Yul Giraldo: Finding health and happiness in Philly

Yul Giraldo: Finding health and happiness in Philly

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I have to admit my lack of anything sports- or fitness- related has finally caught up with me. I had a pretty good run where the gene-pool gods let me get away with eating whatever I wanted and staying — or at least looking ­— fit. As I just hit a significant birthday, I’m realizing that I may soon have to change my ways or buy a new wardrobe. 

Luckily, expert help is available. I got in touch with Yul Giraldo, owner of Optimal Sport Health Club, to get some inspiration. Giraldo owns the gym with his husband, Jeff Shablin, and was happy to try to fire me up to come to his gym. 

PGN: Phew, I got tired just looking at some of the scheduled classes available at your gym — Body Cycle, Meta Body Cycle, Warrior Workout, Kick Boxing, the 30-minute shred, S&M (strength and muscle) and something called Core Blast, which sounds lethal. 

YG: [Laughing] Well, you don’t do them all at once! We also have yoga and Zumba, spin classes, dance cardio — which is really fun and high-paced — and a dance body-sculpt class that incorporates ballet and Pilates. There’s a Silver Sneakers class for older people, and of course our Optimal workout. There’s a little something for everyone and at all levels. 


PGN: Let’s talk about you. Where is your accent from? 

YG: I am originally from Cali, Colombia. 


PGN: What was growing up in Cali like?

YG: It is the third-largest city in Colombia, about 2.5 million people. I had a good childhood. I was very close to my mom. But I always dreamed of more. I always had a desire to come to the United States from the time I was a little kid. 


PGN: We moved from North Jersey to Pennsylvania when I was young, and the only thing I knew about Pennsylvania was that the Amish lived here. I remember thinking, I am not going to wear one of those black dresses with the little bonnets! What were some of your misconceptions? 

YG: When I left Colombia, I moved to New York. When I pictured America growing up, I always pictured a really big city, very accepting, very comfortable because, you know, I was gay and growing up gay in Colombia was not the easiest thing. I always knew that in America you could be free and live your life without being judged, and maybe have better opportunities. So I always thought, I have to get there so I can be myself. When I moved to New York, I thought that the whole rest of the United States was just like New York. But eventually I learned that nothing is quite like New York. 


PGN: How did you end up in Philadelphia?

YG: I was living in New York for about 10 years. I came to Philadelphia for a fundraiser — the Blue Ball — and I met Jeff. We dated long-distance for about five months before the long distance started getting the best of us and we decided to move in together. I was in the middle of changing careers and Jeff was already established, so I came here. He was a personal trainer at 12th Street Gym, and I got my certificate to train as well. We started working together and it was successful. We eventually ended up getting our own health spa. 


PGN: What was the career you were leaving?

YG: I was a makeup artist at Bloomingdales. I worked with several brands like Chanel and Estée Lauder. I started in men’s clothes and never thought in my life about doing makeup, ever. It never crossed my head until they offered it to me. But it was more money than I’d been making, so I did it. I enjoyed it, but when the opportunity came to work as a personal trainer, to own my own business and work for myself, I couldn’t pass it up. And I was in love with Jeff, so it was a no-brainer. As you get older, you want something more — a big house here as opposed to a very small apartment in New York. I wanted a real married life with Jeff, with a dog and a yard. 


PGN: Before you got into training, were you very athletic?

YG: I played soccer my whole life when I was in Colombia, since I was a baby until I moved here. That’s what we all did after school. We’d go play soccer. 


PGN: Was it frustrating when you got to the United States and realized we had little interest in soccer?

YG: Exactly! People don’t even follow the teams here. In Colombia, people go crazy over all the teams and the matches and the World Cup, like you do here for the Super Bowl. 


PGN: Have you gotten into American football so you can have something to cheer for here?

YG: You know, no. I just never got into it. Outside of soccer, I’m not a big sports person. 


PGN: Your two professions — makeup and fitness — entail making people feel good about themselves. 

YG: Yes, the thing that got me into training was the ability to help people and change their lives, to make them feel better about themselves. I’ve always been a very health-conscious person, so I’m able to teach people how to live a healthy life, about nutrition, about getting in shape. It’s all about the relationships that you build. Instead of feeling like work, it feels more like building friendships. You go through something life-changing with people and they become close friends. 


PGN: Can you give me an example?

YG: I had one client. She’s from Venezuela. When she started training with me, she had just lost her baby. She’d gained a lot of weight before she lost the baby and she was very depressed and unmotivated. I helped her get back into shape and got her on a path to eating healthier and taking care of her overall health. She got pregnant again and this time, in part because she was in much better shape, she gave birth to a healthy baby. We have a great relationship. I know her kid. I know her husband. We’ve all become friends. I don’t have time to do individual training anymore, but if I did, she’d still be a personal client.


PGN: When did you get into working out?

YG: In Colombia, it wasn’t really something we did back then. It wasn’t until I came to the States in my 20s that I became more aware of my appearance. I started working out, and it helped me to be a little more confident and feel better about myself. I really liked it, and it’s been a part of my life since then. Every day I get up and workout. I don’t think about it. I just make it part of my day. I work out Tuesday through Friday and I take off Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I change my routine pretty often, and I don’t lift super-heavy weights. I enjoy it.


PGN: What’s your tip for couch potatoes like me?

YG: Just decide to make it part of your day, part of your routine. If you think about it too much, you won’t go. Start with just 30 minutes if you need to. The gym can be a very social place. You can meet friends and have fun. And soon you can start adding some more time or new classes. And before you know it, you’ll start seeing results. You’ll feel like you accomplished something that made you feel good about yourself. The benefits are tremendous. I do much better at work once I’ve worked out. Your mind is clearer. 


PGN: What are your responsibilities at the gym as an owner?

YG: Jeff and I started as trainers, but we just don’t have the time anymore. When you’re on the floor, you need to give all of your attention to the client. With two locations, it would be hard to do that and run the business. I handle most of the finances for the company. 


PGN: When did you come out?

YG: I was just talking about this with some friends last week. I never felt I needed to come out. When you come out, you are asking for people to accept you. But I just lived my life for who I am. The closest we got was when my mother asked me, “Are you happy? If you’re happy, that’s all that matters.” So I never did a big come-out. She knows that Jeff is my husband, and when we visit, we sleep in the same room.


PGN: Were you going to gay bars in Colombia before coming here? 

YG: I was having some gay life and I had my gay friends, but at that time I kept it hidden from my family and close friends. Things weren’t so open and could be dangerous, so it was kept pretty quiet. Plus, I was pretty young when I moved to the States, so most of my first gay experiences were here.


PGN: What’s the difference between Optimal and other gyms?

YG: What sets us apart is that Jeff and I started out as personal trainers and have been doing it for a long time. It’s our life. We understand what people are going through. Because of that, we’re all about the relationships that are formed here between the trainers and clients, between the staff and us and each other. We have a huge variety of people here — people that are gay, that are straight, that are black, that are white, that are Latin. It’s important to us to be very inclusive and very diverse. I always look at the gym as if I was a member. When I’m there, I walk around and think, If I was a member, I don’t know if I would like this … or, If I was a member, I would really appreciate that … That’s how I like to run the gym: from the client’s perspective. We know it can be hard to go to the gym. It can be intimidating for some. So we do everything we can to make it a comfortable experience and fun! 


PGN: Where did you and Jeff get married?

YG: In Washington, D.C.


PGN: Trying to get away from all the Philly people?

YG: No, no. At the time, it was the closest state where gay marriage was legal. 


PGN: What’s the best part of being married?

YG: We’ve been together 15 years and we’ve been married for eight years now. Besides being my husband and my family, he’s my best friend. We just love being together. We like the same movies. We like the same foods. We get along very well. People ask us how we can work together and stay married, but it’s easy for us. We both have different strengths that complement each other. And we make all decisions together. It’s great having someone by your side at work and at home who loves you.


PGN: What do you like to do for fun?

YG: I love the beach. I love the water. It’s my number-one thing to do. 


PGN: Who is your hero?

YG: My mother. My father died of a heart attack when I was 2, which is one of the reasons I’ve always focused on staying healthy. I watched my mother raise five boys (I was the youngest) as a single mom in Colombia. It gave me such a strong respect and love for her because she managed to give us a good life and always provided for us. Not an easy thing to do for a woman in Colombia. She taught me to be strong and independent and responsible. Without a father, I had to stand up for myself and be strong. She’s my everything. I talk to my mom in Colombia two to three times per week always. She taught me so much. My angel! Because of her, I’m the person I am now.  

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