American ninja warriors turned a WWII tank factory into a massive Bay Area gym. Then came COVID-19.

Were it not for the damned wing nut, it’s quite possible Traverse Fitness wouldn’t exist.

First introduced in season nine of “American Ninja Warrior,” the wing nut has confounded even the most experienced of competitors. After a trampoline jump, you’re supposed to grab onto a wing nut-shaped ledge and swing across a series of other ledges without falling onto the obstacle course. Like everything on “American Ninja Warrior,” it’s much harder than it looks on TV.

A couple years ago, a group of Bay Area ninja warriors decided to construct a “wing nut alley” for practice purposes, which would’ve been the only one of its kind on the West Coast. But why stop there? Might as well build a warped wall, arguably the most recognizable obstacle for aspiring ninjas. Then the ninja warriors explored something more ambitious: a warehouse to fit all of their toughest obstacles, where kids and adults could swing around to their hearts’ content.

They almost locked down a spot in Oakland, but couldn’t seal the deal. They also found an aircraft hanger in Treasure Island… but other bids were more competitive.

“The idea expanded very quickly,” says Alex Krumland, who’s vastly understating the property he and others eventually pinpointed and came to possess. Once a World War II tank factory, it’s now Richmond’s Traverse Fitness, a 40,000 square-foot gym with 50-foot ceilings that’s someday supposed to be at least double its current size (there’s plenty more space for equipment).

Ninja warriors involved in the project have had lots of time to practice this year, but the rest of their plans are stagnant. The aforementioned expansion isn’t happening on schedule due to the pandemic. Traverse Fitness’s managerial team — which includes five “American Ninja Warrior” participants (Krumland, Troy Helming, Sean Bryan, Tristan Grimm and Brian Kretsch) — is attempting to stay afloat like every other Bay Area business. The timing of the gym’s launch just couldn’t have been worse: Traverse Fitness had its soft opening last November; it’s been “soft opening” ever since, and will continue its soft open indefinitely. If and when the enormous gym can fit a capacity crowd again, the grand opening will commence.

The good news, if you want to call it that, is that Traverse Fitness hasn’t totally floundered.

A warped wall at Traverse Fitness in Richmond.
A warped wall at Traverse Fitness in Richmond.Courtesy of Sean Bryan

Kretsch has actually appeared on every season of “American Ninja Warrior,” including the most recent iteration in St. Louis, which was “a little weird running around with no audience cheering you on,” he says. He trained Krumland years ago, and was sold on the idea of Traverse Fitness by Helming, who pitched it as “the pinnacle of the ninja gym,” Kretsch says.

Early indicators from visitors last year were overwhelmingly positive. A ninja warrior/YouTuber named Lucas Gomes, who has more than 100,000 subscribers, called Traverse Fitness “the best ninja warrior gym I’ve ever been to in my life.” Their open house event in early December was a major success as well.

“We definitely were on the right track,” Krumland says. “We were surprised with how quickly we were growing, and then it came to a halt like so many other businesses.”

Executive manager Troy Helming works out at the Traverse Fitness gym in Richmond.
Executive manager Troy Helming works out at the Traverse Fitness gym in Richmond.Courtesy of Sean Bryan.

Traverse Fitness didn’t qualify for a PPP loan, because its employees transitioned from 1099s to W-2s in March, and the loans required employees to have been full-time since January. To compensate, the gym owners rented out storage space in a suddenly people-free zone. “We had to do a seven-year lease on the entire property, and the gym is probably one-tenth of that right now,” Krumland says. “We’ve become property managers ourselves. Priorities shifted to making sure subtenants were happy, and trying to get more storage into the warehouse to effectively subsidize the gym’s rent.”

In June, Traverse Fitness was allowed to hold kids’ camps, which have since continued as after-school programs. The response was tepid for a while, but stringent COVID-19 restrictions like temperature checks, masks at all times, mandatory hand-washing before sessions, and the same pods of children for twice- or thrice-weekly sessions have lessened parents’ reservations.

“When we first started summer camps, the kids were coming out of weeks or months of no social interaction or physical activity,” Kretsch says. “Kids were super excited to do something again. You could definitely see they were initially hurt by not having an outlet or social interactions. Being able to provide both is one of the most rewarding parts of doing this.”

A masked participant at Traverse Fitness in Richmond.
A masked participant at Traverse Fitness in Richmond.Courtesy of Sean Bryan

Other workarounds helped bring in a sampling of residents who’ve been returning. There was an outdoor rig for a while, which convinced apprehensive adults in particular to come exercise. Word of mouth and repeat clients have led to a noticeable, gradual increase in foot traffic over the last month, and Kretsch says they’ve been able to restart many of their originally planned activities, including open gyms for adults and children alike.

All of which isn’t to say Traverse Fitness is overflowing with profits. Management has opted to keep indoor capacity much lower than the maximum allowance of 25%, so as to not scare off participants or put trainers at unnecessary risk. Traverse Fitness’s revenue split, like other ninja gyms, is roughly 70-30 kids to adults. They’re still missing out on full-sized classes, obviously, as well as big birthday parties, which are normally a big money-maker.

But small kids’ programs and modified open gyms are better than nothing, even while they unintentionally highlight a strange and precarious situation in which a massive warehouse in the Bay Area can’t come close to being filled up anytime soon.

Says Krumland: “We want to retain as much of the hope and passion that we started this with. And the good news is we’re pretty good at overcoming obstacles.”

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