The adult education journey had started at Belfast Met in September 1997. I was undertaking a diploma in Sports Therapy, which included fitness qualifications. The end goal was to attend college and complete a degree. However, I needed to get the basics first after leaving school with no formal education. Our class was mixed age ranges and backgrounds. All with a different story, which added to the diversity and enrichment of the learning experience. We all assisted each other in tasks, assignments, and essays.
“Did you hear that Frames are looking for fitness staff?” he asked.
Frames was a multi-use venue that contained a coffee shop, snooker hall, bar/restaurant, and a gym. This could be the opening I was hoping for. Gaining experience in a workplace is crucial to align with academic learning. When the class finished that afternoon, I jumped straight onto the bus and walked to the Frames complex. It was located just off central Belfast, part of a forgotten era or heritage (now subject to massive redevelopment proposals).
There is a woman behind the desk in the gym area. She is the manager. No point in backing out now, just get to the question. “Do you have any openings?” I asked.
“Yes,” was her reply.
I had no track record working in a gym environment but had the basics qualifications to undertake a role. We sat down for a coffee. How would she view the young man who had just walked in off the street and asked for a job? Pretty well: I was starting on Friday!
The Arrival of Day One
Do you remember starting your first job? Those feelings of nerves, excitement, happiness, and self-doubt. The day had arrived and I was due to start my first shift: 1 pm to 10 pm. The manager welcomes me and we start to go through the roles and responsibilities. It felt like a huge undertaking, as do all first jobs. She was leaving at 4 pm when the real hands-on needs to begin. There is no hiding place on a gym floor. You are in front of house customer experience. The Friday night rush begins in earnest. We had those ending their exercise routine for the weekend, followed by those who are getting ready to go out on the town. It’s hard to understand, and I hold my hands up also on this.
Why come into the gym, push yourself to the limit, and then go out on the alcohol? Self-defeating to the extreme!
I start to introduce myself to everyone. There are people from a multitude of professional/public sectors and services. There are no egos or blue/white collar elitism in here. The environment is unique. It was more a community gathering than a gym. I had found a new home.
The time goes by in a flash. No sooner had I walked in to meet the manager than I’m dusting down machines and checking stream room areas for any last customers. I get home at 10.15 pm and can’t go to sleep. The adrenaline is preventing me from switching off all engines. I need to sleep as tomorrow I’m on the 10 am-4 pm shift. Did I not say learning on the job is the best approach for gaining experience!
One of the Boys and Gladiators
Between studying the sports therapy diploma and utilizing the learning on the gym floor I was loving life at this point. Was this my purpose? I was unsure at that stage. This was my first job. Working out with members or assisting them to reach their fitness goals was what I lived for. Pretty soon we had assembled a core group. Who I got to know well. Still maintaining contact with some of them today. They wanted to test themselves in strength and fitness every session. Always cajoling and supporting each other to go 1% more.
During this time the U.K. was screening a games show called Gladiators every Saturday evening. The show tested your physical limits with feats in endurance, balance, strength, and speed. To enter the show you had to attend qualifying days. These days contained a series of tests to see if you could compete at the standard required. I don’t know how I manage to get the information that participants received on qualifying days. But that’s exactly what I had. We wanted to train as if we were going to enter the show. Let the competition, sweat, and raw testosterone come to the surface.
Soccer Tribalism and Jurassic park
There was a real mixture of soccer supporters in the gym. We had fans of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Leeds United, Everton, Celtic, Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur, and Chelsea. These customers all arrived after work most days of the week. Mondays, after the weekend games had been played, were something to witness. You needed to have skin similar to the Mesozoic era if your team lost. It was savage! As a fan of Manchester United, I was in my element as the club were winning matches most weekends. The debates and banter (slang for fun) were lively, to say the least.
As a real soccer fanatic, I built friendships with this group quite quickly. When my team lost I always asked could I train with them. The purpose was to push them to the limit physically, so they all shut up! We began to arrange nights out for socializing outside of the gym. These often got quite messy. If we weren’t challenging strangers to chin-up competitions in the streets, we were attempting arm-wrestling matches with a beer in the other hand! Memories I will never forget.
Tales from the Sauna
The gym contained a steam room and sauna. These were used by members after training on most days. Sundays were especially entertaining! You knew when they walked in that they hadn’t slept much, and the hangover from an extended night’s drinking was taking its toll. Eyes heavy and slumped walked. There was a group of 6 that arrived each week right on cue. No training in the gym. Straight to the sauna. Alcohol leaves the body feeling dehydrated. So, why go into a sauna? No talking to these men, this was habitual. Not long after they entered the sauna, you could smell the fresh burning eucalyptus oil. They always brought a small bottle with them to pour on the coals.
Here we go. Stories from the night before gather momentum. This usually equated to a lot of laughter and noise. I didn’t mind as it was funny listening to what they had done on their night out in the city. They were an older group of men who loved reminiscing about their past. Even though they didn’t have the same religious beliefs or nationalities, there was no animosity among them. These were friendships forged through the most difficult periods of the conflict. For me, at such a young age I hadn’t encountered a group of men like this before. Growing up in West Belfast as a catholic we never got many opportunities to mix with Protestants. This was a new experience for me. One which lived with me from those days.
Handling the Unexpected
It was the summer of 2003 when the facility manager informed me that the gym was too close. By then I had been there 6 years. I loved the place. I had already started my college degree, bought a car, and was living a settled life at aged 26 years. The announcement came out of nowhere. I needed to process. What would I do next? It was my responsibility to start informing the members that the gym was too close. The shock on their faces told me all I needed to know. The gym was part of their life, a sanctuary, where they could have a bit of enjoyment, relieve some stress, and get healthy. Now, it was reaching its conclusion.
The days past and everyone realized that they were seeing out their final days on the gym floor. The friendships developed for some would be hard to let go. We can never hold onto the past. Instead, we need to move with time and remember those who made an impact on us as we do. Our final week was full of enjoyment, singing, some tears, and a lot of well-wishes. On Saturday there was to be an auction for all the equipment.
The gym was alive with sound. Each piece of equipment raising the pulse of those who wanted to purchase. No point in getting excited until the auctioneer started the bidding process. Another first for me. I had never been to an auction before (except cattle when I was very young). The old Belfast Market. “Let’s start with lot one,” he says. As each piece of the equipment was sold, so were the memories that went with it. Removable vans were parked outside the building, and just like that, there was an empty gym floor.
I walked around the gym cleaning up any debris that had been left behind from all the moving. Entering the changing rooms (there was an eerie silence), I knew would never hear the sounds of conversation and laughter again. One final check of the steam/sauna controls. All in order. Moving back onto the gym floor, the emotions were hard to contain. Reliving those memories like a rolling movie picture I knew the time had arrived. Time to face the music and move onto the next part of my journey. If only I knew where was I headed.
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