When the COVID-19 pandemic forced 90-year-old Tessa Sollom Williams inside her eighth-floor apartment in Washington, D.C., the former ballerina began taking notice of outdoor workout classes happening on the rooftop of nearby Balance Gym. Each day, she settles in next to her window, observing gym-goers in their socially distanced workouts from around 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., sometimes with a cup of tea in hand.
Watching the daily sweat sessions, led by the gym’s trainer and co-CEO Devin Maier, is Sollom Williams’ new normal. She told the Washington Post that she never misses their workouts. “I see them doing such hard exercises. My goodness me!” she said, adding that she occasionally tries some of the moves herself. (
When Sollom Williams’ daughter, Tanya Wetenhall, realized how much her mom loved watching these workouts, Wetenhall emailed Balance Gym to thank them for “inspiring” Sollom Williams before and throughout the pandemic.
“Seeing everyone on the roof, working out, and keeping up with their routines has given her hope. As a former dancer, she has exercised vigorously almost every day of her life and if she could, she would try and join the members, trust me, but she is 90 and wobbly,” Wetenhall wrote of her mom, who once danced professionally with the International Ballet, a British ballet company. “She always comments in our calls about how hard the members worked and she is convinced that everyone must be preparing for the Olympics or some sort of performance.”
“I hope you can share with your members that they have given an elderly lady much joy in seeing them embrace health and life. Thanks so much!” continued Wetenhall. (
The gym staff was so moved by the email — especially amid the hardships they’ve faced due to the pandemic — that they honored Sollom Williams (and any other potential window-watchers) in a unique way: by painting an outdoor mural on their building that reads “Keep Moving.”
"Tanya's letter about her mom really floored us," Maier tells Shape. "We've been trying so hard to remain open these last few months and motivate our members by offering virtual and outdoor options. But we never thought we'd have such a huge fan and supporter tuning in from their bedroom window every day."
The mural, created by a team of volunteers led by local graphic designer Madelyne Adams, is still a work in progress. But it’s no doubt inspiring to all who are involved — including gym members and nearby onlookers. “We sometimes don’t realize that we can potentially inspire others just by training and going about what we do on a daily basis,” Maier told the Washington Post. “If we can get people stuck inside moving in their bedrooms, even just a little bit, I think that’s extra special.”
“Our building is old, and it’s kind of ratty,” added Maier. “But the email got us thinking: If we were looking out the window every day, what could we put up there to give people a reason to be inspired and motivated to keep moving?” (Pssst, these inspirational workout quotes will keep you motivated, too.)
Now, Balance Gym members make a point to wave to Sollom Williams at the end of each rooftop workout class, shares Maier. "Her attitude and spirit are inspiring for a lot of us," he tells Shape. "I can say with certainty I've seen a lot more members show up to train on the roof this past week and wave at Tessa."
Renu Singh, a yoga instructor at Balance Gym, says Sollom Williams’ story provides a much-needed sense of community right now. “There’s so much going on in all of our lives, and it’s that much harder to stay connected with our community,” she tells Shape. “We’ve been innovating and adapting to help our members stay active and work toward their fitness goals, and to hear about how one of our neighbors is finding so much inspiration from just watching us do what we do, was incredibly heartwarming.” (
"These are very challenging times, and I was so inspired to keep teaching my socially distanced, rooftop yoga classes and maybe even wave to Tessa if we see her in her window," adds Singh.
Once the mural is finished, Maier tells Shape that Sollom Williams and her daughter will join one of Balance Gym's rooftop dance aerobic classes "to celebrate the completion and get to know each other."
"We feel like she's a friend and member at this point," he says.