Exercises in Love

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So, are you in good enough shape to handle Valentine's Day?

According to Datingmatchmakers.com, the average person expends one calorie per minute kissing. Making whoopee reportedly burns another 100 calories. Add a few sets of curls with a five-pound box of chocolates and -- whew! -- romance becomes an anaerobic-threshold experience.

For some people. For others, love and exercise go hand in hand year-round. Occasionally, that hardbody-and-soul rocket will lift a relationship off the ground right from the get-go, propelling two humans into emotional deep space.

He first noticed the way her ponytail bobs when she sprints uphill, light-footed as a fawn. She couldn't take her eyes off that hunk who wiped down the Cybex machine after finishing his leg extensions. In no time, they were finishing each other's sentences and PowerBars.

Let's drink a pre-Valentine's Day toast (Gatorade and vodka?) to the prospect of being both happy and healthy. Here's to the few, the proud, the fit and fulfilled.

Call 'em sweatbirds in love.

Lisa & Jimi Carey: Two hearts in training

They got their love directions backward: The way to Jimi Carey's heart runs through her stomach.

The first date, in March 1994, was a jog around Centennial Park in Ellicott City. Lisa Wiegmann fell for his blue Spandex shorts and "great calves." Jimi was impressed when they had lunch afterward.

"I was just amazed the woman can eat so much," recalls Jimi, whose first wife was a picky vegetarian. He got so carried away he gave Lisa a goodbye kiss.

She slapped him.

They'd met six months earlier at Columbia Athletic Club. Jimi, an inventory manager for a medical supply company, moonlights as a personal trainer. Lisa was a club member.

Jimi's initial reaction was, "gosh, she's beautiful." His second thought was that she had an ugly workout routine: bad form on her upright rows, always doing the same few exercises over and over. He offered Lisa pointers.

Things went uphill quickly after that first-date slap. By August, Jimi had moved in with Lisa and her two children from a youthful marriage. Three years later, they both felt ready to wed again.

Lisa, 39, grew up on the Eastern Shore. Her father raised horses and taught her how to play volleyball and softball. "I was a tomboy," she says.

Jimi, 41, was an overseas Army brat.

In high school he excelled in football and basketball, and later played 14 years with the Munich Cowboys semi-pro football team.

He married a Cowboys cheerleader but, after their relationship fizzled, he headed to Maryland to live near his sister.

Lisa was a day-care worker when they met, but Jimi encouraged her to turn her love of exercise into a vocation.

She got certified as a trainer, then later added a degree from Baltimore School of Massage.

"I'm in better shape now," says Lisa, "than I was at 24."

That created some awkward ripple effects. "Watching the woman you love blossom, I felt threatened by that," Jimi says. "I was a little jealous."

For nearly two years he stopped training. Gradually, Jimi worked through that funk and dropped the 45 pounds he accumulated. He also resumed personal training, at Quest Fitness in Ellicott City.

Last spring, Jimi felt rejuvenated enough to play semi-pro football again. He's a defensive back with the Arbutus Big Red.

Being a 40-something football player doesn't strike him as odd. It's his wife who's over-the-edge, he says. Lisa plays volleyball twice a week and is on three indoor soccer teams.

"She out of control with her sports," says Jimi. "She can't sit still."

Working it out Choose your own weapon

Lisa Carey does everything from yoga to light weights to balance balls: "I'm not into the body-building routine," she says.

Jimi Carey favors intense, 45-minute workouts that feature "super sets" of weight-lifting. He's admittedly Old School compared with his wife. "I introduced her to personal training," he says, "and she took it to another level."

Donna & Jack Stuff:

There's no spiking this romance

The Volleyball House in Elkridge has all the ambience of an airplane hangar, but reminds Judy DeJong, president of the small corporation that operates the six-court complex, of the Cheers bar: "We have people who've been dropping in for 10 years."

Everybody at Volleyball House knows your name, not to mention how hard you serve and whether you have knobby knees.

Donna Brown and Jack Stuff met in the summer of 1991 when Columbia Ski Club organized a few off-season volleyball teams. Jack was a solid, all-round player; Donna a good setter. They clicked as teammates.

"Jack and I were both people who wanted to improve in the game," says Donna. "We developed our friendship first through volleyball."

It took Jack, now 43 and a civilian chemist at Aberdeen Proving Ground, six months to screw up the courage to ask Donna out to eat after a co-ed league game. A few months later, he made dinner for her: chicken divan.

"Chicken, broccoli and cheese sauce," says Jack. "You can't go wrong."

Jack and Donna kept playing volleyball, and their off-court chemistry kept improving.

They got engaged in April 1993 and married a year later. Two other volleyball couples synchronized their calendars so they all could attend each other's weddings.

The Stuffs now live in Abingdon and have two sons, Spencer, 3, and Nathaniel, 20 months. They remain active volleyballers, albeit on separate nights and separate teams so somebody can be home with the kids.

Why keep schlepping to Volleyball House? "It's a pretty good workout," notes Jack.

"We moved from the Columbia area," adds Donna, "and that's sort of our tie to people we originally met there."

Now and then Mom and Dad will bat around a balloon with their small boys. Looks like they may have a second-generation spiker on their hands.

"Spencer," says Donna, "sometimes jumps off the couch to hit it harder."

Working it out Avoid bad-chemistry experiments

Unlike some couples, Jack and Donna Stuff get along fine playing volleyball. But they avoid canoeing, having had a few unhappy experiences. The sticking point, says Jack, was "who wanted to steer the boat."

Gwyn Sirota & Dick Hoffman: They met while working out

She can do 80 "guy's pushups" during a workout -- and, for the longest time, that was about all she had to do with guys.

"I sort of dropped out of the social world," says Gwyn Sirota, a 66-year-old retired medical technician. "I was happy without a man."

She hadn't dated in two years, and had been divorced for more than 20. Gwyn was content hanging with girlfriends, babysitting her grandkids (with nine of them there's plenty of opportunity), taking two-mile walks every morning and hitting the Maryland Athletic Center in Timonium every afternoon.

Then Dick Hoffman came along. A guy.

He popped out from behind a machine at the MAC and asked Gwyn if she'd like to go out. She surprised herself by answering, "You bet."

They went to dinner and blabbed nonstop for three hours.

"We're both physical fitness nuts," says Gwyn. "We just kind of hit home with each other."

"She's a trim, vivacious person," says Dick, a 74-year-old widower. Plus, Gwyn was geographically desirable. Dick lives in Lutherville, she's in nearby Cockeysville. ("I've timed it," Dick says, "and it's 2.5 minutes from my house.")

Gwyn, who has been working out her "whole life," joined a health club once her three children were grown.

Dick, long retired, was married 47 years and kept in shape doing things like building an addition on his house. It was only after his wife, Dorothy, died four years ago that he joined a gym to beat the blues.

"My first weeks alone were very grim," he says.

Thanks to the MAC he feels great (and can leg press 500-plus pounds 15 times) and had the good fortune of bumping into Gwyn.

"There's an interesting dynamic with a mature person who loses a spouse," says Dick. "You think maybe life, love and companionship is over. But you can enter into a tender relationship again."

"It's changed my life," notes Gwyn, who thought her life didn't need any changing.

They see each other at least twice a week -- for hikes and bike rides, and for those night swims at the MAC when lifeguards turn the lights down low and play music that's so relaxing you could drown with a smile on your face. They snorkel, dance, go on cruises.

They've talked about marriage, but why mess up a smooth sail?

"A lot of my peers who've lost their wives, I've sent 'em to health clubs," says Dick. "I'm like John the Baptist. I know the Gospel of get up and go."

Working it out

Separate but equal's OK

Gwyn Sirota typically does 30 minutes of aerobics, 20 minutes of stretching and an hour of weight training. Dick Hoffman -- whose weight is holding at 146 with 18 percent body fat -- is more of a sociable sweater.

"Dick likes to kibitz," Gwyn jokes.

"She has her program. I have mine," says Dick. "We don't do many buddy workouts except when we go swimming."

Nicole Royer & Randy Ambuel: Their love keeps climbing

C hurch as a pickup joint? Randy Ambuel, a 42-year-old computer systems engineer and devout Christian, insists God deserves a true-love finder's fee.

Some invisible hand, says Randy, guided him into that pew at Grace Community Church in Columbia one fateful Sunday last March.

There's an interlude in every Grace Community service during which congregants exchange short greetings. Randy mentioned to Nicole Royer that he loves rock climbing. Nicole, a computer software trainer, said she once went climbing with her Dad and spends lots of time outdoors.

Bingo!

A few days later Randy asked Nicole to join him for a "social date" at Earth Treks climbing gym in Timonium.

Randy happens to be a born-again outdoorsman. He rock-climbed as a teen-ager, then dropped the sport, went to college, married an avid indoorswoman -- and became a sedentary suburban guy whose biggest thrill was mowing the lawn.

When the Ambuels divorced four years ago, Randy went on a pent-up-energy binge. He hiked 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail (acquiring the nickname "Gadget" because of all the equipment he carried). He rock-climbed, ran half-marathons, mountain-biked.

The first thing Randy wants to know about any single woman who catches his eye is, "Does she own a backpack, sleeping bag and hiking boots?"

Turns out Nicole owned a backpack and boots, plus five sleeping bags. "My family did a lot of camping," she says.

They had a great time at Earth Treks, but no lightning struck. Nicole and Randy continued to see each other at Sunday services, then reconnected on a church-sponsored camping trip last fall. They sat around the campfire, yakking for hours.

Carl Sandburg once likened love to wood smoke: It gets in your eyes, your hair, the fiber of your clothes and being. The two campers came home that weekend smelling of love smoke.

By Christmas they'd resolved the age "issue." Nicole is 26. "I'd much rather be happy," she says, "than settle for somebody who's my own age."

Two weeks ago they had another Earth Treks date. Randy slipped into his harness and scaled the 44-foot indoor wall. Nicole followed. Three-quarters of the way up, she came upon a sequential message written on strips of tape: Nicole ... will you ... marry ... me?

Yes!

The wedding will be in March, at sunset on a Florida beach. There won't be a wall or a mountain in sight. But the bride and groom, roped together by vows, will happily embark on the longest climb of their life.

Working it out Don't push too hard

Randy Ambuel (who has his eye on Alpamayo, a 2,000-foot ice formation in Peru) wants to expose his fiancee to climbing, not force her into it. Good. Because Nicole Royer isn't sure she wants any part of "crazy, high-altitude climbs."

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