By Nina Aghadjanian
After a year that forced countless gyms to shutter and many fitness industry workers to change careers, Pasadena’s Ultimate Fitness Breakthrough (UFB), a no-frills, boot camp-style gym owned by Michael Ainis, is still standing.
Ainis, commonly known as “Coach Mike,” has been running UFB since the gym’s founder — his sister Victoria, who battled mental health issues — tragically took her own life in 2015.
Little could he have predicted that this family tragedy, along with his experience as a former trainer for the obstacle-course event Spartan Race, would prepare him for another obstacle: surviving COVID-19.
Today, Ainis said he is $100,000 in debt. Despite having received a small financial loan through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), UFB’s line of credit is maxed out and income is down 35% compared to pre-pandemic levels.
“I’m a firm believer that you have to have faith,” Ainis said, “because when it’s hard and when you can’t see the light, you need to keep going. You can’t just wait on the lights to go.”
At the pandemic’s outbreak, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health ordered nonessential businesses — like gyms — to close. Thinking the shutdown would only last a couple of weeks, Ainis helped members maintain their fitness goals in the meantime by emailing detailed exercises to follow at home.
“It hurt me so bad to hear that gyms were considered a nonessential business. They are essential. I kept thinking, ‘I can help people save their lives and overcome mental fatigue by just giving them a workout that challenges them and shows them that they can get through hard moments,’” he said.
As COVID-19 transmission accelerated, the plight of fitness workers became evident. Coach Mike watched as most members froze or canceled memberships and as many local gyms essentially threw in the towel. He was quickly confronted with the possibility of not only losing his livelihood, but also his sister’s legacy. He responded as any Spartan would and adapted.
He increased one-on-one sessions; added 5-, 12-, and 20-class packages to accommodate shifting lifestyles; hosted bi-weekly Facebook Live classes; and rented out the gym’s equipment to members for as long they wanted.
“[Coach Mike] fought tooth and nail to hang in there when a lot of gyms closed. I think what attracts everybody [to him] is he has a very inspiring personality and he pushes you to be your best, which is why I find myself rooting for him,” said Lindsay Amstutz, a member of two years and chief media officer at OneTeam Partners.
Coach Mike’s early attempts at retaining memberships proved mostly unsuccessful. Debt continued to swell despite his landlady offering a 25% reduction in rent. At one point, his savings dipped to just $300.
Overwhelmed by the anxiety of making it out alive, he channeled years of hardship and his can-do attitude to “keep chugging.” To earn some extra cash, despite having minimal painting experience, he repainted the building’s 20-foot-tall exterior side wall.
“Mike has sustained the business through sheer tenacity. Until he’s ready to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ no outside force will make him give up. When he decides he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. And [Victoria] was the same way,” said Dawn Denison, a stay-at-home mom who’s been working out at UFB since the beginning.
UFB’s core members are the main reason why, against all odds, the gym survived the pandemic. Some kept their accounts active despite not attending classes, while others offered to pay their annual membership fee in full, knowing they’d stick with UFB, pandemic or not. Without them, Ainis said, “we wouldn’t be here.”
When many L.A. County businesses were allowed to partially reopen in June, UFB pivoted yet again, this time offering weekly outdoor sessions in the parking lot and Saturday classes at the Rose Bowl. Around the same time, it was invited to join a pilot program with the Mindbody app, a business management software platform for gyms, spas and salons. The move enabled Ainis to livestream classes that members could tune in to from home. When L.A. shut down a second time in July, UFB was ready.
An unassuming building on South Fair Oaks Avenue, UFB was founded in 2011 by Ainis’ younger sister, Victoria. A globetrotting fitness model, athlete and dancer, Victoria started the gym with the goal of helping people feel confident and live life to the fullest. It was she who inspired Coach Mike to leave his job in insurance and pursue a career in fitness – his true passion.
Initially, Mike would fill in for Victoria when she was traveling. After she passed, he took the reins in her honor. To this day, she served as UFB’s inspiration and is missed dearly by longtime members. She was a bright light and inspiration to those who knew her and took her classes, but behind closed doors she was battling mental health issues, something Mike has also struggled with since he was young. Denison describes her as “a little drill sergeant” that was “intense but loving at the same time.”
“If nothing else, I wish I had given her one last big hug, because we used to say ‘love you’ all the time and all sorts of stuff like that. But I wish I had done that just one last time,” Denison said.
It might not be Equinox, but UFB’s passionate trainers, tight-knit community and results-driven approach more than make up for its lack of steam rooms and eucalyptus-scented towels. On the Mindbody app, the portal through which members reserve workouts, the gym has earned a five-star rating backed by rave reviews — 572 to be exact. And Yelp reviewers give it a full five stars.
For Denison, being a UFB member for the past nine years has meant access to a “small, almost familial” environment and routines that keep her on her toes. She says during both Victoria’s and Mike’s time, no two days ever felt the same because the siblings taught classes full of complex movements. An added bonus is the accountability she gets from UFB, noting that her fellow gym mates text each other to help them stay on track if someone skips a class.
With COVID-19 case rates declining and the number of vaccinated Angelenos rising, L.A. County has eased restrictions and joined the orange tier of the state’s monitoring system, a move that increased gyms’ capacity from 10% to 25% in early April.
As a result, UFB reopened on St. Patrick’s Day and Ainis says new member sign-ups are trickling in weekly. Enhancing the gym’s digital presence through online classes has opened a new door, one that he hopes will lead UFB to a second location in the coming years.
“COVID slightly knocked me down, but I’m thankful because it made me smarter, it made me stronger,” he said. “All the things that I’ve done — painting the wall, getting through 2020, getting through depression, keeping the business going, dealing with the struggles of losing my sister and my dad — have shown me that when that moment comes, there is no fear. I will face the challenge and I will rise to the moment.”
Commemorating Victoria’s life through UFB is just the beginning. He’s now channeling his strength into training for a 100-mile, 24-hour marathon around Angel Stadium of Anaheim to raise awareness for suicide prevention. His dream is to create a website through which supporters can sign up to run alongside him and donate to a local mental health organization. Whether he does it solo or with others, he has committed himself to running the distance on the eve of Victoria’s birthday, Sept. 10 — which is also World Suicide Prevention Day.
“The 100 miles isn’t about my pain and, at this point, it’s even bigger than my sister’s suicide,” he said. “I want every lap, every mile, to be dedicated to someone else’s story. I want to show others that they are not alone. We are here for them and we will get through this together.”