Ramona and Bob Pursley at Aptos’ FIST Fitness; the acronym stands for Functional Interval Strength Training. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
In 1980, 21-year-old Bob Pursley was a lean long-distance runner who weighed 165 pounds. His first day on the job as a deputy for the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Department took him to Boulder Creek, where he was promptly called the n-word. It didn’t get any less hostile on the second or third day.
“It was almost a fight every night,” remembers Pursley, who retired in May after 33 years of service. “At that point, I decided I better do something if I want to survive. So that’s when I started getting into weight lifting and working out, wrestling and self-defense.”
The effort paid off. He ended up having to fight less, and when he did, he knew how to protect himself. At 55, Pursley is a solid muscular presence wrapped in a youthful glow, a big smile and a handshake that makes me feel suddenly miniature. He’s waiting for me on the second floor balcony of the Aptos gym he owns and operates along with his wife, Ramona, 52, who is sweating out a final mile on the treadmill alongside their 7-year-old daughter when I arrive.
It only takes a few minutes to realize that Bob and Ramona Pursley—both retired deputies, and personal trainers for over seven years—are the ultimate power couple; a harmonious blend of tenacity and altruism, with an infectious motivational effect.
“At this point in our life, it’s time for us to give back, you know. And it works, and it makes us feel good,” says Ramona.
The comment leaves me stunned, because in all honesty, it should be the other way around: after 17 years in law enforcement, Ramona was forced to retire after a fight tore up her knee, spurring 17 surgeries and ending in a full knee replacement. A competitive weightlifter and runner, Ramona is a role model to any client who says “I can’t”—she does all this despite having lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
“I think because I move, it allows me to do a lot of things because I don’t sit there and give in to the pain and the discomfort,” says Ramona. “I have days where I don’t want to get up, or I want to have my little pity party because everything hurts, but I don’t have the luxury of doing that.”
Four bright rooms serve as the home base for the couple’s personal training program, Functional Interval Strength Training (FIST), encompassing cardio, weights, a matted classroom (the scene of kids’ and adult self-defense classes) and a massage room. But clients aren’t confined to the gym—variety is key, and workouts often take place on the beach, and even in kayaks and on bicycles.
Getting the blood pumping began as a law enforcement coping mechanism for both— “There was nothing like putting on your shoes and taking off for ten miles after you’ve had a hard day at work,” remembers Ramona.
But the Pursleys are convinced that wellbeing is a physical and mental state that anybody can achieve, and helping others do that is what they live for.
“Personal training has a stigma that it’s only for rich people,” says Bob. “We saw that. We wanted to make it affordable, so that anybody who wants it can get it.”
The majority of their clients are everyday people—from high school athletes seeking sports conditioning and seniors looking to stay active, to competitive athletes training for a triathlon. (If you didn’t already guess, the Pursleys are the kind of trainers that will sign up for the race and do it with you.) As long as someone has a purpose, they’ll work on a sliding payment scale appropriate to the situation.
Over the years, the power couple has identified a crucial factor in success: mental outlook. In cases where a training program has failed to be effective, they’ve found that there’s often some sort of mental blockage in the way.
“The first thing is getting your self esteem up, and saying today is a better day because today you’re going to change,” says Bob, who also works closely with a certified family therapist who has helped clients work through the challenges of life transformation. “We tell people to stand up tall, be proud of who you are and then we’ll work from there. If you think of yourself in a bright light, you’re gonna be in a bright light.”