“A Place to Call Home”: Nevada Gym Offers Free Membership to Disabled Servicemen and Women
Nick McCombs wants his gym to be a place athletes can “call home.”
McCombs is the president and head coach of Branded One CrossFit, a nonprofit gym in Las Vegas that provides free memberships to disabled servicemen and women. Running the gym, he says, has been the most “humbling, rewarding thing” he’s ever done, everyday seeing the impact fitness and community can have on the mental and physical barriers his members face everyday.
- “I was not in the military myself,” he said, “But I just wanted to be able to help more people.” Branded One was a nonprofit from day one, because, as McCombs put it, “nobody starts a CrossFit gym to get rich, we’re in it to help people. We thought if we did a nonprofit, we’d be able to help even more people.”
- Knowing that the Vegas area already had many opportunities for youth to get CrossFit exposure — McCombs explains that a few years ago, an area school district paid for physical education teachers to get their L1 certificates — he chose to focus on servicemen and women.
- “And now, being in it for these three years, absolutely there are people that could have never have afforded to go to my gym that are now able to come and have seen massive impacts on their lives,” he says.
The big picture: According to a report from the U.S. Department of Labor in August of 2019, about 25% of veterans carry a service-related disability. But, those numbers are limited to the veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces; any first responder — active or inactive, from nursing to law enforcement, with a disability rating of zero to 100% — qualifies for a free membership at Branded One.
- McCombs and his team accommodate all disabilities. (One of his coaches has obtained the official adaptive training certificate from CrossFit.) It’s something he likes to think the gym is “really good at.”
- “We do have all of those members with disabilities and you know, some of them are suffering internally,” he says, noting the diversity of their athletes’ abilities. “We’ve gotten really good, because we have all of those people, at scaling the workouts appropriately for their current level of fitness.”
A safe space: Cultivating a welcoming, non-judgemental culture has been as important as adapting workouts — if not more so — to ensure the success of McCombs’ mission and his athletes.
McCombs compares his space to what he calls “bro gyms;” gyms that focus too much on the individual performance, or get a little “too carried away with the working out aspect” of CrossFit.
Branded One, he says, is a safe space that people can rely on, where “it’s all about everyone else, it’s never about the individual person.”
- “I always try to make everyone feel super welcome when they come through the door, you know, pre-COVID you would have seen a big smile on the coach’s face,” McCombs says.
- “A lot of these [members] would have been the silent type who would never have greeted anybody. But if you’re going to work out in this gym, you’re no longer that person. You’re going to be the person that greets someone when they walk through the door, because, if you remember, that was you,” he adds.
- “I’ve had people that came in that seemed fine, and then they just ran out of the gym crying,” he explains. “I try to be as welcoming as I can, because you’re never going to know when you have a super sensitive person walking through your door.”
- On their website, Branded One states that at least 228 police officers took their own lives in 2019 and due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), more firefighters died by suicide than on the job in 2017.
How it works: Branded One operates like any other non-profit, relying on donations and fundraisers to run the gym. A board of four members makes decisions for the organization’s future.
- About half of the members at Branded One are paying members. Some are civilians, and others are servicemen and women without a disability who want to support the Branded One mission.
- McCombs’ compares the membership fee — which is partly a donation — to purchasing a table at a fundraising gala. If the table cost $120, that’s not paying for the meal, which on its own, would cost much less. The larger portion of the funds is considered a donation.
- “It makes things interesting,” he says. Three years after opening, McCombs is finally able to pay his coaches who, up until this point, have been volunteers.
Their largest annual fundraiser is The Battle at Branded One, a competition held in November to raise funds and in honor of Veterans Day. This year, they were lucky enough to have teams of two compete outside, in-person, raising just over $36,000.
McCombs says they’re also hoping to start applying for grants.
Looking ahead: In the near future, McCombs has plans to launch an affiliate program. He hopes to invite other fitness facilities, beyond just CrossFit, to become part of Branded One. These gyms will follow the mission of the nonprofit, offering free memberships to servicemen and women and fundraising to benefit the greater organization.
- He emphasizes that his version of an affiliate program will be different than other organizations that offer similar opportunities. “Other nonprofits have a program where they say, once a week we have these workouts where we can meet,” he explains.
- “No, I want people at my gym everyday, twice a day if they want to be. And that’s what I want to see the other gyms offering, a place they can call home, not a one-off,” he says.
The bottom line: The purpose of Branded One is to empower disabled servicemen and women. McComb focus on creating an inclusive, welcoming community paired with fitness has clearly been successful.
McCombs brings up the story of an athlete who has been with him since the beginning, when the nonprofit was hosting workouts in a park. Not only has she had a major physical transformation, losing 35 pounds, but also a mental one.
- “She came in one day and was just having a really hard time and came in early to hang out,” McCombs says. “I said, ‘Hey what’s going on?’”
- “‘I came to the gym instead of drinking.’” was her reply, he says. “‘Here I am, spending time with you and at the gym with all of my people, instead of sitting at home and feeling sorry for myself and drinking too much.’
- “I feel so lucky to be a part of this,” McCombs continues. “It’s so cool that I’m able to see someone make positive decisions in their life when they could have went down this terrible road and they decide not to do that because of the gym, because of that supportive community around them.”