A 6-foot-2 personal trainer with the lean physique and toned muscles of a basketball pro might seem an unlikely match for Charlene Nilsen. A homemaker from Occoquan, she is 77 years old, she has a bad back, and she just had both knees replaced.
That doesn’t mean he lets her off the hook.
“Rotate the heels,” he said recently as she swung a set of barbells from left to right. “Abs are nice and tight. Rotate, there we go, there we go.”
Dawson, a retired Army colonel, has worked for 17 years as a personal fitness trainer at the Chinn Aquatics & Fitness Center in Woodbridge. He is the oldest trainer there by about three decades. He started at an age when most people are thinking about retiring, and he works four days a week, pushing his clients, most of whom are of retirement age themselves, through rigorous drills that would fatigue many people half their age.
They crack heavy ropes up and down like whips. They contort their torsos into crunches from an awkward, tilted-back angle. They engage in “skull-crushers,” so named for what could happen if a heavy free weight were to fall during a bench press.
At first glance, Dawson looks like he could be in his 50s. But he has felt the ravages of age – a balky knee, a wrist he has to hold a certain way when he plays racquetball, hearing aids tucked discreetly in his ears.
These are the very things that attract many of his clients.
“I just felt that he would understand my needs and my limitations better,” said Bill Skinner, an 80-year-old retiree from Manassas who has been working with Dawson twice a week for three or four years.
For Dawson, older bodies represent a fascinating challenge. “The body, as Churchill said, is a conundrum wrapped up in an enigma,” he said. “At 70 plus, you probably can’t do the 100 [meter dash] in under 25 [seconds], but you have an intuitive understanding of what your body can do. When you start breathing and sweating, that intuition takes over and you become another person.”
Another person with well-defined deltoids and pecs and a rapidly shrinking midsection. “You don’t need a paunch,” he tells clients. “You need to get rid of it.”
His methods were honed by twenty five years in the Army, including stints in Germany, Congo, Nigeria and Vietnam. He is a two-time Northern Virginia senior Olympian in the 75-and-over category. His signature display of abdominal prowess involves grabbing an overhead bar and pulling his feet up to meet it.
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He’s not opposed to showing off; in fact, he encourages his clients to cultivate the kind of physical swagger that comes with knowing they’re in shape. A dead shot push-up – one that starts from the ground and goes up, rather than the other way around – is, he says, “a bugbear for a body who’s 65, 73.” When one of his clients got to where she could do three of them, “the look on her face was priceless. She’s doing something most people her age can’t do and probably most people in the world can’t do.”
Some trainers push their clients by screaming. This is not Dawson’s way. “His passion is understated – he’s not rah-rah-rah in your face,” said Beverly McIntyre, one of his managers at the gym. “But you don’t stay in it this long if you don’t love what you do. Probably because he has experienced the human body in its various stages, he probably has a far better understanding of what can happen…I think that serves this age group well. They don’t need someone to yell at them; they just need to be in a better place when they leave.”
But even if his manner is gentle, his message is not.
“Some of the ladies who are in their 70s, I say to them, ‘You’ve got to have an attitude where if you’re on the street, you’ve got to be able to knee people in the groin, you’ve got to be able to jab ‘em right here and shatter their nose,’ ” he said. “They kind of recoil when I say that to them, but then when they practice on the dummy, they get into it.”
Dawson believes in using the whole body rather than isolating parts of it. “My motto is, you ought not to have any muscles that are living rent-free. Everybody has to have a job.”
He is not a fan of mindless reps. “I don’t think there’s much utility in a person who’s 65 being able to press weights; I’d much rather have you be flexible and be able to respond quickly,” he said. “If you get the heartbeat and the breathing going, there’s an enthusiasm there that can’t be created any other way.”
Some clients need help recognizing their own limitations, like the 70-year-olds who were star athletes in high school and think they still have the bodies they once had. “I can disabuse that notion quickly; just do a session with a heavy ball, a mobility drill that’s hard. Then you can have a reasonable conversation.”
He does worry about them as they grow older. When a 92-year-old client told Dawson he was having fainting spells, “I said, ‘Burt, what’ll I do if you faint on me?’ He said, ‘Well, just spread me out, I’ll wake up.’ ” But he doesn’t seem to worry much about his own stamina. “I never think of age, I don’t know why,” he said. “I get up in the morning, I feel like I’ve got to do something.”
Judith, his wife of 56 years with whom he has four children and ten grandchildren, cannot imagine him wanting to retire. “He just needs to move,” she said. “When we go on vacation, if there’s no gym in the hotel, he will create his own protocol in the hotel room…He has the metabolism of a hummingbird.”
During a recent session, Rachel Hines, 77, set her jaw as she swung a 6.5-pound rope ball left and right, bracing her body as the ball bounced hard on the wall behind her. Then she picked up two ends of a long, thick rope and began thrusting it up and down as Dawson stood on the rope’s midsection.
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“Try to knock me off,” he said with a grin. She cracked it harder. It jerked under him, but his long legs remained steady. “Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five – and stop.”
After a few sets, Hines was panting. “Let me know when you’ve got your breath,” he said.
“I will,” she gasped. Once she did, he upped the ante by having her do it again, this time while balancing one foot on an unstable ball.
Hines, who has been working with Dawson for 11 years, is one of the ongoing clients he calls “lifers.” Over time, he develops a kinship with them that goes beyond the workout.
“You get to know people on the inside, you hear about it when they go on vacation or a child gets divorced,” he said. “With seniors there may be more going on that’s not part of the job description. There’s an emotional attachment that’s hard to quantify, but by virtue of being on the earth longer, you have common experiences and your lives become intertwined.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Dawson’s name. This version is correct.