The Story Of Cypher

It’s partly my life story, and the story of my Quarter Life Crisis that sparked a chain of events, that eventually led to me writing this today. Which is perhaps why I feel a little awkward sharing it :). And then at some point it wasn’t just mine anymore, it took on a life of its own and then some. But I am fortunate enough to be here to share my version of it, so I will.

Cypher Health & Fitness was officially born as a registered CrossFit affiliate around this time (November) in 2011. I think I signed the lease for our original space at the Cannery building around that time as well. But I think the reality is that the journey started long before that, so let’s back it up a bit further.

My high school/college girlfriend broke up with me around Spring of 2008. Ahhh you knew it was coming!  Yes, to a degree this story, like many, starts with a relationship. Around that same time I started working in Sacramento for a small-ish wind turbine design company. Also around that same time my doggy Nova (Novi!) had to have her first knee surgery (“it’s genetics” I was told), so I spent the vast majority of my time either tied to a desk combing through obscure computer code, or being a Dog Dad Nurse for Nova. I had friends, but they weren’t in Sac at the time, and in order to have “a life” I would have to leave Nova alone in small, unfurnished, 3rd floor apartment. I would carry her up and down the stairs a few times everyday.

Back it up a step further. Engineering was the smart thing to study in school, right? I think the joke goes: “you can be anything you want to be son: a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Anything.” My parents are great parents. They didn’t put a ton of pressure on me or anything, but it was more or less embedded that Going To College was The Goal. I got a D in high school Calculus (the itis!), but because I had already been accepted to Davis based on my good enough grades prior, I resolved to have a Summer do-over at Merritt College, read the textbook cover to cover, take my time, and finally learn to like Math enough to get an A. That basically set the stage for my relationship with Engineering: it was the “smart” thing to do, and I liked it enough. I was also a sucker for a challenge, and it was certainly that.

When I got to college, I had a college roommate whose sister was a senior at the time. They happened to be asian, so naturally they invited me to the local B-boy practice spot on campus. Just kidding. But she did happen to have this connection, and I quickly discovered and fell in love with dance. I must’ve been 19 at the time, a former football guy who lifted weights badly, I was super tight and awkward. But I was fairly disciplined thanks to Coach Beam, and just enjoyed learning something really different and wild honestly. So I moonlighted as a wannabe dancer, and put on my football hip pads so that I could throw myself on the floor with minimal bruising.

B-boying ruined engineering for me. I spent my daytime in the stuffiest lectures with my fellow nerds, and at night I would go to dance practice in the lobbies of various buildings. We would eventually get kicked out and find our way to the actual gym across campus. It was raw, it was fun, it was rebellious in a way. No one’s mom told them to go be a dancer to make a living, the people doing it all fell into it one way or another, and the good ones had a ton of passion for a lost art. Like, they would fight you forreal if you copied their moves. I didn’t appreciate it fully at the time, but this spirit was so antithetical to the norms of careerism, that it set the foundation for my eventual break up from the sciences as my career path. How could I settle for stability when I had witnessed and experienced such raw vulnerability?

I quit my engineering job about 10 months in. It felt great. I had no plan other than to move back in with my parents and use my remaining savings to do Something Big. In my own wilderness, I found and read Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. I decided to get my NASM cert, which involved reading a book and taking an online test. I actually tried to get a Personal Trainer job at 24 Hour Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and Club One, but the financial crisis had just hit and they went into turtle mode for hiring. It was definitely too late to go back at this point.

So I decided to start my own Personal Training business. That’s right, I asked a few of my friends if I could train them for free, and printed out some flyers so I could table at the Montclair Farmer’s Market. It was named Absurd Recreation, which is an amalgamation of Camus’ Absurdism philosophy, a particular chapter in the book called Ephemeral Creation, and of course Recreation in general. it is the overarching business to this day, and you can find our page for it on facebook. I still think it’s a good idea, partly because it’s a little weird like me.

A few people saw my sign, took my flyer, and called me back! I went to their houses to Personally Train them. There was a wonderful couple up in the hills who really helped me get started. I showed them everything I knew about squats and how to make Home Depot squat stands for their living room (which I did for them), and run up and down flights of stairs for metcon.

I soon realized that spending every Sunday standing in the town square was not paying off beyond a basic level. I needed a bigger following, and the group fitness approach seemed to have the best per hour ROI potential. I researched some bootcamp options, and I found out that the City of Oakland would promote your bootcamp for you if you just give them like all the money from it. So I did that, and I walked the surrounding neighborhood and put hundreds of flyers in mailboxes.

10-12 people signed up. It was going to happen. It was terrifying. I drove to the park at 5AM with Nas blaring, singing along so I could get some momentum for my speaking voice, which at the time was at the Engineering level. It was still dark, I greeted everyone in the least awkward way I knew how. I wore khaki cargo pants for some reason, because I thought that my anti-fashion sense was cool. I demoed my first squat and tore them audibly. Everyone laughed in the dark. In retrospect it was a great ice breaker, and really did help me find my flow.

I saw another guy doing a bootcamp at the other park nearby. Let’s call him Dan. I introduced myself to Dan one morning after class was over (he had two classes back to back). He was friendly, and said he did a pseudo-CrossFit approach, and that I should check it out. Cross-what? I felt like I needed to catch up.

I did some research, and signed up for my Level 1 a month or so out. I was very skeptical of this CrossFit business. I made up some workouts using their approach, but wasn’t convinced. I went to my L1 cert at TJ’s Gym in San Rafael. It was cool just being in a group of trainers for once. I got smoked by Tabata Air Squats. Like, I couldn’t walk properly the whole rest of the day. We did Fran the next day, Jason Khalipa was my judge, and I died as expected. I was in love.

I went back to bootcamp refreshed. I built it up to like 20 something people, and found myself spending more time after class with Dan just shooting the shit about training and people. We eventually decided to merge our bootcamps together, and the synergy worked great for a while. We were able to split up the class schedule so we weren’t burned out, and I got to put a lot of my Home Depot DIY work to use. I built a set of 5# pipe barbells and people really enjoyed doing 25# Thrusters.

We eventually connected with Dan’s friend who subleased a parking lot space for his outdoor batting cage business, and he gave us a sweet deal to sublet a side of the parking lot to build our very own outdoor gym, following in the footsteps of San Francisco CrossFit at the time. This was a legit upgrade (even though the whole lot was sloped), our clients were happy, and they grew up to the ~40-50 mark. It was frozen in the morning up there, frozen and dark at night, but we put up Xmas lights and wore gloves.

I spent a lot of time at Dan’s house. He was so generous and welcoming. But at some point, we started trying to get legit organized as a business, and it became clear just how not together we were, and that Dan had no interest in leveling up like I did. Eventually an angry client catalyzed a disagreement between us, and we had to part ways.

I was back to square one because it was Dan’s friend that subleased the outdoor gym space to us, so I took a deep breath, and after evaluating the commercial real estate landscape… jumped.

This takes us to late 2011/early 2012, which is where the story of Cypher Health & Fitness in Richmond “officially” began. A cypher is a dance circle in B-boying/B-girling (or Breaking more generally and non-gendered). It is where we come to life, share our story, and express our passion. I hope you have enjoyed reading part of my and our story!

Mauricio Leal

Cypher Health & Fitness Owner


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