Part 1/3: Deb Mirabella
Debra Mirabella, owner of THE MAX Challenge in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, sits in her house on our Zoom call, a setting that she is oh-so familiar with after this past year. She is in her athletic wear, looking as if she is ready to teach a fitness class at any moment. When I met Deb, even through the computer screen, I could tell she is a rock. As our conversation continued, I began to see just how many instances in which that’s true; she is a rock for herself, her members, her business, and for all of the small businesses and boutique fitness studios that still strain under the weight of New York City COVID restrictions.
While many of the big box gyms are now able to open their doors to members, smaller fitness studios, which make up most of the industry in NYC, are tied down and forced to jump through a myriad of hoops if they want to operate. “You feel a real restriction of your freedom when you can’t even operate your business while you’re watching everyone else move forward,” Deb said. “Some days it can feel hopeless.” But hopelessness is not the feeling you get when you speak with Deb. Since the moment her studio made the decision to close for the safety of its members on March 16th, 2020, Deb and the rest of THE MAX Challenge community have taken nothing but action. Deb’s studio, as well as the entirety of THE MAX Challenge franchise, immediately switched their classes over to a virtual format, never skipping a beat.
Deb first saw THE MAX Challenge’s shift to virtual programming as an opportunity to better serve her MAX family, especially those who were no longer in Brooklyn. As quarantine went longer than expected and fitness centers were taken out of “Phase 4”, Deb along with her husband and partner Gary, decided to use it as an opportunity to improve their facility for the members. “Let’s renovate the center, let’s make this place new and sexy so the members are excited to return,” Deb says with a smile on her face. But eventually, the weeks turned into months and there was no indication of reopening on the horizon. I asked Deb where she found the support she needed to keep pushing forward and her immediate reply was, “It’s the members. They need me as much as I need them. I live in THE MAX world all day, every day. I stick to my routine. Living in THE MAX world gave me purpose and kept me going. That’s why THE MAX is amazing, it’s a belief that a community of people can lift each other up.”
Lifting each other up is exactly what the members of THE MAX Challenge Bay Ridge did. “We took donations to help members who were losing their jobs. We weren’t kicking them out, we were trying to help everyone keep going,” says Deb. She refers to the ‘uncertain times’ of 2020 as “A Black Hole.” Her moniker especially resonated with me. “Some people have shame about living in the black hole when they gain weight, but please don’t keep yourself down. We lived through it too! We can help but you have to reach up your hand so we can help pull you out.”
Innovation is the name of the game at THE MAX Challenge and Deb could be the poster child. As the need for human connection grew, Deb’s studio rose to the occasion and, once again, her knack to seek out a silver lining shined through. “It’s provided an opportunity for deeper connections; we are hanging out and having different virtual events, taking turns cooking in their kitchens showing off different recipes live on Zoom with the members. We created family scavenger hunts, did virtual 5Ks and cocktail hours to celebrate the end of the challenge,” Deb remarked as she smirked. “We would blast music and dance around on the screen to keep people connected and to keep their mind off the reality of what was going on around us.” This is the mission of THE MAX in action; to help people live happier, healthier, and more fulfilled lives.
Even as the restrictions continued, so did members’ results. Deb testified, “I believe in the power of THE MAX. I’ve witnessed it, even virtually. Members who never even stepped foot in my studio lost 20 or 30 lbs, and experienced the magic of THE MAX. People are coming together and leaning on THE MAX family to help them out of the darkness, some even making friends with people thousands of miles away. It’s a beautiful thing to witness, one of the biggest blessings in our lives!”
As of March 2021, THE MAX Challenge Bay Ridge is currently operating in an ‘open gym’ format. After a health inspection, they began inviting members to come in at set times and use the space as they see fit. There is a workout of the day available and an instructor to assist. But for Deb and the members of THE MAX Challenge that is not enough. “If I can be teaching members both virtually and in-studio, I can be at peace again.” Deb said with tears in her eyes. But she, in true MAX fashion, doesn’t stay down for long. As I try to console her, she wipes the tears, looks at me and laughs, “We were made to survive, girl.”
UPDATE: As of March 22, 2021 NYC THE MAX Challenge locations are able to fully open! When asked how she felt Deb stated, “The news brought tears of joy!! I feel like I can breathe again! I cannot wait to be together again with the whole May of Bay Ridge family!”