Charlie Cates was never your ordinary kid. An avid basketball player, in high school Cates routinely woke up at 5 a.m. to shoot hoops before classes started. In college, he rose at 5:45, exercised 4-5 hours a day, and consumed a daily intake of 8,000-10,000 calories. The motivation for his pursuits came from within. He would latch onto a goal—dunking a basketball, making the starting lineup, becoming a college player—and devote himself fully to the pursuit of that goal.
Aware that no amount of hard work was going to transform him into an NBA talent, Cates transitioned his focus during college from training himself to training others. He found that he loved the work, and midway through his freshman year, Cates had a new goal: open his own gym. Following graduation, Cates attacked that goal with the same dedication that typified his earlier pursuits. After years of long hours, including a nine-month stretch where he only slept 3 hours a night, Cates accomplished his goal and moved into his own gym early last fall.
His story illustrates how hard work and dedication can help you achieve the extraordinary.
Cates’ days as a trainer actually began before Williams. In high school, he became the unofficial strength coach of his brother’s basketball team, organizing hill sprints in the summer and weight lifting sessions in the winter.
“When I went to Williams, I thought that I wanted to end up working for a team, but during my freshman year, I realized that I wanted to run my own gym. I was sitting in Greylock dining hall for lunch, and the idea came to me. By the end of that lunch period, I had worked out a whole fantasy in my head of what I wanted to do.”
Over the next three and a half years, Cates set about learning as much as he could about starting a gym. He became an Economics major to learn the numbers side of running a business. He took English classes to improve his writing for future blog posts. He worked with team after team in the gym, even developing his own fitness brand and taking on clients during his junior and senior years. In the summers, Cates interned at gyms and sports performance facilities across the country.
When graduation rolled around, however, the financial realities of owning a gym got in the way. After a job at a gym in Connecticut fell through, “I moved back home to Wisconsin. I had nothing in front of me and didn’t know what my next step might be.”
One of his former teammates, Chris Shalvoy ’08, was in law school in Chicago, a two-hour drive away. “Chris told me, ‘Why don’t you come to Chicago? There are a lot of gyms here.’”
With no other options, Cates packed his bags and moved to Chicago, and after a few interviews, he accepted a job at a gym in Chicago’s Gold Coast.
During his first few months on the job, Cates noticed a pair of trainers who were taking clients through a series of quasi-stretching routines. Intrigued, he asked about their methods and was told that the stretches were actually part of a burgeoning field of exercise science known as a Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT). “The whole point of MAT is to try and figure out where you’re vulnerable, where you’re compensating, what muscular imbalances exist, and then design very specific exercise in order to improve that.”
Cates had little science background, but he was instantly hooked. He began attending MAT workshops nearly every weekend. “The MAT courses framed my role as a professional much differently than I’d ever seen it before. Instead of focusing on the elite, my focus has gone to the other end. I get people who struggle walking. It’s been a very fulfilling change because it took me from a job of cheerleader/rep counter in a sports performance role to having to critically think about engineering and physics and mechanics within someone’s body and truly understand the physiology and biochemistry of what’s going on.”
After a year and a half at the gym on the Gold Coast, Cates left to take on clients of his own at a place specifically designed for MAT practitioners. He also enrolled for a master’s in exercise science.
While the whirlwind schedule matched Cates’ devoted approach, the stress of making ends meet was overwhelming. “For the first few months that I was working in Chicago, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pay rent. There were many times where I thought it would be so much easier to bag it all and go somewhere where I was on a salary or pick up a side job working at the grocery store. But I always had this grand vision in the back of my head of what I wanted and that kept me trying to progress forward.”
As his business began to pick up, he piled ever more on his plate. “There was a nine-month period where I would sleep from midnight to 3 a.m. It was part because I put so much on my plate, and it was part because I loved being awake so much. I was so consumed with everything that was going on in my day, and I didn’t want to miss a second of it.”
In January of 2014, Cates moved most of his business to the suburbs, operating out of a small office in Schaumburg. Then, in June, he was told that the office was being repurposed and would no longer be accessible as a training space.
“When they told me I had to move, I knew that was my moment.”
It had been seven years since his epiphany in Greylock dining hall, but at last, Cates’ dream of owning his own gym was coming true. He drove around town, looking at spaces. He set up meetings with landlords. After a month spent frantically purchasing equipment and refurbishing the space, Cates’ gym officially opened for business on September 1st, his 27th birthday.
When asked how he has come to define success now that he has achieved one of his lifelong dreams, Cates focused on the ups and downs of the journey: “It’s not the accomplishment of the goal or ideal, but the progressive realization of getting there.”
For Cates, the journey has not always been easy, but his dedication and willingness to sacrifice to achieve his dreams have made the difference.