Friday, July 19, 2019

Remembering Ralph Raiola - By Jim Duggan

     Over the years, much has been written about some of the elite lifting gyms that have gained a reputation among Lifters and Strength Athletes.  While many, unfortunately,  have gone by the wayside, a few are still operating to this very day.  I've often lamented the fact that I have the "pleasure" of belonging to a commercial gym.  While I am fortunate to be able to train at home for the most part, one of the things I miss is belonging to a great lifting gym.  There just aren't many around, at least here in Long Island.  That wasn't always the case, though.  I had the good fortune of belonging to two great gyms in the past.  The first was Bruno's Health Club, which operated from 1980 until 1989.  The second was Iron Island Gym, where I trained from 1992 until 2008.
     Iron Island was simply the finest gym I had ever seen. If you speak to anyone who trained there, I think you will get the same response. It had everything you would want in a gym: great equipment, convenient hours, immaculate facilities, and an atmosphere that had to be experienced.  Naturally, a big reason for the excellence of any gym is the people who run it.  And Iron Island Gym had two of the absolute best in Dr. Ken Leistner, and Ralph Raiola.  These two gentlemen were childhood friends who became business partners and created the finest lifting facility that any of us had ever seen.
     Earlier today, I received the sad news that Ralph passed away yesterday at age 72.  How sad that these two legendary figures would pass away within a few months of each other.  It is definitely the end of an era.  And while there may never be another Iron Island Gym, the memories of that special place will live on.  And while people usually associate Dr. Ken with Iron Island, Ralph played a big part in the success of the gym.  Indeed, after Dr. Ken had left the business, Ralph continued to run the gym for almost another ten years.  While I have many memories of Ralph, perhaps my warmest memory of him occurred during the very darkest of times.
     In the days following September 11, 2001, I had stopped going to the gym. I don't think it's necessary to explain why. However, up until that point, I had been going to the gym every day.  Whether it was to lift, or simply do my thirty minutes on the Stairmaster, I was at the gym every day.  Naturally, in the days immediately following 9/11, there was little time, interest, or incentive to work out. But several days later, on Friday, September 14, I decided to go to the gym early in the morning,  before I reported to work.  If nothing else, lifting weights would provide temporary relief from everything that had taken place.  I'll never forget walking into the gym that morning.  It was very early, and even more quiet than usual. As I walked through the door, Ralph spotted me from behind the front desk.  He sort of did a double-take, then ran out from behind the desk and hugged me.  He then began to cry, as he was hugging me.  He even kissed me, and tried to tell me how happy he was to see me.  It was hard for him to speak, because he was crying so hard, but words were not necessary. I could feel what was on his mind, and in his heart.  I tried to inject some humor and said something like "Ralph, people may get he wrong idea." But he was just so glad that I was alive.  Since he hadn't seen me for four days, he assumed that I had been among the missing. I don't remember the particulars of my workout, and, really, it wasn't important what I did that day.  I was just glad that I went to the gym that day.
     During a time when raw emotions were the order of the day, Ralph restored my faith in human nature, and restored hope when there had been little cause for hope. I'll never forget what Ralph did for me that day. And I'll never forget a man who was as big-hearted as he was big.  RIP Ralph.
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