They are like a brave new breed of slimming bodies, a whole race of relentless, blissful perspirers. With their souls intact they run, grunt, pump and chat. Three and four and five and even six times a week they converge on the temple of the faith to smash small rubber balls against walls in windowless rooms, strap themselves into pumping machines that look like weird dental chairs, flail their arms and legs into the turned-up decibel maw of Donna Summer recordings.
This last is called an "exaerobics" workout, and as many as 70 male and female bodies do it in unison on all fours and in other sexually tense positions for 50 minutes nonstop. They do it to music. They do it to counting. Mostly they do it to fury.
Afterward they are lathered and spent, their gym suits frumpy.
In the locker rooms the combs get dunked in Barbicide, and men stand happily naked at the dressing table, three abreast, admiring their slimming "abs" (vogue Nautilus word for stomachs), utterly fascinated with what God gave and Will is making finer.
"Think of it as an indoor country club," says the manager of the place. His name is John Reed, and he used to work for Playboy resorts. Awhile ago he put on "Hef's" 25th anniversary party. "Some mornings we've got them lined up at the front door by 6 o'clock."
Better yet, think of it as a high-tech perspiration city where the elite of fitness come together to pursue happiness and the Body of Tomorrow.
It is called The Sporting Club, and it sits out there in the Tysons Corner "traffic envelope," a parking lot or so away from the beltway Clyde's. The place has been open just over a year now and nightly is crammed with some of Washington's most affluent, single and upwardly agile bodies. The temple of the faith is not your basic, sweaty little shopping mall health spa. The temple of the faith is $8 million worth of leisure, including glass-walled racquetball courts, Jacuzzis as big as the Ritz, steam rooms and massage rooms and nap rooms, a gym, a pool, a banked and rubberized running track, a restaurant, a bar, even a nursery.
Parables of the Fit, Part I:
"Heard you started your kid working out," a man is saying outside the nursery one afternoon.
"Yeah, got 'im on Jolly Jumper."
"You oughta try Baby Jogger. That's what we use."
Consider this: 2,500 square feet is normally considered roomy for a health club. At The Sporting Club they've got nearly 80,000 square feet of recreation under one roof. Until recently most "spas" in America have had all the decorative charm of massage parlors. The Sporting Club doesn't think of itself in the spa category, though. At The Sporting Club they've got canary-yellow blow-dryers and cat-gray flannel carpeting going up the walls and an overall futuristic, windowless, track-lit, high-gloss spaceship look that seems to have more in common with 2001 or maybe Captain Nemo than with the thin smell of old sweat socks.
Susan Ford and her husband recently made "the commitment." George Bush's executive assistant has a family membership. Miss Finland and her husband come to soak their sweat suits, as does the head of Xerox in Washington, as does most of the corporate brain trust of Advance Technology Inc. (weapons systems analysis; much Saudi Arabia contracting), as does the chairman of the department of surgery at Georgetown University Hospital. The governor of Illinois, Big Jim Thompson, is said to come out to the club every time he is in town. Automatic, says The Sporting Club's manager.
Maybe America's lust to get in shape got its spurt 20 years ago with JFK and his council on physical fitness -- and the '80s are just the top of the curl. Maybe it was Vic Tanny and Jack LaLanne who got America panting toward bodily self-improvement. Or maybe it has simply to do with this: In a land of new Adams and new beginnings, where the media relentlessly bombard good looks and beautiful bodies into the national psyche, the average age has now topped 30
In university field houses you see people working out mainly because it's FUN. But at The Sporting Club people on the flab side of 30 confront the demons of age and gravity.
Parables of the Fit, Part II:
A little while ago, the guy who does PR for The Sporting Club got the branch manager of a nearby Bank of Virginia to come over and take an exaerobics class. The bank manager's name is Martha MacLeod, and after one class she signed up on the spot, even before she went to the showers. Martha MacLeod is six-foot, 125 pounds, 27 years old, attractive, slothful no more. She's committed. Now she works out three times a week. Now she can grab her ankle and extend her leg straight out, "just like I could do years ago in college when I was a field hockey star."
Pause. "Course, it's a little weird at first seeing a customer on the mat beside you and you're full of sweat."
The Aging of the American Body
In the '50s Americans found Hula-Hoops. In the '60s they tried to burn down the student union. In the '70s they found Self, but that self had more to do with Zen and motorcycle maintenance than with pumping country club iron. Self then meant that gray matter above the shoulders.
And now, what was thought by trend spotters only a few years ago to be just another passing fad seems a full-throbbing national obsession, holy and sworn by. Pollsters say 70 million Americans are out there doing some sort of torture to their bodies every week -- pumping Nautilus, pounding squash balls, jogging. (There are an estimated 30 million runners alone.)
You hang around The Sporting Club a day or two and somebody is telling you about the former el flabbo who joined at 312 pounds and is now, just months later, down to a chastened 244. Or the exaerobiciser who went from 300 to 190 LIKE THAT. But you don't come to this church just to lose pounds. Beating your body to purify your mind -- that's part of the holistic creed.
In Sportings, the club restaurant, the really devoted cool themselves with apple/banana drinks and tuna piles. The less committed go for burgers. An upcoming restaurant will feature a gourmet line.
"I am your walking, talking commercial for this place," says a slim, leotarded figure between small ladylike huffs one weekday noon. Her name is Kathy Turner, and she is taking laps on the running track. Svelte bodies blur by. Turner, new emigre' to Washington, saw an ad for The Sporting Club in a magazine. Came over and signed up on the spot. "I joined at the beginning of December, and I think I have been here practically every day since Christmas. They locked me out Christmas day. I'm in several classes now, including Tummy Trimmers."
December was a huge sign-up month. January was terrific, too. Says club manager Reed: "These last few weeks it's sort of like we just opened the doors." Some of the fervor, of course, was the result of New Year's resolutions, and that is already on the wane.
The Social Place of the '80s
Saturday. One o'clock in the afternoon. Maybe 500 people are working out. In the Nautilus area (21 machines), a man furiously pedals an Ergometer bicycle to nowhere. (There are nine Ergometers, all in a gleaming row.) He has belonged since March, the man says. (Still has a little belly.) His soaked red T-shirt bears the name of his sailboat. "I've been coming to these sort of places for 20 years. I've got to say this is the top of the line. I used to work out at the Pentagon. It was this place 30 years ago."
A week of days, a week of nights. The place is always busy, always perspiring. Reed is sitting in his office, away from the grunting. He sits in a black director's chair. He wears a gold pinky ring and Nocona cowboy boots. He grew up on an Illinois farm, then left and went to the Marines. Afterward he went to The City. When he worked at the Great Gorge, N.J., Playboy resort, Successful Meetings magazine named him the "second best convention director in the world." It was a people business then, and it's a people business now, John Reed says. He's just traded sleeping rooms for ball courts.
"Fitness clubs have turned into the social place of the '80s. People are getting tired of sitting in bars every night. High-visibility business people have more stress on them than ever before. It's a lot easier to meet someone in this setting and say to them, 'Hey, let's go play racquetball tomorrow' than to lean over on a bar stool and say, 'Let's go to my house.' I'm not saying our people don't go to bars. I go to bars. I probably go as much as anybody you could name. I can go over to Clyde's about any night of the week and pick out 40 members. In fact, about eight people who work at Clyde's belong here."
"I hear the sheets in the Siesta Room are Christian Dior."
"Aw, probably Cannon. I don't know, I never had to buy any. Got a whole locker full of them back there. Hold a minute."
Reed picks up a phone, gives an order. A minute later the phone buzzes back. "They're Yves St. Laurent."
You see few blacks working out in The Sporting Club, you see few Honda CVCCs in the parking lot. "This place is for the unemployed Safeway worker as well as the head of Xerox," claims the PR man. (Later he wants to amend this. He says there are people who belong who are making $10,000 a year.) Provided your application is accepted, anyone may join for initiation fees that run from $300 to $600 and dues of anywhere from $50 to $100 a month. That's considerably higher than at Holiday Spa.
The man who built The Sporting Club is Jack Naiman of San Diego. Naiman, in the real estate and construction business, has built several other Sporting Clubs -- two in Denver, one in Atlanta. Other cities are being scouted. His Washington club is the most posh one, he says. "We didn't build it as a statement," says Naiman. "We built it as a function of the Washington demographics." Up until now, he says, gymnasiums in America have either been extraordinarily dreary or gaudy, neither of which says much for the taste of people working out in them. "We knew what colors could do for an environment. We decided to go with pastels and rich gray flannels instead of earth colors. Earth colors were in the '60s. We had a design team come in from New York. Frankly, I was a little worried about the color scheme. Our market analysis said that you people in Washington are very conservative."
Parables of the fit, Part III:
So far only two toes and a collarbone have been broken at The Sporting Club, say the managers, and the place has been open a little over a year. The other day somebody suffered a shoulder separation. Not long ago a woman playing racquetball with her husband ran into a wall. The club is proud of its safety record. "We like to break 'em in easy," says a Nautilus instructor. "When they come in, all gung-ho, I tell them, 'Okay, start with six walking laps and two runs and I'll see you in three days.' "
Gung-Ho on Life
A man sticks his head in the door of John Reed's office. He is no ordinary man. He is gigantic. Once he played pro ball for the Boston Celtics. He is director of public relations, a kind of nightly greeter and cajoler and rooter in keeping everybody happy. His name is Ronny Watts. He is gung-ho on life.
"Best night in a week out there, John," he says. "Great energy. I don't know what it is."
Ronny Watts walks his six feet, six inches through The Sporting Club, finger-popping in snappy three-piece suits. He used to work at his family's clothing chain (Pat Arnolde's Talls), and for awhile he thought he was through with gymnasiums. Just got married last June. He and Roxanne and John Reed were having dinner one night at Evans Farm Inn, and afterward Ronny proposed. Right on the spot.
"We all have a fear of loneliness and financial insecurity, okay? And everybody is looking for two basic things: love and fulfillment of self in a job. Well, when you've got an environment where you're associating with positive, upward people, you just can't help tapping into that energy pool. 'This is positive,' you say. You begin to like the way you look, the way you fit in your clothes. You see, a lot of these people are in extremely high-tech jobs. They come here for their release."
Ronny Watts once made some television commercials for the long-distance telephone company with his old Celtics pal, Bill Russell. The commercials were a hit across the country. Watts became a celebrity. For a while. He and Russell are still best friends 15 years after the pros. Couple of weeks ago, Russell was in town, stayed at Watts' apartment, came out to the club. Ronny Watts has seen the ups and downs. He's into the gospel of positivism these days, the glories of the human potential movement.
"What you resist, you're stuck with," explains Ronny Watts. "For years I resisted sports. But I came back. I found myself."
Everybody has a story, everybody will witness. Bruce Morris is the club's chief Nautilus instructor. He used to be a javelin thrower. Made All-American. He was on the verge of turning slack before he got back to pumping.
Bruce Ponder is the club's athletic director. He supervises 36 full and part-time instructors. Bruce used to be a body builder. He has great bubbles of muscles on his arms, his chest. He is Arnold Schwarzenegger in sweat pants with wondrous blow-dried hair. Ponder got out of body building because "as they say, you can't put a 19-inch arm in the bank." He works out six days a week. He's been in the spa industry since '72. Used to be married to a woman who worked at a club.
Ronny Watts is taking a doubting Thomas on a tour of the premises, finger-popping, "connecting to the energy." "Hey, Larry, come here for a minute, will you? I want you to tell this guy what you think of The Sporting Club. You tell him anything you want. I'm going to walk away. I'm going to stand right over here. Go on, Larry, tell him exactly what you think."
Watts walks five paces, turns his back.
Turns out Larry, whose last name is Albert and who is 31 and has a python grip, is crazy about The Sporting Club. Larry is in a high-stress job for Ad Tech. He works with the Saudi contracts, with naval systems analysis, some stuff for the defense department. "Today was a bitch of a day," he sighs. "One of those days when you're trying to get a contract to come through, you know? I need this place right now. I believe in the idea of physical fitness tying into mental clarity." Larry says he comes about three times a week. "And of course when you look at the financial commitment -- and let's break this down to dollars and cents. This Watts guy always gives you a blast of crap when you come in the door, but you don't pay any attention. Actually we're crazy about him."
"Hey," says Ronny, in earshot. (He has been straining to overhear.) "You're in the twilight of a mediocre racquetball career."
There are some strong side benefits to belonging, says Larry Albert. "I'll level with you, there are some real foxes in here."
Mixing Pleasure & Business
Ron Hobbs, executive vice president of Ad Tech, walks in. Ron is a racquetballer, as is Bob LaRose, president of the company. Sometimes LaRose plays Jay Nussbaum, head of Xerox. Sometimes they talk some business on the court, nothing major. Ad Tech and Xerox both have corporate memberships in the club. (Xerox has its own health maintenance facility at its offices, but nothing so elaborate as this, of course.) Ron Hobbs, second in command of Ad Tech, said to somebody just the other day: We've got some things to talk about, why don't we go down to the club and play a few games and try to come up with a solution. The company is using its corporate membership, says Hobbs, as a "retention and recruiting device."
"We're a fairly small company, 800 people. We don't build black boxes, we're talking software. If our people leave we don't have anything. We treat The Sporting Club as a benefit."
Ronny Watts, having just stepped away again so the executive vice president can talk "freely," comes back.
Watts: "Hobbs, you're just letting your life slip away. You haven't been in here all week."
Hobbs: "Leave go of my shoulder, Ron."
Watts: "Say, I'm proud of you, coming here to work out like this."
Hobbs: "I'm not so proud of you."
On it goes, the good-time banter of true believers. By 8:30 p.m. the energy has shifted from the courts and the Nautilus machines. Forms emerge from the deep of Jacuzzis.
The new energy is now in Sportings. Exhausted bodies drape on bar stools. In a while they will waft out into the suburban night on clouds of Lime Sec and Clubman hairspray.
"I'm not what you call a jock, I just come to exercise a little and meet people," says a lady, aromatic of roll-on.
"Lookin' good," says the man next to her. But he is fat and bald and has laps to go before he sleeps.