There Goes My Hero

Chris was my fitness hero. He was the Cardio Circuit Boxing class instructor at Body Elite on Court Street in Brooklyn, the gym I went to for many years when I had first gotten into fitness. After about a year of so spending my time on the first floor alternating between the treadmills, recumbent bike and StairMaster – all of which were planted in front of a bank of three box television screens that played either soap operas, CNN or The Price Is Right on a seemingly constant loop – I decided to expand my horizons and try one of the classes included with my membership that took place on the third floor of the converted brownstone that housed all my fitness dreams.

Chris was a home-grown guy, growing up when the neighborhood was still not that great. He lived a couple of blocks from the gym on, believe it or not, Strong Place. He was quiet and a bit socially awkward which made me like him right away. He hadn’t had much of a boxing career but he did train at the legendary Gleason’s Gym. Apparently he was too poor to pay so he would clean up the gym in exchange for training. This immediately made me think of Rocky emptying spit buckets at Mickey’s Gym in the original sequel and that made me like Chris even more.

His classes were popular and basically always the same. We would start by grabbing a set of light dumbbells and line up in formation with Chris at the front of the room, as if he were Janet Jackson and we were his motley crew of back up dancers in a bad parody of the Rhythm Nation video. He’d play one of the two mixes of dance-y, club-y music that he’d made for the class (to be fair, this is well before the advent of iPods) and we’d all engage in this sequence of footwork and punches in time to the beat. After about 20 minutes of this, we’d put on our gloves and go around a circuit of punching heavy bags, throwing medicine balls, ducking under ropes, performing sit ups and hitting mitts. I always left tired, sweaty and feeling great.

Chris was Latino, about 5’8” with longish brown hair and that combination of leanness and muscularity that most every dude who goes to the gym is trying to attain. The physique that allows you to feel incredibly comfortable being the first guy with your shirt off at a pool party. Having come off of being about 50 pounds overweight, then spending so much time on that first floor that I become a skinny-fat, no-muscled wanna-be, I found myself aspiring to have what Chris had.

He’d also say things like “You may know about computers. I don’t know anything about computers. You may know about accounting. I don’t know anything about accounting. All I know about is this.” Spending my entire life trying to be a jack-of-all-trades who could famously talk to anyone at a wedding cocktail hour for 20 minutes about any subject, this was a refreshing viewpoint. That you could unabashedly throw yourself into something with a single-focus without regret or apology.

But this actually turned out to not be true. As I got to know Chris. he revealed that he had two other passions which were so seemingly incongruous to both his upbringing and his love of fighting that they were incredibly disarming. The first was that he was passionate about playing the cello. Yup, the cello. The second was that he loved to draw. In fact when I showed up to a small exhibition he had of his charcoals he was a little shocked to see me there and seemingly more appreciative of my attendance than of me showing up to his class.

I quickly became one of the regulars in class and when Chris had suffered a bit of a wrist injury he asked me to hold the mitts during the circuit, which I took as an incredible honor. He’d always take a little bit of extra time after class to show the veterans a more advanced technique, or teach us how to foam roll, or explain the function of the erector spinae.

I made a lot of progress in Chris’s class. My conditioning was through the roof. I was actually developing some muscle. I was feeling so good I’d actually wear a tank top to class. So I was as surprised as anyone that one day, for no reason I could articulate at the time, I just stopped going. But, in retrospect, it was a combination of factors really.

The first was that a few of the other regulars had moved to other neighborhoods or took jobs that didn’t allow them to fit the classes in like they used to. And while it feels intimidating and overwhelming to be the newest person in the class with no idea what you are doing, it is equally disappointing to find yourself beyond the majority of the class having to listen to the same explanations and see the same mistakes over and over again. Secondly, things just got a bit repetitive and unchallenging. I mean how many times can you do a jab, hook, cross, upper-cut combo while listening to a remix of a Gloria Estefan classic before it gets old? Lastly, and probably most importantly, I fell in love with the barbell and strength training and reading up on all the science and minutia that can come along with it. Once I fell down that rabbit hole there was no turning back. So I found myself on the second floor with the dumbbells and cable cross-over machine rather than up in class.

Of course, I never blamed Chris for any of this. He had a job to do and went about it in a way that made the most sense for the environment. And I think he got where I was coming from. Whenever I’d run into him in the weight room he’d say hi, never riding me about why I stopped coming to class. I’m sure he had seen it all before.

It wasn’t too long after this that I decided to make a career out of fitness. I started working at a gym so I no longer needed my membership at Body Elite. Dare I say it, I developed a physique that may have surpassed Chris’ and my opportunities have allowed me to manage what I considered the best training floor in NYC, sit on advisory boards for fitness magazines, write my own book and ultimately open a facility, programming and coaching in a style that makes the most sense to me based on my experiences. And those experiences definitely include my time up on the third floor of that brownstone.

It seems like I’m way overdue in making my point. Where I become some sort of fitness Aesop and bring my overblown story around to a parable that inspires your life or your training. Is it your heroes and inspirations can come from the most unexpected places? Or that your life in training will take you on a journey that involves many different experiences? Sure. Grab either one of those. Or feel free to make up one of your own. I’m not exactly sure how to fill in the blank for you.

I saw Chris not that long ago when I was walking down the street in the old neighborhood with my wife. As he was walking towards me I caught his eye and he had that brief look of “this guy looks familiar but I can’t quite place him” on his face. It had been over a decade since I’d been in his class. And then we wordlessly passed each other, neither of us missing a step. But I find myself wishing I had stopped him. So that I could tell him about how far I’ve come and how much he had to do with it. To thank him for teaching and inspiring me and getting me on the path. Maybe that is the point. If you get the opportunity to tell people how much of an impact they’ve had on you, take that opportunity. They don’t always come around.

There is about zero chance that Chris reads this blog, but just in case – thanks for everything, brother. You changed my life.