Myron Medcalf
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When I asked Myrika Schneider, the studio director at PUSH Fitness in St. Paul, if the class she’d invited me to would kick my butt, she giggled.

“You’ll love it,” she said. “You’ll be with Connie.”

At 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, I logged into a virtual Tabata class — my first time doing the circuit exercise — taught by a 58-year-old Black woman named Connie Sheehan, the founder and owner of PUSH Fitness, from a living room in Chicago, where she’s caring for her mother who recently suffered a heart attack.

She did not have any weights or equipment, but her vibrant demeanor and energized presentation proved sufficient.

“Today is going to be the best day of your life!” she told the class, while “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors played in the background. “You didn’t know that when you woke up, did you?”

I’d caught the virtual bug after I canceled my gym membership a few months after the COVID shutdown, bought a discount exercise bike and started online spin classes.

The positive vibe of the instructors is infectious. It was also an important barometer. They could pedal at 120 revolutions per minute in a hip-hop spin class while rapping every word of Warren G’s “Regulate.” At that time, I had barely reached the humming phase of my pandemic fitness journey. I had — have — work to do.

“I’m here for you,” said Schneider, who teaches classes at PUSH Fitness. “I hope that I’m always giving that vibe and energy out.”

I am at this crucial stage as a 37-year-old African American man with a family history of diabetes and other ailments. It haunts me. The pandemic has only complicated my pursuit. Yes, I like to work out, but sometimes Netflix and chips are a welcoming distraction.

While African Americans have a disproportionate susceptibility to a variety of health challenges, the pandemic has only heightened our collective awareness as studies have shown we’re also one of the most vulnerable groups facing the coronavirus.

“As a voice for the Black community, it’s kind of our job to keep the message going,” said Maurice Buchanan, co-owner of Wurk, a fitness and boxing gym in Minnetonka. “Please take care of yourself, even if you’re at home.”

That’s why Sheehan and others like her act as critical motivators, especially as winter approaches and 2020 adds more chaos to its list of calamities. To muster the energy to lead people through any form of exercise — therapeutic for its participants — is an incredible task. For a Black instructor, it seems miraculous.

“I’ve never, ever had a workout where I said I wish I hadn’t done that,” Sheehan said. “Even if it’s hard, even if it’s like a crappy run, you’re still like, ‘OK, my body feels better.’ ”

This month, she’ll celebrate the fifth anniversary of PUSH Fitness, a gym she started in her 50s upon leaving the corporate world. After one class with Sheehan, it was easy to understand why her subscription numbers have grown in recent months, even after she had to temporarily shut down her gym and create offerings online.

“It’s motivating,” said Mazel McCoy-Anderson, 71, a loyal participant in Sheehan’s classes. “She plays this beautiful music. She pushes us on.”

When you’re “with Connie,” she brings you into her world.

“Did you get your run in today?” she asked one of her clients before we started Tabata, a continuous cardio exercise.

“OK! Beautiful, beautiful,” she told another during a workout.

“It’s your job to kick your butt! Who is going to kick it for you?” she said while we held on to a chair for butt kicks. “I want you to lunge lowwwwwww!” she emphasized as we moved from side to side.

“I know, I know. ‘She’s so fussy,’ ” she joked.

Minutes into the class, my muscles ached and I felt fatigued. Then, Sheehan called my name.

“Myron, move your camera so I can see you,” she said.

Uh oh. I was being watched. I had not realized that “take your rest” in Tabata meant “take 10 seconds and try not to pass out before we go for another round.” I’d clearly lost my form on a triceps exercise, but Sheehan encouraged me.

“Weight over your head and extend the arms,” she told me. “I know it’s heavy, Myron. Good! … Good!”

While focused on losing weight and addressing depression after the birth of her fifth son, she ultimately turned a newfound love of local YMCA classes into her dream called PUSH Fitness.

It has become her family.

On the day George Floyd died, Sheehan told her class she couldn’t teach, so they talked to one another. She admits her obstacles and her clients support her. She has created this refreshing and inspiring openness in a virtual world, visible to anyone who visits her classes.

“For me, and I know for my team, this has been our lifesaver during this pandemic,” Sheehan said. “You feel so much better after your workout. And just to see other people. I’m not doing this by myself.”

Sheehan, who also works with students in the St. Paul school system, said she aims to encourage more African Americans to get fit. She hopes the move to virtual settings, which might not require the equipment or cost of a gym, can make fitness more accessible.

You could see her passion to help during a 6 a.m. class.

As we finished squats — “You only have to go a millisecond faster to do more than you did last time,” she told us — you could see the brightness of morning sneaking through the blinds of her mother’s living room as Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” played through her smartphone.

The image of a Black woman fighting through her own personal challenges to encourage those around her to search for that sliver of sunlight, a more arduous pursuit these days, was captivating.

Beyond the workout, I was glad I’d met her.

“I swear,” Sheehan said, “we gotta move our bodies during this pandemic.”