Seven-time Grey Cup winner Hank Ilesic offers unconventional training at Orillia gym

With a glint in his eye and a mischievous grin, he welcomes a first-timer to his new Orillia gym: “Welcome to Hank’s House of Pain,” he says. He is only half-joking.

Hank Ilesic, a CFL legend and seven-time Grey Cup champion, looks as if he could still compete in the league he once dominated as a kicker. But, after 19 seasons in the CFL and two in the NFL, the 57-year-old, who retired in 2005, has turned his attention to a new generation of athletes.

“I have a passion to mentor young athletes,” said Ilesic, who noted a great athlete has to not only be in top shape, but must exhibit perseverance, dedication, determination and passion.

And, you have to be properly trained.

“High-performance training has been going on for more than 20 years, but it has really developed in recent years,” he said. “As athletes have retired, they have begun to share their knowledge, which I have been doing in Toronto for years. Now, I’m doing it in Orillia, because nothing like this exists here.”

Ilesic has created a haven for driven athletes and non-athletes to embrace a different type of program. In his nondescript gym tucked into the back of a storage facility, traditional barbells have been replaced by tractor tires, where a sledge hammer is a workout tool and where young and old become “freaky strong.”

Orillia Secondary School (OSS) student Jack Hache could be a walking billboard for Ilesic’s approach. The dynamic, 6’4”, all-around athlete has developed into one of the region’s top football players thanks, in part, to the assistance of Ilesic.

“The stuff we do in here is so intense, my training and ability to perform on the field is so much better now,” said Hache, captain of the OSS team, who also was named the MVP and most sportsmanlike player in his team’s championship game this fall. “From last season to this season, I’m just a whole different athlete … The statistics can’t measure how hard I’m hitting people, how aggressively I’m running. It’s really elevated my game to a whole other level.”

Already on university scouts’ radars, Hache, who has packed on more than 20 pounds of muscle through Ilesic’s program, was heavily recruited this fall and, ultimately, opted to commit to Queen’s University because of its excellent commerce program and its quality football program.

“I don’t want to go to university and (not) … play until my third or fourth year,” he said. “I want to go there and make an immediate impact. I like the idea of having to fight for my role and earn my spot. That’s why I’m working hard here.”

And depending on the day — and Ilesic’s mood — working hard for Hache might mean doing rope work, pounding a sledge hammer off a gigantic tire, doing standing jumps from the centres of tractor tires stacked atop one another or other physically demanding exercises.

Hache, who admits he’s a “bit crazy” when it comes to working out, said Ilesic has inspired him to work harder than ever; it’s his gift, said Hache, who admires those many years older than him who regularly work out at the Barrie Road facility. “The first time I did training here, I didn’t come back for two weeks, I was so beat-up,” he said. “I have mad respect for older people who do this.”

One of those “older people” is Chuck Vessey, a retired Orillia OPP officer, who has dropped 60 pounds since becoming a disciple of Ilesic’s demanding regimen.

“One of the girls here said, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life,’” said Vessey. “And that sums it up. I always leave on an extreme high. I have energy I haven’t felt before.”

The 64-year-old said Ilesic has shown him “the right way” to exercise and taught him about diet and nutrition.

“I feel unbelievable; I have energy like crazy and do things I never dreamed I could do.”

Just as important is the environment, he said: “We’re a family. We cheer each other on … I look at these guys; they’re young monsters, but we coach each other and help each other and it works out well.”

Former CrossFit trainer Bri Balkwill agrees. The avid lifelong athlete has tried just about everything when it comes to training and she said what Ilesic is doing beats them all.

“It’s a constant challenge here and just when you think you have an idea of what’s coming, (Ilesic) puts a twist on and changes things up,” she said. “I have done the craziest things — flipping 400-pound tires, scaling two tractor tires. I never would have imagined I could do that.”

The hard work has paid off.

“I’m a lot stronger,” she said. “I’m also much more confident. I’ve often thought I couldn’t so something and he would just look at me and say, ‘Yes, you can.’ And I did. It’s been amazing.”

The results have come despite less time in the gym. Because of the intensity of the exercises, Ilesic limits workouts to two a week.

“What that means is I work as hard as I can for two hours a week, compared to six or seven hours in conventional training … and the results are even better,” said Balkwill.

Ilesic said his unique facility is for people of all shapes, sizes and ages: “It’s not just for athletes; it’s for anyone who has the drive and motivation inside them to be better.”

Hache, said Ilesic, embodies that motivation. It’s why he has taken the youngster under his wing. He has befriended the talented teen and has offered his experience and training for free.

“The game of football was very good to me and I enjoy giving back,” said Ilesic. “All you have to do is change one life … I get tremendous satisfaction developing young athletes.”

Without apology, he said his gym is not open to everyone; it’s for the driven and passionate.

“We’re an exclusive, private facility. Members are by invitation or referral only,” said Ilesic.

For more information, visit gridironhighperformance.com.

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