Community Profile: Just Go Lift Gym
The moment I saw these two getting married at World’s Toughest Mudder — Michael (aka Mickey) in his tuxedo shirt, and Sammy in her custom dress and rainbow hair (and donut bouquet) — I knew they were people I wanted to get to know.
I learned that they had recently opened up an OCR gym in San Diego, and so a few weekends ago I went and covered an Epic Series event that they hosted, and got to see their gym in person.
The moment I saw their gym, I knew I couldn’t just do a podcast episode about this couple and their gym. I wanted to do more; I wanted to show who they are through both words and photos, and an idea was born.
One of the most wonderful things about the OCR community is that there are so many interesting, dynamic people in it. And sometimes, these people are right in your backyard.
I had such a great time time sipping coffee and talking with these two and photographing them (and playing around on their obstacles), that I want to do this more. I’m going to start a series highlighting OCR gyms and resources, and the stories of the people behind it.
Let’s start with Michael and Sammy.
To start, tell me about your background and how you got into fitness.
S: So I’ll tell start with how I got into Spartan races, because that’s really what started it. I was going through a divorce at the time, and it was very hard for me mentally. I used to love fitness when I was 19, but I had lost it throughout that marriage. I had heard about these Spartan races and I thought that would be super, super cool if I could do something that was mentally and physically challenging because if I could get through something like that, I could get through this, and I could get through anything.
So I did my first Spartan race probably 4 years ago: it was a Sprint, and I just remember doing it thinking “oh, this is just really cool” and I got through it. Then of course everybody finds that obstacle that they want to conquer, and mine was was the rope climb.
So I did that race and then I signed up for more races, and it definitely was making me stronger., because throughout the race you’re telling yourself “just keep going, just keep going you got this, one foot in front of the other”. So I taught myself through watching YouTube videos how to climb a rope!
I was an ER nurse and I just quit actually 3 months ago to do this full time. I got my personal training license last year and got my Spartan SGX, and was just continuing to do all types of different races.
Then I had gone on a Spartan cruise, and it was one of the things that completely opened up my eyes, I went by myself because nobody wanted to do it with me: they’d be like, “who goes on vacation to workout?” I’m like “Me! It’s fun!”
So I went and met a whole bunch of really cool people, and I thought, one day I would love to have a fitness cruise, because this just changed my life. There’s these really cool people, everybody has a positive attitude, they’re all encouraging, and it helps get you healthier.
So one of my goals was to have a fitness cruise, and then I translated that into “well, let’s just start with the gym.”
I wanted to for years. About a year or two after that cruise, it just wasn’t happening, and then last year I met this man (points to Michael) on the bucket carry at Spartan.
I had hit on him and told him that he looked like Justin Timberlake (laughs). I was like, “has anyone ever told you you look like Justin Timberlake?” and he’s like “nope”, and then he went on his way, and I went on mine. Hours later, we found each other after the race, and we connected. We took a picture and exchanged Instagram information, and I hit him up in the DMs first. I found out he was in San Diego and I was in Orange about 2 hours away. I started talking with him and we just meshed really, really well.
A couple months after knowing each other I asked him if he wanted to open a gym. He said, “I had never thought about it, but why not? Let’s do it!” It was February of this year that we said okay, we’re going to open a gym by July. And then we opened a gym in July and we’re here now!
M: So my [background] is definitely different. I didn’t have much of an interest in fitness growing up – the school I went to from 6-12th grade didn’t even have sports as an option, so I wasn’t athletic.
When I was super young. I dabbled in a little bit it was more like recreational sports and I had no drive to do so ever again. In high school, I was in and out of trouble, and after high school I just dove into working a lot to try and keep out of trouble. That was my way of not being a little hooligan. So from the time I was 17 till I was 24, I worked around the clock 7 days a week, 16-20 hour days, all the time.
During that time I was doing construction, and so I would work long days, then come home and just pound beers, and then hit up fast food, and that became my life.
I realistically ate fast food for probably 95% of my meals, and drank nothing but beer and coffee and energy drinks, so that got me heavy fast – not in a good way. So I got up to about 245 pounds, and one of my friends had just got out of prison and was like, “hey, dude, what the hell happened to you – you look like a hot mess.”
I told him, whatever, I’ve just been working a lot, and he was on me about, “well you gotta do something, because if you keep this up, it’s no good.”
He kept telling me I needed to get on a program and he kept riding me about it for a while. One day he says “if we go to the park, and you can do one pull-up, then I’ll drop it.”
So we go to the park, and I could barely hang on a bar. It was super humiliating. So he asked me, “Are you ready to do something now?”
I was like “yeah, I guess.”
So we started just doing stuff after work. It was just lifting weights and doing some type of calisthenic stuff. After work we would do a little program or we’d meet at a park or a high school and do some calisthenics, or the stairs here at the convention center.
Those times cut into my beer-drinking time, so I started drinking less, and then I started feeling better, and the better I felt the better I wanted to eat, so I could perform better and actually push myself to see what I was capable of.
So I had done that for a few years, and I was definitely in a lot better shape. Then I had a friend who had gotten a group together for a Spartan race and he asked me to do it. I told him no, and then everyone in his team two weeks before the race bailed out. He’s told me he’d be running it by himself, and I’m like “alright, that’s shitty”, so I agreed to go with him.
That was December of 2012 in Malibu, and it was awesome and I loved it, so we made the decision that year to make it an annual thing. Since then, every year we ran that same December race together, and my 3rd year was when I decided I would do more. I started pushing myself into more performance rather than just working out for fun.
It’s a pretty daunting task to start a gym – fill me in on the process of starting it up.
S: If you want to do anything in life, you have to bring it from your brain out into the world. We were at the January fitness expo and his sister had told —
M: — [Sammy] had had a goal of opening a gym for a while, and she had mentioned to me in confidence that this is going to be the year she had been thinking and talking about it. She even had a potential investor that was interested in working with her. We got to the fitness expo, and my sister’s running around telling everyone – and people she looks up to – “she’s is going to open up gym this year!”
S: And of course, I’m about to like crap my pants and I’m like, “well that means I have to!” That kind of scared me because at that time, I was working with an old trainer and he was one of the people that we had talked about opening a gym together, but there was never any action. It was all this talk, talk, talk, and that’s what a lot of people end up doing, is just talking. Talking’s great, but if you don’t start acting, then you’re not going to get anywhere.
M: It would be like “let’s get together and talk about the gym”, and then it would turn into “oh, let’s meet at a bar and have a drink”, or do this and then it’s just like we’re just hanging out.
S: I was the only one like working on the computer and he’s sitting watching the game, and he wasn’t helping me. So when we [Michael and I] had met and I asked him, he instantly was like “okay, first we’ve got to write a business plan” – a daunting task in itself.
I did not come from a business background whatsoever – I’m an ER nurse – so writing a business plan was intense. Trying to project numbers that you had no idea how to get them. He would search on YouTube how to make a spreadsheet, and he listened to this British guy how to make a spreadsheet. I think we were probably locked away for a week and just typing [our business plan] up. We would send it to a couple people that we knew, and they would tell us what we were missing and what we needed to add.
M: People she had met through life, or that I had met through life that are more business-oriented or successful. My background is labor and she did ER, so starting a business was totally out of the box for us.
But even before we started the business plan the talk, we spent a lot of time just setting goals. With any goal or with anything that you want, you have to figure out why you want it or if it’s something that you really want, or does it just sound like a good idea. Because there are some people that are say they would love to do something, and then when they walk themselves through it, then it’s like “yeah, never mind. It seems like a lot of work.”
So you have to weigh those options, and then within that talk, you figure out “okay, a gym, that’s great. A 24-hour gym? Box gym? What do you want? How big do want?” So we decided on what size we wanted, we knew that we didn’t want a whole bunch of machines, we wanted it more functional with free weights, things for heart rate, and more athletic functional training. Then it was like, alright so we got size, our style, and then it was like visualization: writing down like the floor plan.
That way, it becomes real, and you know what you’re working towards. All of that stuff helped with the business plan, because if you’re going to sit down and write numbers or come up with like equipment orders, you have to know what type of facility you’re outfitting.
I have some friends that are definitely better than me in business, and I was going to be helping them move towards the end of February, so we made the decision to do this in February. I thought that if I’m gonna go help my friends do this, and I’d like to present them with something that way they can give me their feedback.
So we decided February, we’ll put all these ideas together and put it on paper, get a business plan together and then go from there. It was a lot of tweaking: we had never done it before, so our business plan in the very beginning was not much of a business plan at all. It was more like ideas that we wanted.
It became about networking, finding a building, and then finding funding and then within that process, constantly working on the business plan.
We sent it to a lot of friends who were like, “you obviously have no idea what you’re doing.” Definitely a lot of late nights and early mornings; just dedicated time.
Was there any point where either you felt overwhelmed, or in over your head?
S: Oh all the time. All the time. I would say for me at least, what made me feel overwhelmed was constantly overcoming these obstacles — like a race!
M: Because there would be times in the business plan process or the funding process where we felt like this is it, we got it, and then they would call back and say no, and it’s like “okay…I thought it was the next step, not this one again.”
So I know that was definitely one of the most challenging spots for her. I don’t know if it was overwhelming, it was just more defeated. She especially felt that a lot after we had already we locked in our building before we had any funding, and so it was a little bit backwards. But it definitely was a good incentive! It was like “Well, now you have to do something — you’re in a 5-year lease in a commercial space.”
So is that what kept you guys accountable to stay with this?
S: Oh yeah, definitely. That was a huge factor. We were like, “well, if we don’t find funding then I guess we’ll just figure out how we’ll cover rent.”
M: We’ll throw dance parties in here or something.
Still not a bad idea.
M: We worked out with the realtor and the landlord early access, so we had a few months free. But the closer it got to 8 months, we knew we needed to do something, otherwise we’re paying out of pocket for a building. That’s when it started to become more and more overwhelming.
We felt like we had it figured out and now we can take the next step, but we kept hearing “I’m not interested” or “this isn’t going to work” or “I don’t like these numbers”, or whatever the case was.
It was like, “oh shit, now what?”
We had the space and were ready to build and fill it and make it ours, but we couldn’t, because we didn’t have the resources to do so.
The whole time that we’re going through all this, we were doing our best to actively promote a launch party. We were telling everyone when the grand opening was, and they would ask, “how’s it going?”
I was like “how’s it going? We don’t have shit in it! We don’t have two pennies to rub together and have a grand opening in a few weeks!”
Worst case, it’s July 8th and everyone’s chilling and we’re like, “this is where we’re going to have a gym, thanks for coming?” (laughs)
We were a very, very new company, we were a startup, and that was our problem with the investors. No one wanted to seed a startup — everyone wanted to invest in a company that they knew was doing well. We heard from one particular investor that everyone wants to invest in the next best thing, but no one wants to be the first guy through the door, because that first guy is the one that always takes the nosebleed. So he told us to come back to him when someone else has got hit in the face and he’ll jump on the bandwagon, but he couldn’t be that first guy. So that was a hard emotional trial.
It was a lot of no’s, not just from investors but also from traditional funding avenues. We would try a small business, but they’d tell us we didn’t qualify for this type of loan — there are tons of different types.
But the awesome thing about rejection is that it does open up other doors, as long as you’re willing to chase those avenues or at least ask. Every time someone told us no, we’d ask if they knew anybody that would be interested or anyone who could help us. What made them say no? Did they think it’s something we were able to correct, if not did they you know someone who could help us correct it?
Asking those types of questions and not taking no as an end-all, be-all led us to the building, the funding, the equipment — everything that we have was because we didn’t take no as a final answer.
S: You’re gonna hear no a lot in your life. It’s what you choose to do with it.
Was there a defining moment where you guys felt like you actually got there, that you actually made it?
M: It happened so fast, I still don’t know?
S: I know right? It’s still happening. I would say it kind of happened in steps. The first part of it was we got the building. I look back at some of my notes, and when I read the things that we wanted within the building, I’m like, “oh my God, we got everything.”
After securing the space, that was like a “holy shit this is happening, this is gonna happen” moment, and then lots of “oh my God, is this really going to happen, if not we’ve gotta do something”, and then the grand opening, the day after we had gotten these things installed, it was “okay, we’re still here, we’re still doing this and its still happening.”
Then once we got the second round of equipment, it was “hey, we did this, this happened”, and then every single day, I would say even when we get another member signing up, its very exciting and makes you feel good. Like, “cool they want to be a part of our home!”
Because that’s how we look at this. We want people to come in and utilize this space, and feel like they don’t have to work out, they want to work out, and be excited and feel comfortable. So it’s almost like our little culture, our home to help people and push them to the best possible version of themselves.
As you said, you had many options for a gym: why OCR specific?
S: When I had started doing the Spartan races, I lived in Torrance, and there were no places to train for it except if you went to a playground. My car was filled with sandbags and battle ropes, and I think it was riding like a lowrider in the back, there was so much stuff (laughs).
So for me, I really wanted to create a place for people to train because there was nowhere to train, and the culture and the popularity of the sport was getting so big. Another reason was just because of the way everyone interacts: everybody is very uplifting and encouraging, so we wanted to take that culture and bring it somewhere, so that you don’t only feel it on race day, but you feel it on an everyday basis.
Y’know, there’s a little bit of competition, but we’re encouraging each other at the same time. I think a lot of people, when they walk in, they feel intimated, but once they meet this rainbow-haired chick and Justin Timberlake man, they see we’re just normal people and it’s really not as intimidating as it looks. Don’t get me wrong: the rigs are a little scary when you get to the top, but we’re here to help you reach your goals and get better.
M: Not trying to bash anyones style — hitting a new PR on a weight is an awesome sense of accomplishment — but it’s just different. Conquering a physical obstacle or something that you’ve knowingly failed in the past, or something that you have your sights set on: for most people, that’s a little more rewarding than upping the weight. It also looks more exciting. So we thought if we could bring that to people on a regular basis, that would be awesome. We’re able to reach people or help people that wouldn’t normally go to the gym.
Our boot camps are filled with the misfits of fitness because a traditional gym setting doesn’t always work for them, but coming and doing something that they wouldn’t consider a workout and still getting a workout is a great space for them to get in shape, to become stronger and healthier. It’s a great way to bridge the gap between a sedentary life and someone that’s active and healthy.
Strength training is awesome, doing all this conditioning is awesome, but getting your hands on something is a huge difference, and that’s where we wanted to set ourselves apart [from other training facilities]. It’s like alright, you can hang on a bar, but standing underneath Twister is different, and figuring out how you want to traverse it.
It’s an amazing experience to be able to try different ways and not having a penalty for doing so. On a race day, it’s pass or fail, so if you go out there and trying it backwards is better, or sideways, or hand-to-hand, or all these different ways that you don’t know may work better for you, most people wont risk it on race day to try and do technique.
So coming somewhere where you can try different ways to hone in the technique makes a huge difference. Platinum [Personal Training] is awesome because they have the distance, so you can run a mock course, and they do have the stuff you can put your hands on, so it’s a great place to see how your training has paid off. Our goal would be to work with them, or if NXPT or MROC wanted to do like a dual membership, or maybe people do strength training there and they can come over here for obstacle day. It would be similar to like, 24-Hour Fitness: get the active membership and go to different locations, so we could create a little network of small gyms that are OCR specific or cater to the community. That would be an awesome way to all work together for the betterment of the sport, the athletes, and community as a whole.
That’s interesting that you said that, because that kind of is the spirit of OCR. On some level yes, everyone’s competition, but at the same time everyone helps each other out. You see it with racers at the actual races, you see it with the different gyms, and you see it with the media as well – we all help each other out.
M: I think Tough Mudder I think is the best organization [that displays that]. A lot of their obstacles, you can’t do by yourself. So even though you’re competing, you’re like “I gotta help this guy now, we’re on the same page.” It’s awesome: it’s that new term, “co-op-etition” — where you’re cooperating but you’re still moving forward.
I would love to create that for the local gyms here and even other gyms: there’s a gym in Spain called Mikes Gym: he has a huge ranch and it’s all OCR. That’d be dope to have a worldwide network, to help get everyone together. Even if it wasn’t some type of monetary gain, just like a referral basis to help promote each other.
What is your format for membership here?
S: We have a 3-day-a-week pass, and then we have an unlimited pass where people can come train whenever they want (when we’re open). Then we have just bootcamp memberships, so if they want to just come and do 3-day-a-week bootcamps, they can do that. From there is goes into unlimited bootcamps, then unlimited open gym, then above that it includes two body scans, and then unlimited gym bootcamps, then above that it includes guest passes.
So its open gym with bootcamps if you want, or you can just train on your own. We always have the bootcamps written up, so if someone misses a bootcamp or they don’t do the bootcamps they can get an idea of what they are.
M: Some of our open gym members, that’s what they’ll do. They’ll come in and do that because it’s up there. We wanted to create a unique space, because a lot of the gyms that are either like Crossfit or specific styles of training, they’re class intensive and the open gym opportunity is very limited. So we wanted to reverse that, because there are some people that just want to come and work on certain skills. If you’re running the bootcamp or class, it’s inefficient to have 10-15 people try out the Twister, the Olympus, or the spear throw. So it’s awesome having an open gym opportunity for them to come and try it, get tips tricks from us or other members, and they can do that outside of class
What is your goal for your own personal race careers in 2018?
M: I’m going to go for doing well in the TMX, because I’m more of a short course kind of person, and she’s gonna be a trooper and do it with me.
S: (laughs) I’m so worried about it!
M: She’s looking at the course like, screw this thing! (laughs) I’ve done a lot of the Spartan races and Tough Mudders, and I love their course layout and everything that they do, but those races for me are definitely more team-oriented. My first race I went out with a friend, and ever since then I’ve been trying to get more and more people, so most of the time when I step foot on course I’m up there for as long as I need to be to help as many people as I possibly can cross the finish line. It’s not about like placement: I could care less how fast I run on those courses. So this [next] year will be one of the first times I step foot on course to see how fast I can go, and it’s on a fast course, so that should be fun.
Together, we actually talked about racing less often so that we can do races that are further away. This past year, we did everything on the west coast, and then we did a little bit for travel. This [next] year, we’re thinking maybe a few less west coast races and doing more east coast, or trying different series. We’ve been very fascinated with Savage Race, but they don’t come out here, so rather than getting 50,000 trifectas for Spartan, maybe one less trifecta, and go to the east coast and do a Savage Race.
It’s also going to help expand our reach as a brand. We’re getting more and more familiar with racers and the community on the west coast, and we’d like to expand that, because next month we’re launching an app — a Just Go Lift app — so we want to be able to help raise awareness and expand our reach and be able to help people beyond our physical location. Being in other physical locations will help that.
And what’s your goal for 2018?
S: To survive the Tough Mudder X. I’m going to have to learn the whole kipping pull-ups things: I’m not a kipper, and I feel like when you do a pull-up you have to have good form, so I’ll probably have to break my standard and learn to kip before the race.
M: We’re not a kipping household.
S: (laughs) Survive that, and then try different race series over in the other states. I would say [my goal is] to improve my grip strength and conquer more obstacles, and get better at and more comfortable with heights because I really don’t like heights. Even our rigs here, it takes me a little bit! But I’m getting better at it — the last race we did I conquered the Twister for the first time and that was exciting!
Many thanks to Michael and Sammy for taking the time to chat with me, letting me play around on their obstacles and take photos of them. You can learn more about and sign up for Just Go Lift on their website here,