London calisthenics rhymes with community
Bertie Oakes’ reportage portrays muscles and human bonds
Like many people, I found myself searching for new ways to stay fit following the closing of gyms during the third national lockdown in January 2021. I was fortunate enough to be living opposite a recently built outdoor Calisthenics gym which I began to use each morning at the start of the month.
The gym is made by Steel Warriors, a charity who melt down knives taken off London’s streets repurposing the steel to build the bars that form the gym. They are built in areas affected by knife crime but within locations that are considered ‘gang neutral zones’, the aim being to give local young people a free facility to do something positive with their time in a safe environment. The gym in Ruskin Park is the charity’s second of three facilities built in London.
Going to it started as a way of staying fit and sane amidst the pandemic, but very quickly opened my eyes to a whole new world. Calisthenics is not just a method of exercise, but is a competitive sport with a small but dedicated community in London and across the rest of the UK working to push it into the mainstream.
Within my first couple of visits to Steel Warriors I bumped into Jay Chris, three time National Champion and two time World Champion freestyler who helped to design the gyms, and regularly trains at them offering advice and guidance to fellow gym users. Finding him to be so approachable (as well simply finding him at the gym so regularly) was an indication of how small calisthenics still is in this country: in what other sport could you walk down to your local public facility and realistically hope to bump into the world number one?
However the sport is undoubtedly growing. The Ruskin gym is home to Team Instinct, a new collective of elite level athletes led by Goku Nsudoh, a nineteen-year-old prodigy tipped to be a future world champion. Instinct hope to compete internationally and to domestically challenge Jay’s Bar Sparta team who were amongst the first to put UK Calisthenics on the map.
However these gym’s are not just built to cater for the elite athlete. Especially since the lockdowns, increasingly the users are local people just finding a place to exercise and enjoy the outdoors. What is so refreshing about the Steel Warriors gyms, especially in comparison to a conventional gym, is that everyone integrates regardless of skill or strength level.
It doesn’t matter whether you are freestyling on the high bar in preparation for a national tournament, or you are just trying to achieve your first pull up, the environment is safe and friendly. It is a rarity to try and attempt a new move or exercise without someone offering you technical advice and guidance.
I have been really struck by the sense of community the gym has created, bringing people of all nationalities, ages, genders and sexualities together.
In the final few weeks of shooting this project it came to my attention that the Steel Warriors Charity was likely to dissolve. It seemed unfair that a charity that gave so many people hope during the pandemic ultimately ended up folding as a result of it, losing their main investing partner and running low on donations.
While it is a shame no more of their gyms will be built in London, the community created at the Ruskin gym will live on and people will continue to discover and use it and the other two existing gyms. The fundamental role Steel Warriors had in growing the sport of Calisthenics in the UK cannot be underplayed, and will not be forgotten.
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