Copyright 2014 Charleston Newspapers
Charleston Daily Mail (West Virginia)
From the mountains of southern Australia to the mountains of southern West Virginia, Neil Gardner hopes to leverage a prolific 30-year amateur and professional bodybuilding career to help those looking for a unique gym experience.
Gardner, a 50-year-old Australian native, recently opened Neil Gardner's Aussie Xtreme Gym, located at 2101 Greenbrier St. just outside of Charleston.
"I run a gym in Australia and had been competing regularly internationally," Gardner said, "and I wanted to set up a base for myself to compete throughout the U.S. and more internationally, and also a base for other Aussies to have a place to train and have a place to go to that they could then feed off of and go to other U.S. contests."
The 7,000-square-foot gym features various weight and cardio machines. Behind it, a multipurpose room hosts group exercises like Crossfit and Zumba and indoor tire-flipping training.
From families to elite athletes, Gardner said all are welcome to join his unique community.
"Rather than have a gym where you can come in and work out and do a bit of cardio, we wanted a community," Gardner said. "We wanted to have people who were in here who enjoy lifting weights for whatever reason."
Gardner is well known in the international bodybuilding community.
He has competed in 11 International Federation of Bodybuilding world championships and boasts six Australian national championships.
His Australian gym is Neil Gardner's Winning Physique Gym, which he opened in Victoria, a suburb of Melbourne, six years ago. A family business, he operates it with the help of his wife, Kate, a former bodybuilder herself, and his father.
When he decided he wanted to open a gym in the United States, Gardner took many things into consideration, including West Virginia's economy and relative low density of gyms.
"West Virginia was initially on the map because it has the second-highest obesity level in the U.S., and natural energies are very good here, and they're cheap here because of the power plants and everything else here," Gardner said. "Economy-wise it's very strong. It was one of the few self-sufficient states in the country."
In January 2013, Gardner started looking for a business partner to act as a local manager in Charleston. He found Kim Lovejoy, a stay-at-home mom from Nitro with past managerial experience, through contacts he had from competing in U.S. bodybuilding competitions.
Lovejoy had no interest in bodybuilding before meeting Gardner, but she gained an appreciation for it after learning more about the sport.
"I found it really gross until I got to watch him do the full process," Lovejoy said. "The amount of self-control, the discipline, the lifestyle, the commitment made me appreciate it. I've gone to gyms, I've done the workout thing, I've done the gym setting, but nothing like this."
Gardner and Lovejoy used the 16-hour time difference between Charleston and Melbourne to their advantage. Gardner could do work planning the Charleston business from Australia during the day there, while Lovejoy could continue the work during the day here.
This allowed for planning and work to take place nearly around the clock, with daily Skype meetings at odd times of the night.
"With a little over 12,000-mile difference between us, that was the only way this was going to happen because he worked on it and I worked on it, then we met on Skype when our times matched up," Lovejoy said.
Gardner traveled to Charleston for the first time in March 2013 and met Lovejoy. In July, Gardner returned, and the two signed the lease on the Greenbrier Street building.
During Gardner's third trip in November, the finishing touches were put into place and Neil Gardner's Aussie Xtreme opened its doors.
Gardner is now on his fourth - and longest - stay in the United States so he can train for the invitation-only Arnold Strongman Classic in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 28 and March 1.
Gardner had retired from bodybuilding in 2010, but opening a gym in the United States motivated him to get back into shape.
"I got fat and lazy and sick and tired of it," Gardner said. "But then when we chose to do this.
"I can't just walk up and be out of shape and terrible," he said. "I've got to show people you can get back in shape, so part of my transformation and getting ready for the Arnold Classic was a way of telling people, 'This is what you can achieve,' and bringing that to this gym."
Working out at his gym in Charleston, he'll be able to get his body into peak shape. He is also helping other area bodybuilders train for competitions.
"We're supporting a few local power lifters in the Strongman and bodybuilders who are interested in competing," Gardner said. "With my knowledge and my experience I've earned over the years, I can help them out as well."
A small business owner in two countries, Gardner has dealt with unique challenges and situations since setting up shop in the United States. For instance, he said the taxation system in the United States and Australia are much different.
"Our building laws are much, much stricter than they are over here, and employment and things like that are much, much easier over here," Gardner said. "There's a lot of hoops and things to go through to employ someone in Australia, and there's a lot of taxation involved in running a small business. Running a small business in Australia is very, very hard. Running a small business over here is much, much easier."
The 16-hour time difference between Charleston and Melbourne that had once helped Gardner and Lovejoy plan the Charleston business around the clock now works against him.
By day, he attends to his Charleston business in person; by night, his attention goes to his business in Melbourne. When things go wrong, he said the international calling bills can stack up.
Sometimes, he gets only four hours of sleep, which he admitted isn't great for bodybuilding.
"When I first get here in the morning, from 6 a.m. here, I'll spend doing my business in Australia because it's just getting to the end of the day there," Gardner said. "And then as it gets to the end of the day here, it's morning over there, so then they're starting up.
"So my mornings and evenings here are basically running my business in Australia, and vice-versa; when I'm in Australia, it's the same thing," he said. "During the day, you're in the business that you're in, in the mornings and evenings, you're trying to run the business over there."
The unique situation has also formed a unique international relationship between Gardner's family and Lovejoy's. He said he and Lovejoy's daughters have become friends and Skype each other regularly. Their spouses have also become friends.
"They Skype, they FaceTime, we send Christmas presents and birthday cards, they send birthday cards," Lovejoy said. "We are more of a combined family, I feel like, more than just business partners or friends."
The international flavor can also be expected at the gym, which Gardner described as a local gym with old-fashioned service. He said it doesn't have all the bells and whistles that some gyms do, but instead focuses on raw training and lifting.
"We don't have any flashy machines or anything like that," Gardner said. "We've got good old-fashioned weights and knowledge and know-how and smiling faces, and everyone says, 'G'day.'"
Gardner hopes to expand his business and open more gyms in the area in the future.