Don’t tell me how rocky the water is, just bring the boat in.

At 3:55am the streets of Venice are dark and quiet, a stark contrast to the tunnel of traffic and symphony of sirens that exists hours later. However, despite the stillness, there is a stirring near the corner of Lincoln and Rose, and if you listen for a little, the sound of barbells and hip hop signal the start of a strength training session.

As each member of the small group enters through the gate and in the door, not a minute past 4am, there is no participation prize for the early morning wake-up or congratulatory high-fives. The coach nods good morning, and each person knows the meaning: “Glad you made it; let’s fucking go.”

The coach named Juan is no stranger to the early mornings or doing what it takes to train. As a former soccer player who dreamt of being a professional athlete, the sound of the alarm clock and feeling of stiff muscles are simply small obstacles to overcome.

Besides, the reason he has to train at 4am is the same reason he wants to train then, and his name is Lucas.

5th Grade Basketball

I didn’t like the slight smell of sweat, rubber and cafeteria food. I didn’t like the small veins that showed on my coach’s temples as he yelled across the court. I didn’t like drills that seemed to have nothing to do with the NBA games I watched with my mom on TV. And I didn’t like the old running shoes that led me across the court. Perhaps they were the reason why I struggled to dribble. Or shoot. Or pass the ball.

The new quilted Nike Lisa Leslie high-tops with the silver swoosh were the only shoes that would do.

“If you go out for basketball and show me you can not run like a girl,” my dad said, “then I’ll buy you the shoes.”

For three practices I fumbled around the court, saying silent prayers that the ball wouldn’t come my way. Dozens of excuses distracted me from the game. Maybe if my dad was the coach, it would be easier for me like Sam. Maybe if I had longer arms, I could pass like Ashley. And, maybe, if I had shoes like Lisa Leslie, I could at least look the part.

Finally, my dad was able to attend the fourth practice. It was time. “3, 2, 1, go!” the coach called across the court, signaling the start of suicide sprints. I ran. Not to improve my game. Not to beat Sam. And not to keep up with Ashley.

I loved the look on my dad’s face as I finished, and I loved the ride to the mall shoe store as my prize. I loved how the shoes fit my feet. And I loved how they at least they made me look like an athlete.

The next day I wore them to school. And called my coach to quit the basketball team.

Show Me Coach

“I try to change their mindset about training and try to make them understand, ‘Hey, the only limitation is going to be you,’” Juan said of his experience coaching youth athletes.

We were seated outside Deuce Gym at 7am. Lincoln Boulevard was now alive with onlooking drivers who could cause collisions by peering over at the small outdoor space where fit athletes perform strong feats. Coaches like Juan demonstrate the movements and live by the motto, “Show me coach.” They walk their talk, from nutrition to strength to discipline. And, for Juan, it extends outside the gym.

At age 23, Juan was newly graduated, living with his girlfriend and working his first job out of college as a personal trainer. After feeling unwell for a few days, Juan drove his girlfriend to the doctor’s and later returned to find out the news: she was pregnant.

“It’s not something you expect,” Juan said. “But, at the same time very exciting.”

In that moment, Juan could have looked at the limitations that he was up against: little job experience, student debt and huge responsibility. Instead, Juan married his girlfriend and determined how he would support his new family.

“So, as I was working as a personal trainer, I decided to immerse myself in an accelerated EMT course, which is the first step to being a firefighter.” Juan worked early mornings, attended an EMT course from 8am – 2pm, and returned to the gym to work again. However, after experiencing life as an EMT on an ambulance, he realized it wasn’t the right fit for him.

“I was very frustrated seeing people in the situations that they were in,” Juan said. “And my constant thought was, ‘Can I help people before they get here?’”

The Guiding Values

“You know how when you’re growing up, there are values posted everywhere in the classroom, like character or trust or loyalty?” Juan said. “But you just take them for granted.”

I knew exactly the ones he meant. They were stuck to the walls of my elementary school, just yards away from the school gym that I dreaded.

“It’s not until you’re older that you realize what they really mean and start thinking about what type of character you have,” he continued.

Juan’s day is spent coaching everyone from 13 year olds to 81 year olds, from beginners to pro athletes. He aims to prevent injuries and health conditions by building strength and a healthy lifestyle. And, while each client presents their own challenges, the guiding values for each are the same.

  • Hard work: “In coaching, I kind of care but don’t really care about your feelings. If we’re coming to train, we need to train.”
  • Mindset: “Are you able to adapt and be open to things? Are you able to evolve and analyze and look at yourself?”
  • Discipline: “You have to keep doing stuff even if you suck at it, keep putting the effort forth to try to become better.”

Stepping out of Deuce Gym after a coaching session with Juan, back into the chaos of Venice and life, his goal is that you are better prepared for what comes your way. On your own.

“I can’t lift the weights for you, your sports coach can’t play the sports for you. Your parents can’t go to school for you. Yeah, we all hate school. We all have coworkers we don’t like. But that’s life,” Juan says. “It’s up to you to look at yourself and determine, ‘Hey, what can I control to make it a positive situation for me?”

Bringing the Boat In

I didn’t like how heavy the wall balls began to feel last night. I didn’t like the higher target that girls needed to hit. And I didn’t like the tightness and discomfort in my calves as I headed out for each run. I blamed the difficulty on my running shoes, and as I slowed for someone else to pass me, I told myself I just had too much caffeine, not enough sleep and that my body didn’t know how to do anything else but drink wine at 5pm on a Sunday.

But then I thought about stepping into Deuce Gym at 3:58am the Friday before. I thought about the tiredness we all shared. I thought about the pair of Lisa Leslie’s that didn’t make me anymore of an athlete. And I thought about the quote I wrote down in my iPhone the first day that I met Juan: “Don’t tell me how rocky the water is, just bring the boat in.” Maybe the 5th grader in me just needed some tough love.

“Tough love is setting up high expectations, but nurturing the steps to get there,” Juan said. I heard it as he yelled “Let’s go, Annie!” as I squatted sets of 175lb at 4:35am. I saw it in the way that he explained the reason behind small changes to my deadlift form before the sun came up. And I noticed it in the way the other athletes didn’t utter an excuse even an hour later.

I also witnessed Juan bringing the boat in – and not just by achieving his dream of being an athlete through coaching.

It was 1:55pm, 5 minutes before preschool let out. As the school door crept open, Lucas sat on a bench with his backpack and peered out. He expected his dad to be first in line, and as he saw Juan standing at the entrance, his face lit up.

“I don’t think at a young age you appreciate what parenthood means, but now that I’ve been a couple years in, I can say, ‘this is so fascinating,’” Juan said. “It’s almost coaching yourself all over. The challenges of your career and husband and father can be fucking hard, but it makes a lot of things easier because you have a direct path. And you have a purpose, a very big purpose.

For more Juan: @jlguadarrama
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