by Rosie Wolf Williams
From private training classes to training for high school athletic teams and the North American Hockey Academy, Julie and Ernie Roick have carved a solid niche for their Stowe business, PHIT Performance.
Take the stairs to PHIT Performance at 512 Mountain Road in Stowe and find a community of action. At the entrance to the center’s top floor, shoes line up on shelves like colorful soldiers. The sign posted above them reminds members to take off their shoes — and not to leave with a better pair. The place is spotless and neutral in tone; but the owners of PHIT, Ernie and Julie Roick, are anything but boring, either in their personalities or the variety of classes they offer.
Ernie enlisted in the Marines in 1987 after high school in his hometown of Greenwich, Conn. “I boxed in the Marines, and fitness was a part of the job,” he says. He served for four years, and then went on to become a personal trainer, earning certifications from the American Council on Exercise, the Aerobics and Fitness Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine.
His career took a slightly different turn when he became a nanny in Weston, Conn., working for a family with five children ranging in age from 2 to 14. “The youngest was a cute little jellybean, and I just ate him up. Now he is over 6 feet tall.” Ernie had no idea that he was preparing to play the role of father to Julie’s children.
Julie is originally from California, and holds a bachelor of arts in dance from the University of California, Irvine. She married and moved to Greenwich in 1995. When she divorced in 2001, she moved to Craftsbury Common with her four children, but soon realized she preferred Stowe as a location for a better way of life.
She knew Ernie — had trained with him in Greenwich — and she persuaded him that he needed to move to Vermont and start a training business. He agreed and moved in 2003. The couple began to offer private training classes around the Stowe area, using a yellow farmhouse near the Matterhorn on Mountain Road as their facility. Realizing that the school sports departments had no specific training plans for their athletes, they took a chance and set up a meeting with Mt. Mansfield Ski Academy.
“We winged it,” says Ernie. “We approached them about setting up some professional training and they said that is just what they needed. We didn’t even have the space up and running and they wanted to train with us. We were just a personal training gym then. Besides the academies, we were one-on-one, and we didn’t have any memberships.”
The North American Hockey Academy (NAHA) quickly followed suit and signed on with PHIT. “The North American Hockey Academy is an elite development program for some of the top female hockey players in North America, and very lucky to have Ernie and Julie from PHIT as our strength and conditioning coaches,” says Bill Driscoll, director of Hockey at NAHA.
“Our girls work out with them four days a week while in training at NAHA, and their knowledge, passion, and commitment to helping these girls get to their peak potential is unparalleled. Our program has put more student athletes into NCAA Division I colleges in the past 15 years than any other in North America, and the preparation the athletes receive at PHIT is a big part of their success.”
The name PHIT was created over a dinner table conversation. Ernie and Julie had been researching synonyms for the word “fitness” and nothing seemed to resonate with them. That year, the word “phat” had been nominated for inclusion in the dictionary, meaning “highly attractive or gratifying.” Julie thought the word “phit” could put a spin on the urban term, and encompass the idea of feeling satisfaction through fitness.
Building clientele was frustrating at times. “Many nights, I would come home and Julie would ask how many people were in my sports conditioning class. I would say, none. Or one. That’s the way it was, “ reflects Ernie. “It was a bit of a blow to the ego. But instead of saying we weren’t going to do a class for one, they would get a private session.”
Word began to spread about the man who refused to say no. Their list of clients grew, and so did their family. Ernie and Julie married in 2006 in Lake Placid, where Ernie had run an Ironman competition in 2005. Their son, Brock, was born that same year.
They realized they had to include a membership option for clients needing a workout routine. And they needed a larger place for them to exercise. In 2008, they moved their facility to Thomas Lane in Stowe, adding 3,000 square feet to their operation. They hired other trainers to keep up with the growth of their business.
The building, says Julie, was “more warehouse-ish and intimidating” —not quite what the Roicks envisioned for their business, although they experienced 40 percent growth during their five-year period on Thomas Lane.
Ernie trained David Wolfgang, the owner of their present building on Mountain Road. “He has a business that is mostly online, and he was looking at our building on Thomas Lane. Julie said, ‘Why don’t we swap buildings?’ So we did.” PHIT moved to the 5,000-square-foot space in June of 2013.
“In about three weeks we had more walk-ins than we did in a year on Thomas Lane,” says Ernie. “People see the signs, or they are staying at the hotel and say the gym at the hotel is pretty minimal. They can come in and pay a fair fee and get a great workout. Then they come in every time they visit the area, and we build a relationship.”
The membership option changed the dynamic at PHIT. “It grew everything. It grew the private training. The more the volume, the more people who would need training at some point.”
The family, including their five children (Kelsey, 23; Chloe, 20; Vince, 17; Paige, 16; and Brock, 7), lives in Stowe. Julie teaches BarSculpt classes that are a “20/20/20” program of upper body, lower body, and core exercises. She also offers her own dance program called Phusia, which she describes as “more dance than your fitness class, and more fitness than your dance class.”
She was the first Zumba instructor in Vermont, but felt the routines were too routine and not challenging enough for her students. She started incorporating her own ideas into her classes and Phusia was born. She teaches proper cycling form in her PhRide indoor cycling class, so members can transition to mountain bikes or road bikes and remain technically sound and fit.
Ernie teaches circuit-style sports conditioning, boxing classes, and Krav Maga, an Israeli form of military self-defense. But his rock-hard persona covers a soft heart. “He leads from the front,” says Julie. “His classes are fun and funny, and they are very difficult. He has this personality that is just a magnet for people. From teenaged boys who are learning about their first lifting to the 50-year-old mom who wants to get in shape. He looks like this big badass — but he is really this sweet guy.”
Karen Fahey and her family are PHIT members. “Our youngest daughter was a competitive ski racer and trained in group classes with Ernie,” she says. “The equipment, classes, attention to each individual athlete’s needs, and genuine interest in each athlete’s goals made a very positive experience. Our oldest daughter sails on the UVM sailing team — they have fall and spring regattas — and throughout the winter and summer break she regularly attends Julie’s PhRide, Prussia, and BarSculpt classes that complement the weights and cardio. For both girls, PHIT has instilled in them a healthy level of personal fitness expectations.”
Ernie considers his clients to be special. “Here, the active people are genuine. In other places, people might look fit, but looking fit doesn’t mean you can go mountain biking or cross-country skiing or kayaking. In my opinion, Stowe is probably one of the fittest towns in the United States.”
Fahey says that the Roicks motivate her, even when she is not at the gym. “Often when I’m outside recreating, I’ll hear Julie in my head saying, ‘Pull! Pull! Pull!’ as I cycle up a hill, or I’ll hear Ernie say, ‘Work out, stretch out, get out!’ as I try to fit a morning sweat into my day.”
The Roicks would consider adding a satellite gym nearer to Burlington, but they first want the new facility to grow and find its own potential in Stowe.
“It is fun to be more than a trainer. We passionately cover all the bases. It is an intimate relationship,” says Ernie. “We have had clients who have been in the hospital — we go to the hospital to see them. If we worked for somebody else, it might be against policy to do that. But since we work for ourselves, we are the policy makers. We don’t have to answer to anybody.
“It is neat to come to work every day to a clean place that we built. To raise five kids by owning a gym in Stowe is probably not what most people would think of as easy to do. You have to have talent and passion — and make money.” •