.Three Local Fitness Entrepreneurs Betting Our Drive to Health is Here to Stay

by Drew Penner

At the same time that the pandemic upended the local economic landscape, it also increased our focus on mind and body health. But with all the tight restrictions on gyms that began in March of 2020, it’s often been hard to even get a workout in during the pandemic.

With that in mind, it might seem like a crazy time to open a gym. But three budding fitness entrepreneurs in Santa Cruz are betting that our drive to boost our health is here to stay. 


Case-in-point is a planned Scotts Valley fitness studio from Santa Cruz resident Peter Malek, slated for 262 Mt. Hermon Road.

secure document shredding

The tech engineer secured the rights to launch the first MADabolic franchise in all of California.

He explains it’s concerned with “Momentum,” “Anaerobic” and “Durability” workouts—a concept developed by former pro hockey players Brandon Cullen and Kirk DeWaele.

“I think it’s going to bring something that’s really needed,” he says.

While some people were able to achieve new health heights during the last couple years, others who were in good shape found themselves losing ground, he notes.

“Folks had a hard time disciplining themselves to keep those healthy habits,” he says. “Keeping yourself in the best shape that you can is absolutely one the best defenses for living a longer, stronger life.”

Malek’s already scored the necessary permit from the Scotts Valley Planning Commission for his Hangar at Skypark location, next to an ice cream shop, a gift boutique and a taproom.

The drywall is in and painted, and next up is the bathroom and shower tile.

Malek, who has a personal training certificate through the National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association, grew up playing sports and got involved in high-intensity activities like CrossFit and Ironman over the years.

Malek says the MADabolic model works for both top-notch athletes as well as less-experienced individuals, because it balances pushing yourself and resting.

According to municipal documents, the business plans to operate from 5:30am-7:30pm weekdays and 8am-noon on weekends.

The studio expects to hire four people and offer hour-long classes, with a maximum of 20 people in each session.

And while Malek saw a pandemic-sized brick-and-mortar opening and went for it, he also used the coronavirus pandemic as a chance to do some reflecting, too.

He catalogued his own fitness thinking in a book he just published with New Degree Press called #PerFORM: The Path to Becoming Unstoppable and Achieving Fulfillment.

“It was a validation of sorts—and a self-realization,” he says, explaining how writing the book helped clarify his decision to launch the business. “The book is a testament to me finally taking that leap of faith.”

Malek hopes to open by the end of February.

Ain’t High-Falutin’

Over in Soquel, James Smith, the new owner at Lola’s Fitness Gym—Strive in its pre-pandemic life—says he could’ve gotten involved in another, more profitable enterprise.

But after years as a professional poker player and in the casino world, he was excited by the prospect of running a business that actually helps people.

“I’m thinking, ‘Why make people fat, when I could make people skinny?’” he says. “I thought it would be a good idea to get into something that would help people get healthier.”

Gyms have been one of the pandemic’s hottest potatoes, with every jurisdiction seemingly taking a different view of just how “essential” the industry is, and whether vaccine mandates and masking requirements should apply. In June 2020, 24 Hour Fitness filed for bankruptcy and closed a quarter of its locations, following on the heels of Gold’s Gym’s Chapter 11 move the previous month. Meanwhile, at-home exercise options like Peloton have seen surges in demand, although even that sector’s faced rocky roads.

So, was Smith perturbed by the coronavirus landscape?

“Actually, I didn’t take it into consideration,” he says. “In a short-range scope, obviously it’s a pain in the ass. In the long-range scope, I don’t think it’s going to be something we’re going to be worried about.”

The small, no-nonsense neighborhood workout space is able to do what even many corporate players cannot: provide 24/7 access.

With three levels and about 200,000 square feet of space, there are plenty of ways to get the blood pumping on-site; but there are no showers—and there’s definitely no fancy juice bar.

“It’s not a high-falutin’ gym,” Smith says. “Girls and guys come in, and they work out.”

But when he took over at 4061 Soquel Dr., he didn’t raise prices, either.

They also offer a discount for firefighters, police officers, registered nurses and emergency responders.

Smith says he’s dedicated to making sure the people who use his facility feel safe and comfortable at whatever hour they decide to drop by.

Since he opened late last year, Smith says he’s already seen members make serious progress.

“It gives me a sense of accomplishment if I can help people,” he says. “That’s one of the positive benefits that comes from me owning a business like this.”

Capitola’s Agility Boulders is building a community of indoor climbers. PHOTO: AGILITY BOULDERS

Climbing Ambition

Down the road at Capitola’s Agility Boulders, John Hester has seen a community of indoor climbers start to thrive, even amid the constant ebb and flow of pandemic protocols.

He co-founded the bouldering gym with his partner, Shirley Yang.

They’d actually been looking at starting something before the pandemic started, and at first it seemed like it might throw their dream into jeopardy. But in the end, they say they were encouraged to extend towards their next crimper handhold by supporters.

They pushed on through several difficult sections, like only being allowed to schedule a single building contractor in the space at a time.

“We have amazing landlords that really believed in our vision and wanted this climbing gym—this community center—to be part of the area,” Hester says of their startup, which opened last year at 1404 38th Ave. “We’re all craving a little bit of community.”

Because bouldering doesn’t rely on the ropes-and-harnesses tag-team approach, like traditional climbing gyms, social-distancing is a cinch, he says. You climb without wearing protective gear up to 15 feet, and if you fall, you land on a padded surface.

It can also be quite the mental workout, too, he adds.

“We tend to call the line you climb ‘boulder problems,’” he says. “You have this cryptic path that you want to figure out.”

In fact, they reconfigure a segment of grips each week—turning the entire gym over in six. And their hand chalk options help maintain the antiseptic environment.

“The community’s been growing,” he says, noting it’s common to hear people cheer each other on as they scale the walls. “It’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a very engaging activity.”


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