Healthy body, mind and spirit: The legacy of Willie Austin

Written by on September 4, 2013 in High Point, Seattle Housing Authority - No comments
Willie Austin (center) was in his element at the ribbon-cutting and grand opening of the Fitness Zone at Bataan Park on Sept. 5, 2012, leading those assembled in a brief workout. In the background is Calvin Jones, one of the many who gathered to remember the former University of Washington football player, fitness expert and founder of the Austin Foundation.

Willie Austin (center) was in his element at the ribbon-cutting and grand opening of the Fitness Zone at Bataan Park on Sept. 5, 2012, leading those assembled in a brief workout. In the background is Calvin Jones, one of the many who gathered to remember the former University of Washington football player, fitness expert and founder of the Austin Foundation.

Family, friends and community members gather to remember the beloved fitness guru

By Tyler Roush
The Voice editor

When fitness guru Willie Austin passed away unexpectedly on April 24, the region lost a passionate, vocal and genuine advocate for healthy people and healthy communities.

But Willie’s legacy continues in the countless lives he changed and in the continued work of the Austin Foundation.

The tremendous impact that Willie, 55, had on the community was evident at a ceremony to dedicate the Fitness Zone at Bataan Park to his memory Wednesday, Aug. 21.

Vanisha Austin, Willie’s wife, was among the many who gathered. As she spoke to a reporter following the ceremony, she cradled the couple’s four-month old child in her arms. The little girl, Willow Austin, was born three days after her father passed away.

Friends and colleagues gathered for a ceremony to dedicate the Fitness Zone at Bataan Park to the memory of Willie Austin. King County Councilmember Larry Gossett (second from right) was among the approximately 50 people in attendance.

Friends and colleagues gathered for a ceremony to dedicate the Fitness Zone at Bataan Park to the memory of Willie Austin. King County Councilmember Larry Gossett (second from right) was among the approximately 50 people in attendance.

“Willie was put on this earth to help people with their health,” Vanisha said. But his work went beyond support for a person’s physical health.

“I think fitness was his avenue, but he helped people in so many different ways,” she said.

Cynthia Clouser, a High Point resident and regular participant of Neighborhood House’s Be Active Together program, said that Willie was more than just “Willie Austin” to her kids.

“He was Willie ‘Awesome,’” she said.

That sentiment was shared by many in attendance.

Jean Campbell didn’t let her limited mobility — she uses a walker — keep her from attending Willie’s workouts.

“To me, Willie Austin was marvelous for people from all walks of life — even people with walkers,” Campbell said. “Even if you’re a senior or have a disability, you can still get out there and boogie.”

A plaque memorializes Willie and his contributions to the High Point neighborhood.

A plaque memorializes Willie and his contributions to the High Point neighborhood.

Jim Krieger, of Public Health – Seattle & King County, said Willie was that rare person who could be charismatic, passionate and welcoming. He described Willie as “pure” — in his intentions and his integrity.

“That ability to bring people together is a rare treasure,” Krieger said.

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, who grew up in the High Point neighborhood, said he didn’t have the kinds of opportunities provided by people like Willie. He said that Willie’s work stressed “the importance of providing fitness activities for people in this neighborhood.”

When the ribbon was cut on the Fitness Zone at Bataan Park in September 2012, surely no one in attendance would have anticipated that, less than a year later, the outdoor exercise zone would be dedicated to the memory of the charismatic and passionate fitness advocate who inspired it.

But that was the melancholy truth behind the ceremony. If it had to be so, the outdoor fitness zone — the first of its kind in Seattle, and a unique resource for a mixed-income neighborhood like High Point — is a fitting tribute to a person who believed in extending opportunities to all.

Though Willie’s impact was felt by many, perhaps none benefited more from his work than the many young people, mostly young men from difficult upbringings, who became regular visitors to his gym in downtown Seattle.

Jonathan Habeeb-Ullah met Willie about 10 years ago, at a time when he had fallen in with the wrong crowd. He soon turned his life around, and grew to call Willie his brother.

“He saw the best in people, and always brought it out,” Habeeb-Ullah said. “He’s the best big brother I have, and never had.”

Ramon Brent, who works at the Austin Foundation’s gym, recalled one young man who had gotten into some trouble. After spending some time in jail, he returned to the gym to find a memorial to Willie. He hadn’t known that his mentor had passed away.

“Willie had had such an influence on his life, and he wanted to come back,” Brent said. “That was one of the toughest things.”

For Willie, it was never simply about exercise, according to Brent. A young person could come in to his gym to work out, and Willie would forge a connection.

“He’d get to know you — ask who you are, what you do,” Brent said. For some, it would be the first time an adult took a genuine interest in how they were doing.

“All they need is somebody to listen to them,” Brent said.

Though Willie is gone, he leaves behind a legacy of healing bodies and minds. For the young men still in his program, the challenge now is to prove that the work of their role model will continue.

“If you prove to them that this is going to continue, they’re with you,” Brent said.

For Calvin Jones, Willie was “the first positive role model I’d had in my life.”

“The love he shared with me, in helping me love and respect myself, will be passed on to others,” said Jones. As will the gift of fitness — Jones is one of two instructors who hosts exercise sessions at the Bataan Park Fitness Zone, now rededicated in Willie’s memory.

Kirk Chapman is the other instructor. As the crowd gathering to celebrate the memory of a community hero began to disperse, Chapman began laying out exercise mats in a semicircle.

“Willie was a brother to me — we were friends for many years,” Chapman said. “Will used to say ‘A body in motion is a healthy body, healthy mind, healthy spirit.’”

Soon a smaller group had convened, and Chapman began to lead them in stretches and aerobic exercises. Healthy bodies, healthy minds, healthy spirits.

Kirk Chapman, left, leads a group through a workout following the dedication of the Willie Austin Memorial Fitness Zone at Bataan Park.

Kirk Chapman, left, leads a group through a workout following the dedication of the Willie Austin Memorial Fitness Zone at Bataan Park.

Austin Foundation and fitness opportunities

To learn more about the Austin Foundation, visit their website at www.youthandfitness.org, call 206-381-1841 or visit their gym at 1918 Terry Ave.

Trainers from the Austin Foundation host workouts at the Fitness Zone at Bataan Park from 5:30 – 7 p.m. Wednesdays and 10:30 a.m. – noon Saturdays. The park is located at the intersection of High Point Drive SW and Bataan Place SW in High Point.

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