News & Politics

"I’m Turning My Body Over to You"

Writer Cathy Alter had three months to transform her body before a high-school reunion. Were the trainers at an elite gym up to it? Was she?

All photographs by Matthew Worden.

This article appeared in the July 2010 issue of Washingtonian.  

My first workout with Aaron Sterling was more of an audition. Before he’d take me on as a client, he said, we had to talk. With his feathered sandy-brown hair and polo shirt, Sterling, 37, looked like a Beach Boys flashback, only more ripped.

“What do you want to get out of this?” he asked. I’d shown up wearing a tank top and cargo shorts from Talbots.

“I was thinking something along the lines of this,” I said, pulling out a photo of Olympic swimmer Dara Torres reclining poolside in a bikini. I figured that would impress him.

He barely glanced at it. “I would rather see a body in motion,” he said. Moving correctly, I was about to learn, is a big part of Sterling’s philosophy at his gym in DC’s Adams Morgan. I followed him over to something that resembled a small blue hill rising from the floor. It was to be my nemesis: the Bosu ball—more precisely a balance trainer, which looks like a ball sliced in half.

“Get up and stand on one leg,” he said.

The ball was filled with gel, making it impossible to steady myself on its flat side.

“It’s shaking,” I said. “That’s what it does,” he said, then began counting back from 30.

I searched for something to grab onto. “I’m going to fall,” I cried.

At 44 years old, I didn’t have one good leg to stand on. According to Sterling, I was imbalanced. And he was right—in more ways than one.

After years of accumulated stress and disappointment—a string of breakups, losses of family and friends, years of sitting at a desk with deadlines looming—I had tensed my body into unfamiliar shapes. My back hurt, and some mornings I had to prop myself on my elbows just to brush my teeth.

I wasn’t overweight, but I felt old and tired and lazy. And whether it was a result of middle age, a sedentary writer’s life, or a history of choosing to be a spectator rather than a player, I wasn’t motivated to do anything about it.

Until the day I opened an e-mail and found an invitation to my 25th high-school reunion, three months away. Was this enough time, I wondered, to turn a soft and dimpled body into something worthy of a class superlative?

As the girl once voted most likely to wear Laura Ashley, I wanted to flex my muscles in something more along the lines of Roberto Cavalli. My goal: By the time I rejoined my old classmates, I would have banished my underarm jiggle, raised my butt a few inches, and carved my abs into something worthy of seeing the light of day.

>> Next: Alter turns her body over to Sterling's staff

There was also the issue of my husband. Ten years younger with not an ounce of fat, Karl had a post-work ritual that involved coming home and stripping down to his underwear. He was constantly encouraging me to do the same—and seemed baffled by my reluctance.

I was determined, and I had three months. But my priorities were clearly not Aaron Sterling’s priorities. He just wanted to put my shoulders back where they belonged—the tight tush and washboard abs would follow.

“I’m prepared to turn my body over to you,” I said.

And with that I found myself signed up for a three-times-a week regimen with Sterling. (He and his staff waived their $95-per-session fee for this article.) The gym, in a custard-colored rowhouse on 18th Street, Northwest, is spread over three floors. I would be working with a rotating cast of eight trainers. (For the typical client, it’s two regular trainers.) Each, said Sterling, had his own area of expertise.

The members of Sterling’s staff may have different approaches to training, but at first glance they looked the same: hot young guys in tight T-shirts.

My first session was with Evandro Almeida, a doe-eyed South American I soon dubbed the Brazilian Killer. Soft-spoken with a broad chest and tiny waist, he counted off my endless fire-hydrant moves (something I hadn’t done since listening to Jane Fonda’s workout album in college) in an accent so hypnotic that after a while I stopped caring if my thighs felt engulfed in flames.

The theory at Sterling seems to be more is more. If my lower half was doing something, such as lunging or squatting, my upper half was also engaged in something, such as holding a 20-pound plate like a steering wheel and twisting it from side to side. This equivalent of simultaneously patting my head and rubbing my stomach provided the perfect display of my lack of coordination.

One hour felt like two. I was sweating in places that normally didn’t perspire—like my bellybutton. I had a searing pain in my left eye and wondered if that was what a heart attack felt like. But then I caught a glimpse of the motto on my soaked T-shirt: save the drama for your mama.

“What’s next?” I asked as the Brazilian Killer took me to the leg-press machine.

Over the next several weeks, I met the men responsible for my new body. And I learned each one’s specialty. There was Brendan Herbert—or Sweet B, as I called him. With his squared shoulders and perfect posture, B’s specialty was body alignment and balance, and it was he who taught me how to do a decent cobra pose and eventually got me up on the Bosu ball without wobbling.

Then there was Paul Medina, who earned the name Baseball Paul after he told me he used to train collegiate baseball players. He had biceps the size of Florida grapefruits.

“What are you known for at Sterling?” I asked.

“For going after people and riding them hard,” he said, smiling.

After an hour of planks and pushups, giving him a piggyback ride to Ohio would have been preferable. Baseball Paul actually made me do chin-ups, and when my arms went limp he hugged my legs and lifted me up and down.

I never knew which trainer I’d have, and no workout was ever the same. I liked being surprised, and my body seemed to respond to the varying routines. By the end of my third week, I wasn’t seeing any rippling muscles, but one evening I came home to my apartment to find two young women struggling up the stairs with a queen-size mattress.

“Let me help you,” I said. I carried the mattress up two flights all by myself.

“I am She-Ra!” I later told my husband. I traded in my Talbots cargo shorts for a pair of Lululemon’s $98 Groove Pants, whose high price correlated with how high they lifted my butt.

At week four, Sterling handed me a yellow Post-it onto which he’d written the name and number of Bill Short and the word “Rolfing.”

“You said you’d do anything I told you to do,” he said.

A client who overheard our exchange caught me on the way out the door. “Two things you need to know about Rolfing,” she said. “You do it in your bra and underwear, and at some point Bill will reach between your legs and pull on your coccyx.”

>> Next: Alter goes Rolfing 

“What are you noticing?” asked Bill Short from his vantage point across his Asian-themed Dupont studio.

“I’m noticing I’m in my underwear,” I said. I was posed against the wall as though I were in a police lineup.

Short, who has the athletic dancer’s build of Gene Kelly, laughed.

“Well, I’m noticing your left foot turns in,” he said. “And your shoulders hunch forward, creating a tightness in your chest.”

I was reshaping my body in Aaron Sterling’s gym, but Short, who is one of just two certified advanced Rolfers in DC, would be the man responsible for reorganizing it. After ten sessions, my body would be restacked in vertical alignment and I would have improved posture.

I hadn’t done any research on Rolfing, but my general impression was that all this restacking would involve some form of torture, an inkling bolstered by my father’s comment when I told him about my upcoming session. “It’s one step below waterboarding,” he said.

Supine on the exam table, I prepared for the worst. After showing me a diagram of a rabbit skeleton and explaining how our connective tissue is the pulley system that keeps our infrastructure rigged and balanced, Short dug his knuckles into my ribs and began grinding them around in slow motion.

“I’m going to adjust your floating rib,” he said. “Feel free to make whatever noises you need.”

I would be lying if I said it felt good. But it didn’t actually feel bad. When Short pressed his thumbs into my shins to help realign my inward-turning feet, the sensation was similar to being massaged by an electrical wire. When he used the heel of his hands in my lower abdomen, it felt like he was giving me an Indian burn from the inside. Which sounds painful. Amazingly, it wasn’t.

He yanked on my coccyx, or tailbone—to reset my sacral fluid, he said—as his grand finale. It felt as if he released years of tension from my lower back.

I paraded around the room so Short could see his handiwork. My feet now met the ground more squarely, and my shoulders sat straight.

“I figured I’d be crying by now,” I told him, reaching for my pants.

“You may feel more emotional later on,” he said, misunderstanding what I meant. Apparently Rolfing sometimes unblocks emotional pain as well.

Instead, I just felt sleepy and, after a nap, very hungry. When I phoned Short to tell him I’d eaten an entire pizza, he laughed and said, “That happens, too.”

>> Next: Alter meets her biggest challenge— the German Hulk Paul Delzer

The author says of Paul Delzer (pictured): “Built like a gymnast, he didn’t walk so much as spring. He had a tattoo across his Achilles tendon, so I knew pain was not an issue for him.”

After spending the better part of an afternoon in my underwear in front of a relative stranger, I thought I was prepared for anything. But then I met Paul Delzer.

Delzer had returned from six months of travel through Southeast Asia, where he had apparently picked up some new techniques in Cambodia’s killing fields.

“Move your legs like this,” he ordered. Because he’s German, it would be too easy to say he made me goose-step all over the gym, but he did. Then he wrapped my legs in a huge rubber band and made me perform a sideways bunny hop for four lengths of the gym.

“I’m going to pass out,” I gasped after the final lap. “My teeth are buzzing.”

“I’m just testing your motor skills,” he said.

“How are they?”

“Pretty bad.”

Up until this point, I had been feeling pretty good about my progress. I had more energy, was fending off the cold that everyone seemed to be catching, and had noticed that my jeans were getting tight around my developing quad muscles.

But German Paul was insulted by almost everything I did. Built like a gymnast, he didn’t walk so much as spring. He had a tattoo across his Achilles tendon, so I knew pain was not an issue for him.

“Do you run?” he asked.

When I told him yes, he said, “Do you fall?” Then he kicked my right foot to illustrate how it turned inward too much.

“You could do with some tone here,” German Paul said, grabbing the flesh of my upper arm. “And here,” he noted, glancing at my dimpled thigh. “You’re skinny,” he continued, then hesitated.

“I’m skinny fat,” I said, providing the phrase all the women’s magazines use.

“Yes,” he sighed. “I didn’t want to say that, but yes.”

I began seeing German Paul twice a week. I feared and adored him. When I wasn’t sweating in the gym, I was outside pounding the pavement. We ran the stairs of Meridian Hill Park and jogged a three-mile loop around Rock Creek Park, stopping along the way for a few sets of pull-ups on the jungle gym by the zoo. “The last time I ran a mile was in college,” I told him as a way of saying thanks.

I would never have worked this hard on my own. By the end of my second month at Sterling, I not only was physically stronger; I was mentally tougher. I was also pretty addicted to my thrice-weekly routine.

“I’m having a hard time thinking of you as a gym rat,” said my friend Elaine when I met her for coffee dressed in my magical butt pants and tank top.

I began to think of myself as part of some special club. After all, Sterling was an elite place. One day, I worked out next to Paul Wolfowitz (who has a great set of gams). Dermatologist Tina Alster, whom columnist Maureen Dowd (another former client) called the Queen of Lasers, works out there on Saturdays. And former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote about his experiences with Sterling in his memoir, Born Round; he later inscribed Aaron’s copy of his book, “An asshole drill sergeant of the best kind.”

The secret society extended outside the gym. I noticed a woman in my Georgetown neighborhood whose thick blond hair and slightly tanned face looked familiar. As I passed her, she turned and regarded me in the same knowing way, as if we were in our own version of Fight Club.

>> Next: Will an injury keep Alter from reaching her goal?  

With my high-school reunion less than a month away, I started trolling Facebook and confirming how much better I looked than the mean girls from the cafeteria. I planned my outfit around my new body and bought a tight T-shirt at the Georgetown boutique Sugar, where a twentysomething salesgirl and I stood in front of the mirror and compared the flatness of our stomachs.

And then a set of leg extensions with German Paul sent me crashing back into my 44-year-old body. Until this point, I’d suffered only a bit of muscle soreness. But this time I swung my legs off the machine and felt a sharp pinch in my lower back.

Not wanting to complain—the joke at the gym is that the men are bigger complainers than the women—I made my way home, where things only got worse. When I bent to unlace my sneakers, I couldn’t stand back up. I spent the rest of the day in bed with a heating pad.

I refused to take time off from the gym, despite my husband’s pleadings. “You’ll make it worse,” he said. “This is your body’s way of telling you to slow down.”

“I’m not quitting,” I told him. It was no longer just about looking hot at my reunion. I was sleeping better; I was seeing muscles where there used to be flab; I no longer had the posture of a bell-ringing hunchback. I was almost to the point of enjoying a spaghetti dinner in my underwear. And until this back injury, I had actually liked it all.

I hated admitting that my body could handle only so much before betraying my age. And worse, I started to think that maybe there was only so much I could do. Even Demi Moore, 47, was rumored to have had a few ribs removed to achieve her remarkable figure.

At my next session, Aaron introduced me to Chris Rodousakis, whose specialty is working with injuries. For a week I did nothing but gentle stretches with Chris and eyed whoever was with German Paul like a scorned lover.

When I finally broke down and saw a chiropractor—who popped a few slipped disks back into place—I felt as though I were betraying Aaron. I knew he wanted me to be patient, to work with him and his team to correct the underlying cause of my pain, which had to do with my whole body, not just a few disks.

But then I remembered reading something Jackie Onassis supposedly uttered on her deathbed: “If I knew I was going to get cancer, I wouldn’t have done so many sit-ups.”

On the one hand, I wished I could suffer German Paul’s workouts five days a week. On the other, maybe a little balance—or in this case, less balancing—was the better way to go. Besides, who was I kidding? I would never have the body of Demi Moore—and I was actually starting to feel pretty happy with the body I had.

>> Next: Before and After photos!

I finished getting ready for the reunion at my parents’ house. My mother, who had been watching me like a cat, finally said, “Your hair looks great.” It was clear she sensed something different about me and had settled on my hair, which she always found too messy.

But my biggest proving ground lay just beyond the door of the Keg, the hangout of choice for those in high school with fake IDs.

“Did you get a boob job?” asked my best friend from tenth grade as I walked up to greet her. When I told her I’d been working out and it was all the tightening around them that created the illusion of buxomness, she accused me of wearing a padded bra.

Boys who had ignored me in high school came out of the woodwork to say hello. Joey, the class heartthrob, sauntered over and hugged me. “Wow,” he said looking me up and down. “Hubba, hubba.”

My friend Allison offered to take a photo of me and Joey. The most popular girl in school, she still had her head-cheerleader figure. “Your body looks amazing,” she said, reviewing the photos on her camera.

In fact, most of the women at the reunion looked pretty amazing. Maybe, like me, they had all spent the past three months chained to a StairMaster.

I worked the crowd, feeling more confident than I ever had in high school. I had never shared the same air space with most of the people who were now treating me like a prom queen. “You look fantastic,” said the girl who sat in front of me in geometry. “Is there a picture of you aging like Dorian Gray in your closet?” asked the boy who used to tease me in gym.

I was thrilled by their attention but unsure what to do next.

So I did what any gym rat would do. After a few cocktails, I started daring my old classmates to punch me in the stomach like I was Houdini.

“Go ahead,” I told a group of guys. “I’m stronger than you think.”

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