Troy Guin, 16, completes a set of barbell rows at Ark School of Fitness on Wednesday. “You always try to improve yourself,” he said. (Jasper Wittig/WUFT News)

Instead of going home when the dismissal bells rang at Lincoln Middle School on Wednesday, 13-year-old Lucas Burger walked a mile to Ark School of Fitness for his weightlifting workout.

Burger started taking classes at the Ark about six months ago and can now lift 100 pounds more than when he started. He comes an hour at a time three days a week as part of head coach Michael Espinosa’s youth weightlifting class.

“When I arrived, I didn’t know how to exercise,” Burger said. “So he had to teach all of me and the perfect stance and posture. Just recently I didn’t know how to do the split jerk, and he taught me.

In a landscape populated by company names like Planet Fitness, Gold’s Gym and Orange Theory, l’Arche stands out as Gainesville’s only non-profit gymnasium. Founded in 2012, Ark’s goal is to create accessible fitness and wellness programs for people of all ages, skill levels and incomes.

The small, triangular-roofed building with blue trim, large windows, and a wooden side door is located at the corner of Northeast 11th Street and East University Avenue. When the athletes walk inside, the loud music and the smell of chalk and sweat remind them why they are there. Weightlifting students are scattered around the gymnasium, training individually or in groups. They often cheer each other on during tough workouts.

Sawyer Cohen, an 18-year-old Florida State University freshman and former youth weightlifter at The Arch, has been coached by Espinosa since he was 12 years old. He said he was unable to find a gym with the same community assets after moving. of Gainesville.

“It’s an environment where you feel like you’re much closer to the people around you rather than just going there for the gym,” Cohen said. “Michael is really, really good at building a sense of community between all the people there. And the size of the gym and the layout of the classes helps to make that really become a thing.

The first three months of youth and college weightlifting training is $50 per month. After that, youth classes and club coaching are free with 24/7 access to the gym. Espinosa also offers scholarships to waive the cost of the first three months for those in financial difficulty. Rates for strength classes and open gym memberships range from $75 to $144 per month.

Espinosa explained that many other gyms that offer weightlifting and CrossFit are very expensive. “It’s not accessible to most people because of the cost. I wanted to create a low cost option and work with children, continue teaching and create my own institution,” he said.

Espinosa, 27, began her career as a teacher at Lincoln Middle School after earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Florida. In English.

“I was disappointed by that,” he said. “I was very young and it was under high pressure.”

After leaving his teaching job, Espinosa worked with his wife to manage Rosie’s organic farm for four years. He built a home gym on the farm to start doing CrossFit, and he eventually opened it up as a space to train others.

When he and his wife decided to leave the farm, he took his passion to greater heights.

“I took all the money I had saved up selling vegetables at farmers’ markets and bought some equipment, first I found a place, this building we’re in now, and I decided to start the Ark,” he said.

Head coach Michael Espinosa instructs 13-year-old Lucas Burger during Wednesday’s youth weightlifting session. (Jasper Wittig/WUFT News)

At first, Espinosa shared the building with a fencing club, and its gym was in the smaller back room of the two-room building. After a year, the fencing club left and he was able to expand into the second hall and outside, where he built an outdoor gym he calls “The Park at the Ark”. Today, the gymnasium has about 120 members.

During the first weeks of the pandemic, l’Arche had to close temporarily. But an outdoor space allowed people living nearby to continue to enjoy its amenities for free.

In June 2021, after the Ark reopened, 16-year-old Troy Guin joined Espinosa’s youth weightlifting classes. He had previously been trained in powerlifting and his former coach inspired him to pursue weightlifting.

“I like it more than powerlifting because it’s really complex moves, and it’s really fun to go through the learning process,” Guin said. “It’s the closest thing to real life in a video game in my mind, where you go through all these levels and you’re always trying to improve.”

Guin said he hopes to compete professionally and eventually coach youth and college athletes.

“It’s always good to have a coach, especially at the start of the two years to really make sure you’re not going to mess anything up,” he said. “So having a coach around me all the time is really beneficial.”

Coby Rhodes, a 19-year-old University of Florida sophomore, has been practicing Olympic weightlifting for eight years. When he started school in Gainesville, he joined the Gator Weightlifting Club and was introduced to the Ark. Now he works alongside Espinosa as an assistant coach.

“I feel like a lot of people feel naturally comfortable there because there are no standards to live up to and there’s no pressure to do something that you don’t feel comfortable,” Rhodes said.

L’Arche provides an environment of unconditional acceptance and support for all athletes, regardless of age, experience or status, Espinosa said.

“I think we’re all in the gym to mask our insecurities,” Espinosa said. “A big part of why people come to the gym is to gain more confidence. The gym is a microcosm for the bigger world. When people come to the gym, they’re doing something really hard. , and they do it every day, and they fail. But they come back the next day, and that’s how life is.