Early on a recent Saturday morning, the team at Women’s Athletic Club welcomed me for their WAC Camp, a vigorous cardio workout on the gym’s shady deck on upper State Street. An eager group of women athletes gathered in the leafy shade like girls in a tree house. The peaceful ambiance ended when fitness instructor Annie Chesterfield switched on booming hip-hop tunes and commanded our small group to challenge every neglected muscle in our bodies. The fresh air, supportive female companionship, and surging endorphins were enough to inspire any woman to stick to a fitness regimen.
Owner Alice Huang, a fitness instructor of nearly 25 years, opened the doors of Women’s Athletic Club in November 2007 to “give women and guests of Santa Barbara a nonthreatening place to think, feel, and be strong,” according to the club’s mission statement. Huang wanted to build a genuine all-women’s athletic club, remarking that many women’s gyms are actually owned or operated by men. (Huang often “gym hops” when she travels and noticed that women’s sections of co-ed gyms were often “segregated,” forgotten in the back of facilities, with hand-me-down equipment.) WAC is truly all-women, including resident handywoman Rosanna Ortiz, who maintains the machines and building.
Chesterfield explained that the environment allows women to do exercises and stretches designed to work certain muscle groups without feeling self-conscious, as they might if men were around. “Women don’t know what they deserve until you give it to them,” Huang said.
My immediate impression of WAC was how shockingly clean it is. So clean that it looked as though the gym had opened for business earlier that week, not two years ago. Absent were the lingering odor and grimy workout machines found in other gyms.
The friendliness of the staff and members is also refreshing. Huang and her staff seemed to sincerely care for the well-being of each of their members, and introduced each woman we passed the way women introduce treasured friends. Members reported Huang calls them at home if they lapse from their gym visits.
Member Jean Schiff loves the intimate aspect of WAC, having attended several other gyms in town that she found impersonal. Schiff remembered that at other gyms members usually arrived, did their workouts, and left, hardly speaking to anyone. She also likes that there is no pressure to “make a fashion statement” with her workout clothes.
Clients at WAC range from women in their twenties to retirees like Claudette Hall, 73, who walks a mile on the treadmill every day. Hall is committed to her exercise routine despite her artificial knee, saying the physical activity “keeps her going” after the death of her husband three months ago. Cycling instructor Linda Beck added that all the trainers tailor workouts to each woman’s ability level. Maggie Drawert joined WAC when she moved to Santa Barbara from Chicago. She called it a “fantastic networking place.” People often stop by the gym just to greet their friends, she said, and end up staying to work out.
WAC may be a social environment, but it also provides solid workout opportunities, like cycling, strength training, and an intense abdominal class. The gym also has gentler activities like its candlelit yoga. There is no extra charge for classes – all are included with WAC’s monthly fee, which is very reasonable in comparison to other gyms’. There are no long-term contracts at WAC, and Huang said one of her main priorities is to avoid the crowding found in other gyms. As Huang is fond of saying, “Our best product is our members.”