Collingwood's fitness scene is undergoing a transformation, thanks in part to the vision and drive of Chris Brakel.
Owner of F45 Blue Mountain and self-proclaimed espresso aficionado, Chris's journey from corporate to becoming a prominent figure in the local fitness industry is a testament to his unwavering commitment to empowering individuals to lead healthier, more active lives — Gibson espresso and all.
From his early days at Ryerson University, where he immersed himself in sports and leadership roles, to now, Chris has consistently left a lasting impact on those around him.
He credits his journey, although not particularly linear, to the willingness to embrace risks and follow his passions. Chris said, "I've always believed that taking risks and pursuing what you love are the keys to personal and professional fulfilment. It may not always be a straightforward path, but the rewards are worth it."
Born and raised in Oak Ridges, ON, Chris first discovered Collingwood from his wife, Gillian, after she completed her residency in town years ago. She fell in love with the area and recognized in it the core values they both sought: a strong connection to family and community, a slower-paced lifestyle, and a range of sports and activities available.
When they got married, they made a commitment to each other to live with purpose and take risks, promising always to opt for a life less ordinary.
"We made a commitment that we wouldn't do anything that was considered "easy" or the "risk-free way," he said.
Every now and then in the years that followed, Gillian would pitch the idea of moving to Collingwood, but Chris, who was successfully climbing the corporate ladder at Microsoft at the time, said it never made sense.
But then one day, something changed.
"We have these moments where we reflect on our lives, our work and our relationships, and as I was reflecting on this I remembered I made a commitment to take risks," said Chris.
Hesitant at first, he trusted his wife's intuition. So, after a whirlwind few months, Gillian purchased a practice in Collingwood, Chris quit his corporate sales job, and with two children in tow, they embarked on a new chapter in Collingwood.
However, the transition north wasn't without its challenges. Chris, who had established himself in the corporate world, now faced the prospect of becoming a stay-at-home dad.
"It was the second big kick to the ego, but she raised a good point," Chris Laughed. "If she was going to build her practice, who was going to raise the kids? Who is going to help us integrate ourselves into the community? That was a big part of why we were moving up here, after all."
So, embracing the opportunity, Chris stepped into the role of a dedicated father, relishing the chance to actively participate in his children's lives on more than just evenings and weekends. It was during this time that Chris also sought to make a difference in the community.
When his daughter faced a medical issue in elementary school, he made it his mission to find activities she could both manage and enjoy.
The result was the creation of the MaraFun program, an innovative program designed to encourage kids to run 42.2 km over several weeks. The program was “wildly successful,” Chris said, expanding to multiple school boards across Ontario and leaving a lasting impact on families.
“It was very rewarding,” said Chris. “I was able to take what I had learnt in corporate and put it towards nourishing people’s hearts and souls. And I got to see the impact it had on my daughter, which was immense.”
Shortly after, Chris got scouted by Rogers to build a new product department focused specifically on the customer experience. “I thought it was a pretty cool opportunity that doesn’t come around too often, so I jumped on it,” he said.
However, it wasn’t long before he was back to late nights and early mornings, spending the majority of his time in the city and rarely seeing his family. He said the work was incredible, but it no longer fueled him.
"As soon as I hit my metrics, I punched my ticket and came back up here," he said.
He started looking around Collingwood for opportunities to start a business of his own, when one of his friends suggested he look at the fitness industry.
Chris was always the friend that everyone came to for advice or encouragement when it came to their fitness goals. However he was delivering his message, people were buying it and committing to it.
So, driven by this underlying passion for fitness, Chris started researching the industry and discovered F45, a global fitness chain known for its world-class programming.
“At the time, I didn’t even know F45 existed,” he said. “But I looked at Collingwood and without casting shade at any other business here, I saw a pretty big hole. There weren’t many places the general population could come in and get a really good workout, without it feeling inaccessible or exclusive.”
Recognizing this gap, he decided to establish F45 Blue Mountain here in Collingwood. Chris said he was drawn to the gym’s world-class programming and the support it offered its franchisees and coaches.
"That's the secret to our success, our coaches are so supported, everything they ever need around programming is delivered to them so they can then come in as an authority and deliver it to our members," said Chris.
And then COVID-19 hit.
Undeterred, Chris and his team adapted, and he persevered. Chris viewed the experience as an opportunity for growth and collaboration and through connecting with fellow F45 operators worldwide, he built a network of trusted individuals who were able to weather the storm together.
"I call it my second, very expensive, MBA. I learned a lot of stuff that I really hoped I never had to know. I feel like I am a much stronger person for it and it created really unique opportunities," he laughed.
Today, F45 Blue Mountain stands as a testament to Chris's unwavering commitment to providing a supportive and welcoming fitness environment to the community. With a culture rooted in ‘checking egos at the door,’ the gym aims to foster a sense of camaraderie among its members.
And within two short years, F45 has become a prominent employer for personal trainers in the area.
In addition to leading his own businesses, Chris lends his expertise to other entrepreneurs. With a focus on technology, sales, product management, and fitness studio operations, Chris offers guidance to businesses both locally and across Canada.
His commitment to community service is evident in his roles as a Board Member of the Collingwood BlA and the Chair of Collingwood Fashion Week.
When he's not working or giving back to the community, Chris can likely be found snowboarding, sailing or mountain biking.
Having spent his youth coaching sailing and running one of Toronto's largest sailing schools, he now enjoys sailboat racing on Tuesday evenings outside Collingwood harbour on Georgian Bay and traversing the trails and terrain on the Niagara Escarpment in 3 Stage and at Blue Mountain.
Above all else, Chris emphasizes the value of supporting aspiring entrepreneurs. He says, "I believe in the power of collaboration and sharing knowledge. By guiding and empowering fellow entrepreneurs, we can collectively strengthen our communities and inspire positive change."
Chris can be found online on LinkedIn & Instagram.
Follow F45 Blue Mountain on Instagram here.