When the COVID-19 pandemic ended my daughter’s eighth-grade volleyball season, we found Trainer Hannibal by chance, on the video YouTube recommended after we viewed her coach’s suggested at-home exercises.
Hannibal’s braids swung in a ponytail down his back, his pecs bulged through his t-shirt, and his calf muscles cast shadows. If there was something we’d always wanted to accomplish before, he said, and we didn’t do it now, then we weren’t lacking time, we were lacking motivation. Confined to the house for weeks, with no end in sight, we badly needed motivation.
“What season is it?” Hannibal asked, the prelude to what we’d learn was his signature call and response. “It’s six-pack season,” he declared with a broad smile. “In eight months, when they open up the beaches, you want to be ready.”
For the first few weeks staying at home, I tried to play gym teacher for my kids. With Colorado spring snow piling up outside, if I didn’t get them moving, they’d meld to chairs as they stared into screens. If I didn’t get myself moving, I’d endlessly worry about my medically vulnerable mother in Denver who I couldn’t visit. So I constructed an exercise circuit in the basement. But even though I’d been taking bootcamp-style classes at the rec center for years, I hated being the teacher.
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Concocting workouts and trying to approximate what I did before made me melancholy and lonesome. My closest Boulder rec center was sheltering COVID-19-positive people without homes. When it reopened, I imagined many of my older friends—the fit 60-to-80-year-olds who sprinted faster than me—would no longer come, unable to trust even a well-sanitized gym to be completely safe.
I was trying to lead my children—to exercise, eat well, and complete school at home—but I badly wanted to be led. I wanted an instructor to order me through the difficult exercises I skipped when I was in charge. I never burpeed alone.
Perhaps sensing my reluctance, my 11-year-old son soon tired of my workouts, but my 13-year-old daughter kept with them, clinging to any routine I provided. In August, she hoped to start high school and try out for the volleyball team, and the numbers were daunting: every year, 120 girls vied for sixty spots. Based on her steady improvements at serving and hitting, I thought she had a decent shot, but that was a lot of girls.
This spring she missed her eighth-grade graduation, a farewell trip with her middle school friends to Elitch Gardens, and attending the National History Day competition she’d been preparing for the entire year. Public volleyball courts were closed, and who knew whether volleyball would happen in the fall?
To make it through the days, we had to pretend fall volleyball season was certain to go forward, just like we had to convince ourselves we’d be able to safely visit my mother soon. I constantly reminded myself not to submerge in sadness. If I did, what would happen to the kids? I was now their teacher, coach, and hype-woman. But I liked the idea of letting someone with ripped biceps help me shoulder the load.
So my daughter and I tried Trainer Hannibal. His encouragement cheered us and his exercises fatigued us. Then we tried the other free YouTube workouts Hannibal’s fellow trainers recorded at the NXPT gym in San Diego, an industrial space with concrete floors and a large orange mat. After sweating through a few NXPT workouts, our spirits were lifted and our triceps and hamstrings were sore, these good pains a small, welcome distraction. Training with NXPT was better than dragging ourselves out of bed and diving straight into the grind of online work. We began to make a habit of it.
We grew curious about the trainers’ lives. It made sense, in these strange times, that we’d be forced to make completely new friends, in the online realm. I liked how they referred to each other by the honorific “Trainer.” It felt proper, like they were members of a fitness superhero team.
Each trainer had a different specialty. Trainer Sam, a petite woman, led us through Power Yoga with cheerful competence. With her compact physique, high-pitched voice, and physical precision, I imagined she was a former competitive gymnast or ice skater. The other trainers used her nickname, Swat, because another Trainer Sam was missing, away on home quarantine.
It made them sad to say the name Sam, Trainer Dan explained. My daughter and I looked forward to these moments when these invincible-looking trainers shared their vulnerabilities. Trainer Dan was tall with powerful muscles, always wearing a heavy vest and swinging around a kettle bell of some improbable weight.
Sometimes while leading a workout, Trainer Hannibal spoke to his mother, advising her about navigating technology. I wondered if she was alone. He always seemed aware of conditions for us at home. “Watch that lamp,” he told us, during squat jumps. When it was time for weights he said, “Lift a kid, if you have to.”
I wondered how the trainers were allowed to be in close proximity to each other, without masks. My daughter suggested, “Maybe they live together?”
And I liked to think of them this way, perhaps sleeping upstairs from the gym, so they could slide down a fire pole each morning to record workouts for far-flung viewers.
As the weeks went on, NXPT upgraded their graphics. During the first week, they wrote the workout plan on a whiteboard that was difficult to read. A week later, they’d figured out how to keep the exercises posted on the screen. They added a dynamic intro, with theme music and a montage of trainer action photos. It was clear I wasn’t the only one figuring things out as I went along.
My dad raised me a gym rat. He taught me that maybe all your problems couldn’t be solved at the gym, but your attitude could be improved there. When I called him to see if my mom made it safely to the hospital for her infusion treatments, I told him about NXPT Fit. Since he retired, he’d spent two hours every day at the gym, working out with his martial arts buddies. “It’s no fun to exercise alone,” he said. I pictured him pacing his house, with no one to parry his rubber knife thrusts. Each day I was thankful for my daughter, sweating there beside me as we worked toward a volleyball tryout that might never come.
During the workouts, I struggled too hard with planks and pushups to think about anything else, but when I couldn’t sleep at night, I rode the merry-go-round of worry. Sometimes I worried about my old rec center teachers, deprived of their hourly wage. I worried about whether my mother would contract the virus when she went to the hospital for her regular infusions. And I worried about my new friends, the NXPT trainers. How were they making a living if all of us were watching them for free? What would happen if gyms didn’t open soon? Would people feel safe gathering to sweat and toil together? Did the quarantined Trainer Sam recover? Did Trainer Hannibal’s mom figure out how to use the remote control?
“It’s easy to train when you’re in first,” Trainer Hannibal said one day near the end of a workout. “It’s easy to train when you’re in second. But when your soul is hurting,” he asked, “How many reps will you do then?”
My daughter says she feels stronger, thinks she can do more pushups now. She thinks, if she keeps this up until August, she can be ready for that volleyball tryout. I want to believe she will start high school in the fall, and that school will still include its traditions—sports, plays, and concerts. But at this point, nobody knows. I can’t imagine how a public high school with 2,200 closely-packed students will manage to reopen safely.
Still, it’s so much easier to face each lockdown day when you tell yourself that someday soon this will end, and the pastimes, competitions, and gatherings you once enjoyed will be possible again. Even if it turns out not to be true, and even if the friends you’ve made through YouTube are not real friends, so much of what a trainer, coach, or teacher does is to convince you to believe in the fiction that you, too, can be the very best.
I picture my daughter and me, years from now, traveling to San Diego. We’ll stroll into the NXPT gym and greet the trainers like old friends, misty-eyed. They’ll have no idea who we are, or what they mean to us. We’ll try to explain while we buy t-shirts and take a selfie.
“Can we see the gym?” I’ll ask before we leave. We’ll walk into that chilly room we’ve seen on a tiny screen dozens of times, and I’ll step onto the mat. It will smell of sweat and shoes and lemon cleanser: gym. I’ll perform one squat, to test it out.
“Lower,” Trainer Hannibal will say, “Break that parallel.” He’ll demonstrate, his shorts gliding up as his powerful quadriceps sink. Somewhere, our moms will be safe, and we can hug them and show them how to use the remote control any time we want. My daughter will be part of that volleyball team, aswirl in its friendships and dramas.
This is what I tell myself, to coach us through these upside-down days and toward that unknowable future.
Jenny Shank is a writer who teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University in Denver. She lives in Boulder.