Sweating with the Sharks
Watch them closely, and you can immediately tell it’s on.
She’s at a treadmill, trotting slowly in a soft-pink tank top and black leggings, her blond hair in a tight ponytail. He approaches the lat pull-down machine directly in front of said treadmill. His sleeveless shirt and sculpted build suggest a serious workout habit, but right now he’s not letting any routine dictate what exercise he starts next. He takes a seat and, without changing the weight, begins his reps, uninterestedly. The eighth time they make eye contact, she speaks. "Lifting hard," she says, "or hardly lifting?"
He laughs. She laughs. And as she slows to a walk, he moves closer. There is an introduction of sorts, and then the conversation goes quiet—I can’t make out the words—but some kind of agreement seems to have been reached. They head toward the locker rooms.
I return to halfheartedly whaling on my pecs until I see them reemerge freshly showered et reattired, smelling of botanicals and European face lotion. Judging by her notice-me top and his hair product, it appears they’ve come to the gym prepared to go out afterward.
But they don’t leave the gym. They just stroll the 200 or so feet to the bar at Blu, the dimly lit restaurant where post-workout patrons are trading their Vitaminwaters for watermelontinis beneath the glow of the downtown skyline. Watching these two saunter off, I exchange knowing looks with a fellow gym-goer, who also seems to notice the Sade-styled smooth operation.
"Well, that happened pretty quickly," I offer, hoping that safety in numbers makes me come off less creepy for staring. He looks at me quizzically. "C’mon now, we’re talking about Sports Club," he says, draping a towel over his head. "This is what happens."
If the whole point of a fairy tale is to transport listeners to a different place, to tell them of a magical land they’ve never visited, then this, friends, is a kind of fairy tale. Except the Sports Club/LA is real. It is a place where attractive people cavort, bounding up and down and stretching their groins. A place where the city’s important and self-important mingle; a gossipy milieu where rumors, stock tips, and tongue kisses are exchanged with ease.
But this is no Cinderella story (for starters, she could never pay the monthly membership dues, which top out at $275). Plus, the prince would never need to host a ball to get a princess; he’d find one attending to her abs at "Definitions," the oft-oversubscribed morning workout class. They’d funnel mimosas at brunch before skulking off to the roof deck for a bit of heavy petting. And this would all seem very natural at the Sports Club/LA, a gym that’s somehow become the city’s weirdest, wildest scene.
To have a look at it all, I spent three months on a quest for understanding and toned calves. I ate Clif bars, knocked back smoothies, enveloped myself in eucalyptus steam, and even contemplated a facial. I realized quickly that there are gyms and then there are gyms, and then there is the Sports Club/LA (called SCLA or "the club" by members). It’s a glass-ensconced world spread across two floors in the same building as the new Ritz-Carlton, overlooking the Common. At its center sits a cavernous cardio space lined with so many treadmills, elliptical trainers, and cross-conditioners that to take them all in leaves you feeling as if you’re in some kind of sweaty hall of mirrors.
Even larger is the area given over to weight training. The expanse resembles an American Gladiators–themed Sam’s Club, what with its wide-open floor plan and the absurdity of options in machines and weights (SCLA is not much for brand fidelity—this particular room houses equipment by Cybex, Hammer Strength, Excalibur, Body Masters, FreeMotion, Icarian, Hoggan, Abench, Life Fitness, and, of course, Iron Grip). Nearby, a so-called Flexibility/Balance Loft boasts no fewer than four different pieces of equipment that incorporate "stretch" into their names. All look vaguely of the Inquisition.
There’s also the scientific-sounding "Fitlab," a station where credentialed experts give male patrons all the benefits of a doctor’s physical without that awkward head turn and cough. If you’re inclined to pass along their diagnostics to the club’s registered dietitians, they’ll happily recommend meals full of egg whites and pomegranate seeds, which you can order for carryout from the kitchen at Blu.
I could go on. I could tell you about the various courts for basketball, volleyball, and squash. Or of the very existence of a boxing studio. Would you be surprised to learn about the 50 trainers with exercise science degrees, or that an ordinary Monday features 24 group exercise classes, including six different types of yoga? I suspect you would not.
Then there are the things that have no business in a gym. I refer to the spa and salon and a boutique that stocks the "in" workout gear of the moment, Lululemon—a brand so ubiquitous that, as one club-goer put it, walking through SCLA is "like watching an impromptu Lululemon couture show." One can also find everything from Kai body products to tiny, expensive bathrobes for the child who appreciates a fine terrycloth.
All of this stuff serves a purpose. It sells an image designed to appeal to a particular kind of person—the kind with a good deal of disposable income, foreign cars, and/or precisely manicured eyebrows. But it’s also merely a backdrop to the stage upon which the club’s members assemble to play their part in the SCLA scene. And it’s the joie de entry into that world, the tingle of chance that turns a workout into something much more meaningful. For certain Sports Club/LA members, "going to work out" means socializing, eating, drinking, shopping, and screwing.
Now, don’t be mistaken. There are people here who come with the singular purpose of working out, people for whom the complexities of this social dynamic remain blissfully unfamiliar. People like my father, who was once a member but claims to have never witnessed anything unseemly, because he "didn’t go around looking for it, like a pervert." And I see his point. SCLA is like a Magic Eye picture: The interesting bits are right in front of you, but you don’t see them at first. You have to relax your eyes, and know what you’re looking for.