published Friday, July 19th, 2013

Cook: Before Fonda, there was Webb

Not long ago, I got my Astroturf kicked by a 73-year-old man. I felt worse than Allen Casey’s barge looks. By the time this man was done with me, I was like a guy wobbling out of a bar at closing time: no warm fuzzies, just a lot of stumbling and sweating followed by the worried feeling that, any minute, breakfast would be coming back up the down spout.

It was the best worst feeling I’ve ever had. Chances are, you’ve had it too.

Who was he? Muscles across Chattanooga spasm with delight at the sound of his name. Finally, they say, here is a man who knows how to treat us properly.

“I’ve been doing this for 49 years,” said Randy Webb, who is to Chattanooga fitness what Johnny Carson is to late-night comedy. In other words, the standard.

In the early 1960s, Webb began to teach karate and fitness classes at the downtown YMCA ... located on Eighth Street. He has since helped tens of thousands find healthier lives and bodies. Cancer victims to ultra-marathoners. Grandmothers to Navy SEALS. Entire football teams to open-heart surgery patients.

“I contribute much of my success to Randy’s ability to understand and design programs to address my needs,’’ said hometown NBA great Gerald Wilkins, whose testimony is wedged onto Webb’s resume alongside praise from others great and small.

Early one morning, I went to D1 Sports near Gunbarrel Road, where Webb teaches boot camps and does personal training. Along with a dozen or so others, we spent one hour and six minutes in near meltdown: weights, sprints, yoga, martial arts, push-ups, sit-ups, more push-ups, stretches and something called a burpee, which has to be a misdemeanor somewhere.

“It’s awful,” said Tyler Fox.

Fox is 16. Three mornings a week, he and bud Austin Thomas wake up at 3:30 to drive from Marion County to D1. They’re high school athletes; no one trains them better than Webb.

“He’s good. It works,” grunted another man, about two dozen push-ups into a 72-push-up set. When attempting 72 push-ups, one usually is reduced to two-word sentences. Had he more breath, he probably would have said this:

No one has done more for fitness in our city than Randy Webb.

After the YMCA, Webb went to the Sports Barn, then to Erlanger hospital as their wellness director. At the Jewish Community Center, he taught classes that had waiting lists.

“I was doing fitness before Jane Fonda,” he said, grinning.

He is eighth-degree black-belt, an Olympic-certified lifting coach and a former international karate competitor. He’s worked with U.S. Army Rangers, the Chattanooga Police Department, and Marines at Parris Island.

He’s been a vegetarian for 30 years. Webb is the anti-Twinkie. Best of all, he has this rigorous kindness that, like some Jedi mind trick, is able to coax us to do push-ups until our arms are novocaine-numb. And thank him for it.

“He makes you feel welcome,” said Steve McGraw. “He includes everyone.”

Webb fell in love with weight lifting in high school, then found his life-long teacher in Dr. Maung Gyi, who introduced him to the poetic and demanding world of martial arts.

“Let me show you something,” Webb said.

He lay on the ground in a push-up position. Then, he extended his arms all the way out, the way Superman does when he flies. His hands not under his shoulders but as far out as they could go, Webb then did push-ups. Then, from the same position, push-ups on his fingertips. I sprained my eyeballs, just watching.

“I showed you that not to brag, but to show you the possibility of the body is endless,” he said.

Mr. Webb, you’ve been showing us that for decades. We owe you a key to the city, a Rocky-like statue on some important steps downtown. You deserve an Olympic-sized thank-you from thousands of us.

As soon as we catch our breath.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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