Health clubs tend to be blissfully empty in August. But this week, at gyms around town, it’s looking more like January, right after New Year’s. The advance hype of the Olympics, along with Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France win, have inspired the tired, the weak, and the otherwise gym-averse to go for their own personal golds. (Or at least dress the part.)
“They watch Nike ads with Marion Jones and the stories of athletes who’ve overcome obstacles, deaths in their families—like that synchronized swimmer who killed her boyfriend in a car accident but kept competing,” says Brian Cameron, general manager of the Sports Club/LA, where attendance is up 25 percent. “They say, ‘Hey, if they can do it, I can do it.’ ”
“They watch ads with athletes who’ve overcome obstacles. They say, ‘If they can do it, I can.’’’ The problem is, most can’t.
The problem is, most can’t. “They have a tendency to go overboard,” says the club’s Chris Oehl. “I tell them it’s not about the amount of weight, it’s form and repetition. But they don’t want to hear it.”
Chase Taylor, the personal-training manager at Equinox’s 76th Street location, reports that 20 percent more people have signed up for private sessions than last month, a summer record at the club. “It’s not that they want to learn how to throw a javelin,” he says; they want to improve their performance at the Summer Olympics sports they play (or used to play) themselves, like tennis and track and field. “It’s a psychology issue,” says trainer Kacy Duke, who’s prepping Naomi Campbell to run with the Olympic torch in Athens. “I had this 43-year-old overweight accountant tell me he wanted to do the Ironman. I said, ‘What? I’m not even up to a triathlon.’ ”
Typically, when Equinox instructor Ary Nuñez pushes her spinning class to their maximum cardio threshold (“puke factor,” she calls it), 90 percent of them balk. Lately, she’s seen a different reaction: “They’re coming in dressed in Lance Armstrong–type racing shirts. One member said to me, ‘You’re making class so much harder, but I love it!’ ”
To take advantage of Olympic fever, some gyms have tweaked their classes. Crunch offers Olympic Martial Arts, as well as Toga Yoga, geared to inflexible athletes. Classes end shortly after closing ceremonies. Other gyms make sure there are plenty of directors on the floor to spot overzealous members benching 100 pounds when 90 is their max. At the Wat, a Muay Thai boxing gym in Soho, owner and boxing champion Phil Nurse tries to tell some clients to take days off. “I have this one girl, she wants to jump rope today, do something else tomorrow. She’s going to get the shock of her life. You can’t make yourself an amazing athlete in a week.” Despite his lectures, they seem determined to live out their Greek fantasy. “We’ll jump rope, and I’ll see five of them looking up at the clock, checking their pulse. Or that guy’s got a bottle of water mixed with lemongrass. They’re trying to be like a professional athlete.” Of course, not every fitness demographic responds to the same cultural stimuli. Gym owner David Barton insists there are other events motivating his clientele: “I saw a spike in membership after the latest Halle Berry nude scene. For us, that has more of an effect.”