Rod and Charmaine Gordon have been running their Columbia fitness club for 25 years.
Rod and Charmaine Gordon have been running their Columbia fitness club for 25 years. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Charmaine Gordon recalls a time when women wore skimpy leotards and leg warmers to work out, and fitness instructors blasted home-mixed tapes of such hits as “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).”

The year was 1991, and the former pension and tax lawyer and her business-executive husband, Rod Gordon, had just opened Synergy Women’s Fitness in Columbia.
Twenty-five years later — with three distinct fitness studio spaces clustered together on Columbia 100 Parkway and a name change in April to SynergyFx (for fitness experience) — instructors crank up Pitbull’s “Don’t Stop the Party” and other popular songs from an iPod or smartphone for female and male clients alike.
“I like the music loud, but not too loud,” Charmaine Gordon says in her deep voice. “Clients need to hear their instructor talk, right?”
Over the decades, the Gordons have kept pace with changing trends in exercise and have nearly tripled their club’s original space to 11,000 square feet to accommodate a client base of 300, which spans ages 12 to 80 and has grown to include men and youth.
Women’s fitness currently constitutes about 45 percent of the club’s business with the balance focused on co-ed fitness, Charmaine Gordon says.
The Long Reach residents plan to celebrate their company’s silver anniversary in February, along with other notable milestones, at a Mardi Gras-themed event for their customers — some of whom have been with them since the beginning.
But the bigger takeaway might be this: In a county where fitness tends to be dominated by Columbia Association gyms, large chains and the YMCA, the Gordons are still standing.
“We always knew we had to find our niche in order to compete,” says Rod Gordon, an Ohio native who has been teaching full-time at the club since he retired as a vice president at McCormick & Company in January 2015. “Our focus is on group training and personal attention.”
“We’re small and we’re intimate,” says Charmaine Gordon, who hails from New York, of their club’s atmosphere and 17 instructors. “We’ve never considered ourselves a gym.”
Last year, the Gordons created a separate studio in their original building for Sproing Sport, which is a type of running-based, high-intensity interval training done on a softer surface for lower impact. In 2005, they opened a yoga and Pilates studio across the parking lot.
Step and Zumba classes remain popular at the club, and boxercise and Piloxing, a mashup of Pilates and boxing, are also hits. Plans call for adding BollyX, which infuses exercise with Bollywood-style dancing.
Charmaine Gordon doesn’t overlook opportunities for their clients to socialize, either. The club’s frequent parties — like “Anti-Aging and Vodka Tasting,” Pilates teas and decade-themed events — are well-attended.
“People will do anything weird once — even dress up like Madonna,” she says with a full-throated laugh.
Lynn Coleman, vice president of administration and finance at Howard Community College, has been a Synergy member from the beginning.
“Charmaine is very unique and fun instructor,” says Coleman, a Clarksville resident. “But if she thinks you have the potential to be moving more, she won’t hesitate to tell you to ‘take it up a notch.’
“I’m no spring chicken at 63, but I still go there three times a week — she’s that good,” she says. “Most people only leave when they move away.”
The former Charmaine Baldwin met her husband in 1973 at Yale University when she was a junior and he was a sophomore. Both were athletic: He was a track and football star who got an NFL tryout with the Oakland Raiders; she played basketball and field hockey.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies, she started law school at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. He took a job at Proctor and Gamble in Baltimore right after graduating in 1976 with a degree in administrative sciences, and moved to Columbia.
The couple married in 1978, and spent one year apart while she finished her law degree in Cleveland — “a good thing for any marriage,” she says with a chuckle. After graduation, she began working for the Department of Labor in Washington.
“Law was lucrative, but it wasn’t for me,” she says. “I’m a people person, and pushing papers didn’t make me happy.”
She soon realized that the high point of her day was teaching evening fitness classes at the now-defunct Spa Lady in Columbia, where she worked part-time from 1980 to 1991.
When she decided to open a fitness club — naming it Synergy because it rhymed with energy — she got her husband’s unwavering support. He also taught evening classes in strength-training and boxing while holding down a full-time job.
Rod Gordon is quick to credit his wife’s energy and larger-than-life persona for the club’s success.
“Charmaine’s the boss; she started this,” he says, motioning around the premises. “It was her vision.”
Charmaine Gordon has a simpler way of describing the couple’s work dynamic: “I’m crazy, and he lets me do what I want,” she says, smiling broadly in his direction.
The Gordons agree that the biggest innovations in fitness are occurring in technology, which has spurred a relentless quest for increasingly detailed personal health data.
“Everybody has a fitness band, and there’s an app for everything,” Charmaine Gordon says.
Those facts have spurred the couple to offer clients the option of using a Bluetooth-enabled belt that monitors heart rate with precision, and they are also working on creating their own club app so clients can “store everything under one umbrella.”
“We believe what gets measured gets done,” Rod Gordon says. “Tech is not just big; it’s the future of fitness.”
The couple’s overarching philosophy really boils down to a desire to help their clients achieve maximum results while having fun, they say.
Susan Groman, stroke program coordinator at Howard County General Hospital, began taking classes when the club opened, and says she’s as active at 60 as she was at 40 thanks to the strength and flexibility she’s gained at SynergyFx.
“Charmaine has the very unique ability to encourage everybody at whatever level they’re at and to help them achieve personal goals,” Groman says. “Charmaine and Rod are very different, and we [clients] feed off their personalities.”
Charmaine Gordon totally agrees.
“We’re small, and our personalities do permeate our studios. If you’re here and you don’t think I’m witty,” she jokes with a twinkle in her eye, “then you need to move on.”