Lawrence fitness businesses hoping for membership boost now that pandemic is subsiding

photo by: Mike Yoder

Evolution Athletics strength coaches Steve Cowser, at center top, and Elijah Jacobs, second from right, lead young athletes in some exercises Thursday, June 10, 2021, at Evolution Athletics, 1811 W. 31st St.

The belt-test photos on the west wall of Lawrence Tae Kwon Do tell a story — one that’s still forming.

Belt tests are how martial arts students acquire the colored belts indicating their skill level — generally from white (beginner) to black (expert).

The very first photos are from 2014. Student numbers were down at the dojo, 1846 Vermont St. The photos feature a group of people — fewer than 10 — shoulder to shoulder, with big smiles. Fast-forward to November 2019 and the number of people in the photos has more than doubled. But for the 2020-21 belt-test photos, the narrative changes: a much smaller group, all standing 6 feet apart, faces hidden by masks.

Tae Kwon Do instructor Robert O’Konski says it’s been tough to see the diminished numbers after the steady climb in membership, but this COVID story is still in its second act.

“It’s sad, but also encouraging to see back when it was smaller, seeing how the numbers grew,” O’Konski says. “We have gotten new students since the pandemic started, but many former students dropped out and haven’t come back yet.”

Many local fitness businesses offering close-contact services have suffered drops in membership, but now that vaccines are widely accessible, they’re anticipating renewed growth.

Linda Aldridge still remembers the night in March 2020 when she decided to stop attending Krav Maga classes at Premier Martial Arts, 3201 Clinton Parkway. Krav Maga is a self-defense and fighting system derived from various combat sports. Having been a devoted Krav student who attended weekly classes for five years, Aldridge was listening to a story on NPR about the Wuhan lockdown as she pulled into the Premier Martial Arts parking lot. As people in class talked about the virus, a growing sense of anxiety took hold in her. That night, the NCAA made the decision to shut down its basketball tournament.

“The world had been turned upside down — when major sporting events are canceled, that’s big money,” Aldridge says. “Age was not on my side, and my husband had three underlying health conditions.”

Aldridge assembled a personalized dojo in her basement, and attended weekly Krav Maga classes virtually for a year.

“I’m grateful they had them. (The virtual classes) kept my head in the game. But they were very strange,” Aldridge says. “There’s some stuff — how do you do self-defense virtually? How do I practice a triangle choke: I tried it on my dog. It didn’t work.”

Aldridge was one of many martial arts students who took a partial or complete hiatus during the pandemic. Premier Martial Arts owner Mark Taylor says his membership dropped by nearly 50%. And now that interest is increasing again, Taylor and other fitness-business owners are struggling over what to do about masks and vaccines.

“I would like everyone to wear masks, but with certain clientele, if we demand it one way or another, you kind of upset people,” Taylor says. “We are trying to let people make their own smart decisions. Krav Maga is about being safe. Wearing a mask is only going to keep others safe.”

Taylor has considered creating a close-contact class for students who can prove they’ve been vaccinated. But he’s conflicted because such a class might prohibit certain students — say, students who have experienced domestic violence or sex trafficking — from learning the self-defense skills they need.

“We have a lot of people here for self-defense reasons; they need this, for the empowerment and for the self-defense aspect, and if you limit the days they can and can’t come, it gets more challenging for them,” Taylor says. “That is the big challenge with a physical self-defense school: to be able to mitigate (COVID risks) and still give people that empowerment and self-defense they need.”

photo by: Mike Yoder

Evolution Athletics strength coach Steve Cowser, right, observes young athletes during some warmup exercises Thursday, June 10, 2021. at Evolution Athletics, 1811 W. 31st St.

Tyler Naylor, owner of Evolution Athletics, has decided that masks will be recommended but not mandatory, adding that it’s been nice to see his customers’ faces again.

“Last week a kid who’d been coming for six to eight months walked in without a mask, and it was the first time I’d seen his face,” Naylor says. “You can almost sense an increase in energy. Before we were judging people by their eyes, and now we can see smiles. We’re getting back to a sense of normalcy.”

Evolution Athletics, 1811 W. 31st St., has a sizable space, allowing ample room for distancing. It services athletes who train seriously, and because of its loyal clientele, the business has been able to maintain almost all of its customers. During the height of the pandemic, many members paid dues even when they couldn’t come to training sessions. Evolution also rented out fitness equipment for a short period, just to keep some money coming in last year.

Naylor hopes that people who took a break during COVID will begin to reintroduce fitness classes and physical training back into their routine this summer.

“I want to encourage people to still stay active,” Naylor says. “(Exercise) helps you not only mentally and physically, but it strengthens your immune system.”

O’Konski at Lawrence Tae Kwon Do says his numbers have not recovered to prepandemic levels, but at least navigating the COVID risks has become easier. He doesn’t mandate masks because members are using them without being ordered to.

“Wearing masks has always been about protecting others, and we have a set of principles we recite at the end of class. The very first one is courtesy. That’s what masking is all about — about being courteous and being considerate of other people,” O’Konski says.

Still, like other fitness business owners, O’Konski is hopeful that life will truly get back to “normal.”

“Before COVID we had regular group social activities in between our testings: an annual summer picnic, an annual paintball event, an annual holiday party, and occasional bowling, roller skating and minigolf outings,” O’Konski says. “Since COVID, we have had to modify or abstain from these events for safety and financial reasons. We are very much looking forward to having a celebratory herd immunity picnic — hopefully someday soon.”

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