the ship,” Rick told a roaring crowd at Gatwyns, “but without all of you …” – and the crowd drowned him out. That crowd of members and staff, without whom there would be no gym, would not let Rick diminish the achievement that is his and Katy’s.

Toasting to 20 years. (Photo provided by Katy Leonard)

What about the name? Black bears are part of the environment in northern New Jersey, including some black bear sightings on the property where the Leonards were building their gym. There were already some big-wildlife names nearby: the Thirsty Moose a bit south and White Deer up north. A black bear in the middle would fit right in.

Although membership has exploded from, Katy estimates, “maybe a hundred at the beginning” to “probably a thousand” today, she acknowledges that a small, intimate gym is not for everybody. It doesn’t have the features that big-box gyms can offer (no swimming pool, running track, or basketball court). The closest thing it has to a sauna is hot showers. The gym floor and the group fitness classes are completely integrated; there will always be people of the opposite sex nearby.

“Black Bear is not for all, and not everybody who walks in is right for BB,” said Katy. But for those who are, “we fill something in each other, as owners and as members. BB is a vortex for goodness. Those of us who are here – we fill each other up.”

For more information about Black Bear Fitness, visit http://www.blackbearfitness.com/.

Some of the Black Bear Fitness crew. (Photo provided by Katy Leonard)

This story was written by Emily Nelson.

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