ZACH EVEN-ESH IS INDIGNANT. We're sitting in a sandwich shop a few parking lots down from the Underground Strength Gym, which he owns and operates in Edison, New Jersey. He's telling me a story.
"We had a kid in here who fired me up so much. He was like six and eighteen--six wins, eighteen loses. He signed up for the trial workout online. His mom emailed me. Dad emailed me. The kid emailed me like crazy, like five or six emails. 'We're so serious.' They showed up thirty minutes before the workout. 'We're so committed. We're here early.'"
At the USG, the introductory workout is the only session at which Zach allows parents, and with Mom watching, Zach takes the high school junior through the paces. He's worn out after the warmup. "I go, 'I want to ask you something. You have a seventy-five percent losing record. The wrestling season ended for you six weeks ago. What have you done since the season ended?' He said, 'Nothing, just kind of been being lazy and fat.'" Zach says, "If a kid knows nothing about exercise, and [he's] a wrestler--wrestlers know how to do pushups, pullups and run. I go, 'Did you run? Did you do any pushups? Did you do one pushup?' Nothing. I go, 'All those emails were not true. You lied. You said how motivated you are.'"
Zach recommends the young man come in twice a week and find a wrestling club to attend, but hears a laundry list of excuses from Mom about why the commitment might be tough--his grades need to improve, the family has a vacation upcoming. In the end, Zach tells them the program isn't a good fit.
"If a kid is willing to fight, no matter how weak they are, we can make them strong," he tells me. "We say, 'Dude, you just have to be committed and don't be afraid. It's going to hurt a little bit. Don't be afraid."
To Zach, this particular kid wasn't yet willing to fight.
IT'S A WEDNESDAY EVENING WHEN I'M THERE, clouds threatening rain. Over the phone the night before, Zach makes sure I know where the gym is, telling me to pull into the parking lot with the Apollon Gym sign, since Underground is hidden from the street. "We don't have signs outside," he says. "We know it's not for everybody."
The inside of the gym is painted a bright red and along the edges of the room are dumbbells, power racks, Bulgarian bags, kettlebells, metal plates and plyo boxes. Just inside a rollaway door are five or six giant tires and a handful of sleds and prowlers. None of the gear looks anything less than five years old.
Where the walls meet the ceiling, there's a quote from the Ultimate Warrior: "You must show no mercy...nor have any belief whatsoever in how others judge you...for your greatness will silence them."
As the kids filter in for the four o'clock class, Zach greets each with some variation of a handshake and a little big brotherly ribbing, calling each by the various nicknames they've come to operate under--Running Man, Hitman, Neckman, the Hammer. They move around the room counter-clockwise in a warmup that includes bear crawls, crab walks and kettlebell carries. It's chaos, but with everybody moving in the same direction, people mostly keep from colliding.
While the Underground does have some adult members, the majority of Zach's time in the gym is spent with kids and teenagers, mostly wrestlers. "It's easier to open up to the general public," he says, "because you don't have to work around anybody's schedule. But to me, [this] has the most meaning because I know forever there will be that mental toughness. They'll have it forever. They won't lose it because they'll remember the hell they went through."
ZACH GREW UP HERE IN EDISON, a place ranked by US News and World Report as one of the best places to do so in 2009. At fourteen, he would sometimes cut school to train at Apollon, a big warehouse of a gym with dark windows that look across the parking lot toward the USG and the auto body shop they share a building with. "I would ride my bike to this gym, and then I would go to wrestling club at night. I trained seven days a week, thirty days in a row. I wouldn't take a day off. I cut school ten days exact to make sure I didn't go beyond my alloted sick days."
Zach lived to train and to wrestle, but the dedication and passion never amounted to much success on the mat and the constant disappointment lead to heartache, depression, and years of nagging injuries. "Losing in wrestling is the most emotional thing because you can't lose with your team," he says. "It's just you."
A torn ACL in his mid-twenties was the last straw, and Zach committed himself to learning how to train smart and not just hard. He set up shop in his parents' garage, collected what gear he could afford from area gyms that were closing and the Internet, and went to work training any athlete willing to shell out a couple bucks. They improvised when necessary, sometimes heading into the back yard to clean and press the rocks scattered around the lawn or running the couple miles to a local park for pullups.
Before opening the USG, Zach taught physical education, but was eventually too disillusioned with the administrative red tape and lack of willingness on the part of his fellow teachers and superiors to fight back against the rising tide of diminished expectations. Every attempt to assert himself and his philosophy within the school system was denied. "Everything was some sort of stupid excuse, but what it came down to is they're full of crap. They're talking about how they're so committed to the kids, but that wasn't for the kids. The phys ed in the school sucked. Play volleyball for four weeks. Play basketball for four weeks. They've been doing that since 1950. That's why you have politicians [who] want to cut phys ed, because they remember phys ed! They saw their lazy phys ed teacher who did the same old crap all the time [and who] didn't change lives."
He took a leave of absence in order to create the physical culture he knew these kids were missing, and never looked back.
DYLAN IS DRESSED IN A DARK GREY HOODIE AND BLACK SHORTS. He's in the five o'clock class and during the warmup he shakes my hand and introduces himself. He's the only kid to do so in the couple hours I hover around the edges with my camera.
After a kettlebell press and pullup workout, Zach takes Dylan and a stocky athlete they call Hitman outside for some tire flips. A few minutes in, out of the corner of my eye, I see Dylan hit the ground, his feet having slipped on the pavement. He's back up in a few seconds, but the weight of the tire and the shock from the fall have him fighting back tears. Zach stays close, his gravel voice calm, and focuses on fixing Dylan's technique. With his hood pulled up over his head, Dylan makes small circles and tries to catch his breath while Zach talks and Hitman watches. Zach says, "Man, if this was easy, your whole team would be here doing it."
Later in the sandwich shop, Zach says of it, "It's a time where they learn to face those emotional downs and be able to rebound quickly." He ties it back to wrestling, saying, "In a tournament, if you lose, it could just shut you down and then you're done. But the best kids we have that lose, they will regroup and be ready to go for that next match, and that's huge. That's life, man. That's rebounding from life."
Growing up, that rebounding was always a problem for Zach. He admits to being ill-equipped to handle the emotional swings of the sport he loved so much. "I was never able to let it go," he says of losing, of not meeting his own expectations. "Nobody told me [to]. Nobody knew. It was cut and dry. You either won or you lost."
It's in the fog between effort and outcome that Zach now stakes his claim with kids like Dylan and Hitman and every other athlete accepted into the Underground family. "It's really all the time talking about doing your best and telling them, 'You will lose.' The best guys lose all the time," he says. "You've got to be able to rebound, and you've got to be able to do your best in the moment. We teach them really about opportunity, and that opportunity just comes and goes fast."
In the time Zach and I sit down after class, we talk often of opportunity and of hard work. They are the two pillars Zach has built his own personal and professional success upon, and though he may spend much of his day teaching people to make the body strong, he realizes mental and emotional strength is just as important. "I just feel like people are weak," he tells me. "We're training for life. Were training to be hard, to be tough. We want everybody able to function in discomfort."
That he does this with teenagers like Dylan is perhaps appropriate. "I had a paper route since third grade," he says. "We have kids here that never had a job, yet they have cars. They have all that. That makes it tough to build strong people." He continues, "We have kids that are sixteen years old. I'll say, 'What did you eat for breakfast?' They're like, 'Cereal.' I'm like, 'I want you to make two scrambled eggs.' They tell me they're not allowed to use the stove [or] they don't know how to use it."
"THEY SAY IN LIFE YOU'VE GOT TWO PAINS. You've got the pain of regret and the pain of discipline. The pain of discipline goes away when you achieve success, but pain of regret never goes away. That's probably what I have. I regret my lack of success."
It's somehow poetic, that the regret burning so deeply inside Zach is the same heat that fuels his current success. "I know how painful it is to work hard and not get results," he says. "So my commitment is to ensuring that kids don't experience the pain I went through, the emotional pain."
He does this, of course, not by shielding these boys from the flames of disappointment and failure, but by trying to make them impervious to the heat. He does so by making them see it as opportunity and not endgame, and by providing them with a support system in which they can fail and fall and get back up again.
But he can't save everybody, and he's the first to admit that. "I'm not trying to change the world," he says. "I'm just trying to get the select few kids that want to work hard [the] opportunity to succeed in something they'll never forget.
"All these kids walking through my door, I basically see them as who I used to be and I see what they can become," Zach tells me. "They're an empty water bottle. You've got to fill the water bottle, and they have as much potential as they want. It's their choice."
Patrick Cummings is the Editor-in-chief of Again Faster. Photographs courtesy of the author.