I had just turned sixteen the first time I walked into the Regina Athletic Club. In retrospect, “walked in” doesn’t paint a truthful picture. It was more like a terrified slink than an actual walk. This was a gym for real men, big men with barn-door shoulders, Herculean backs, thick and sinewy arms, and the proverbial oak tree thighs. My heart was bursting with huge dreams but I weighed all of 132 lbs and had a body that more resembled a spaghetti noodle than an athlete.
The gym had just opened after a couple of meatheads training at the Y.M.C.A. had gathered up their toys and found a bigger and better spot to ply their trade. As I recall, the building had been constructed sometime in the 1920s or ’30s, and it had served the community as a basement parking garage for many years. The place was rustic, which means run down and abandoned, and generally uninviting, therefore, the perfect spot to hide out and build big, strong muscles with like-minded miscreants. Bodybuilding, at the time, was a misunderstood sub-culture mired in fantastic conjecture, old wives tales, and ridiculous misinformation. But this noisy, dank, and raucous cave was home to those of us that loved the sport despite what the world thought. It was our forbidden place and the men that gathered there were rebellious and proud misfits. And I wanted to belong there so badly it consumed my every waking moment.
I was the ultimate before picture the day I signed up, but I stuck with it. I trained fanatically, ate all the food, swallowed the tablets and concoctions the magazines said I should, and started to pack on muscle. The other gym rats took notice, and the older guys, in their muted and unassuming way, acknowledged my hard work and progress with a nod or word or most cherished, an insult delivered with a smile and wink. I had arrived. Each workout was a big family get-together. The guys were loud, cracking jokes and talking smack, but when someone crawled under the big numbers, the whole place gathered around to cheer him on.
I grew up there and in the absence of my own to guide me, these men became my father, and to some, I became a son. I learned about discipline, hard work, respect and manners, and most of all I learned how not to be afraid anymore. I entered a lost and broken kid, and it was there that I learned how to be a man.
I trained to become a cop in that gym, became a father the first time, got married…and divorced. It was my refuge during my darkest days and the place where I celebrated my greatest triumphs. I learned how to powerlift and went on to set a record that stood for twelve years, all while training in that gym. It was my second home and my family for well over a decade. When I moved to another city and finally left the gym, I weighed in at 245lbs. I was confident, accomplished, and every step toward success I have taken since that day was born in some degree, from a lesson I had learned there. And it was there that I first learned about God. The seeds were planted by one of my heros and while it took me a few years to give my life to Christ, that man opened my eyes to the better and more purposeful life I live today.
Those rough old sweat-pits will always be my favorite kind of places to train. While they are harder to find these days, there are still some caves out there built by the same type of guys that created that original I called home.
Some of my favorites are Metroflex in Arlington, TX, and Long Beach, CA. My all-time favorite is Quads Gym in Chicago where I spent a week with powerlifting’s G.O.A.T., the legendary Mr. Ed Coan. I worked for Flex Magazine then and did a feature story on my powerlifting hero who was breaking world records when I was competing. He is the nicest guy you could hope to meet, and I consider him a friend. The gym is world-famous, but it was Eddie and the guys he trained with there that took me back to my early days. It was an honor to be part of the history and I hope the story and pictures in Flex inspired some lost young kid to find his own gym to grow up in.
I train at a nice family fitness center now that is well-equipped, has all the amenities, and is more than hard-core enough to suit my needs. You can even load up the bar respectably, and no one will look sideways at you. But folks keep to themselves. They do their thing and go.
I can’t go back in time, but I will be forever grateful for the place I was raised in and the men that showed me the way. We all trained together then, in body and spirit, and when we left there, we thought only about the next workout, meal or goal we were going to reach. I was blessed to walk among fathers and brothers and giants, laughing and talking smack and demanding the very best from each other.