002. THE WAC

By 2007 I was just about two years in to my coaching career. I’d had a couple unsuccessful runs at training in larger gyms, and a few months on the road doing a training gig for a touring musician (that’s a story for another day). I was diving headfirst in to training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and teaching fitness classes at the gym where I was doing BJJ.

I still needed a job to pay the bills and I ended up getting a job at a regional chain of gyms known as the Wisconsin Athletic Club (WAC). I applied online for a position, not realizing it was in a suburban city on the outskirts of Milwaukee, WI - where I was living at the time. I needed the job, so I drove out there, wowed them in the interview (or maybe they just really needed somebody), and got the job.

Now WAC-Waukesha was an older gym: built in the late 70s/early 80s as a racquetball club. It had since been remodeled in to a full service gym with machines, free weights, cardio equipment, pool - the typical stuff you find in mainstream gyms. It still had 4 or 5 racquetball courts, and its core clientele were still primarily racquetball players.

I don’t know if you know this, but racquetball players are a rowdy bunch. We’re talking rockstars of stringed-sports - partying, late nights, bad behavior….you might think of racquetball today as your grandparents sport, but they went hard back in the day.

WAC-Waukesha still had a tinge of that bad boy flair. There were members who had been around since the beginning, and they had stories. Tournaments could get intense, but tempers could always be quelled at the gym bar.

Yeah, that's right, I said gym bar. There was a full-service bar in the gym. Not down the street, or next door, but actually in the gym. In addition to alcoholic drinks, they also served items like popcorn and frozen pizza.

I used to mention this gym as a critical anecdote - a reflection on the misguided and toxic nature of modern day gyms. “Can you believe they would eat pizza IN THE GYM??” I would say. The audacity! How could they? A gym should be a gym and nothing more! You’re there to work out! To suffer! To WORK OUT!!!

The more I think about it, the more I think those old racquetball players had it figured out. They had a place where they could exercise, socialize, feel comfortable, and it was all centered around sport. It wasn’t just a bar or a restaurant, but it wasn’t also just a gym - it was a social hub of movement.

This is a key item missing from contemporary gyms: they aren’t communities. They’re huge, soulless boxes full of machines, all with headphone jacks and cell phone slots. There’s smaller gyms that are community-minded, of course, and that’s great. The world needs more of that. Your gym is more than just the place where you work out. It should be fun. It should be a place where you feel comfortable and accepted. It should be a place where it’s OK to occasionally crack a beer (if that’s your thing) or share a pizza. It’s not about suffering, it’s not about pain. It’s about feeling, living, and becoming better.