The Staple

Robert was almost always the first guy at the gym.

This was no easy feat as the doorman was instructed not to let anyone up before the owner, trainers or front desk staff arrived.

But I’d often walk into the dark gym at 5:40AM and see Robert sitting there changed and ready to go. He was older (I never had the nerve to ask but I’d say he was in his late 70s or early 80s) and I guess our building “security” either felt bad for him or didn’t see him as a threat or were just so used to him that they figured he belonged upstairs.

Or maybe it was the fact that he trained 5 days per week without fail. Hell, they may have thought he worked there.

And since we were the first two on the training floor – me waiting for my often-late 6AM clients and him trying to get his old bones and joints ready to lift some weight – we’d often engage in some small talk. Usually about our weekends or about my son (he’d always ask “How’s Henry?!?” with the biggest smile on his face) or the old days of Olympic Weightlifting of which Rob was a huge fan having attended several camps and high level competitions. Being a weightlifting fan is not cool now. It was way, way less cool when Rob was into it.

I’m sure he liked that I competed in the sport and I certainly felt comforted seeing Robert there every morning in his cut off “PR or ER” t-shirt. What can I say? I’m a sucker for continuity, routine and aggressive gym-wear.

This went on for years. With Robert attempting exercises and weights that I’m sure he had memory of executing beautifully but his body no longer cooperating with. Barbell snatches, pull-ups with challenging grip attachments, back squats. As the morning training floor filled up we all simultaneously cringed and stared in awe.

This may be a good time to mention that Robert had had multiple hip replacement surgeries.

Robert was the only member of the gym who didn’t work with a trainer. He was the sole hold-out of an old policy that allowed members to train by themselves during off-peak hours. His existence pre-dated my start at the gym. He certainly wasn’t going to give that membership up.

And, just like with the front door security staff, he had charmed the owner enough to allow him to continue.

Apparently Rob’s charm was not limited to the gym. Every so often there would be a woman, maybe 20 years younger than him, waiting for him to come out of the changing room in his blue blazer, black Indiana Jones hat and adorned cane so that they could continue the morning together.

Seemingly the training floor was not the only place Rob liked to get after it.

It was easy to look at Robert and see all the flaws. An older man who was chasing old glories. Of attempting things he was no longer suited for. Of looking silly or inappropriate or stubborn on a training floor of men and women half his age and three times as capable.

But I loved seeing Robert out there every morning. He helped me learn the importance of determination. The value of showing up every day. Of trying things just a bit beyond your reach.

When I’m not busy being busy or tired or distracted, I try to remember that everyone you encounter has something to teach you. And, for me, Rob was no exception.

When the old gym closed down, Rob tried to play it off.

“Things change, Dan. People move on. You can look at it as a bad thing. But I’ve learned that is part of the beauty of life,” he told me as we walked out of the gym for the last time.

And while that is a beautiful sentiment, I could also tell he was going to miss the routine and camaraderie he craved while waiting in that dark gym in the early morning.

After promises of coming to see my new facility and a few weak attempts at follow-up, I never saw Rob again. I think once the old spot closed he figured it was time for him to be done. No more cabs down from Harlem just so he could come train around the guys.

I learned Robert passed away this week. I’d be lying if I said I’d really thought about him much these past few years but I’m surprised at how sad I felt hearing that he’d gone.

I don’t know the details of his passing but I hope he went peacefully and wherever he is headed there are barbells, weightlifting competitions and a young companion waiting for him at the front desk.

Rest in peace, Robert. You’ve influenced me more than I’ve realized. And I’m sorry I never got to tell you that.