After paralyzing illness, Lake Stevens gym owner aims to inspire

People usually get into the fitness business to either make money or because they love to work out.

Mike Liberato says he got into the business to help.

Liberato, 44, is the owner of Team Fitness in Lake Stevens, one of the largest gyms in Snohomish County.

Sure, he wants to run a business and make a profit.

He loves to work out. Liberato also wants to see his patrons succeed and improve their lives in every way.

That’s why he designed the 25,000-square-foot facility to include not only a gym and workout machines, but also a physical therapy clinic, a chiropractor’s office, a nutritionist, a smoothie bar and a spa. There’s a full complement of dairy- and gluten-free health products for sale.

That focus on total well-being comes from his own experience.

At 15, Liberato went from star wrestler to intensive care at what is now Providence Regional Medical Center Everett in a few days.

He remembers going with his mom to the grocery store and finding it hard to push the cart.

Later that night, he had trouble turning the knob on the television.

The next morning he planned to run five miles but he felt so fatigued he couldn’t — that was unusual for Liberato, a tough athlete who normally pushed through anything.

After three days of tests at the hospital, doctors finally diagnosed Liberato with a rare autoimmune disorder called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, afflicting only about one person in 100,000, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. It can happen to anybody at any age.

The disease attacked his peripheral nervous system, and he was soon paralyzed from the neck down.

No one knows why the disease strikes some people and not others. It’s not contagious. The outlook can be grim.

“They didn’t know if I could walk again,” he said.

Whether it was naivety or sheer stubbornness, Liberato was determined to get better as quickly as possible.

He focused on the solution and not the problem.

He poured his energy into rehabilitating his body. After six months he was still in a wheelchair.

“I used to go on 10-mile wheelchair ride,” he said. “My thinking was, ‘OK, if I’m going to be paralyzed, then I’m going to the Olympics in wheelchair racing.’ I was at the point where I realized I couldn’t change the cards I was dealt. I was going to try to have the highest quality of life possible.”

After two years of hard work, Liberato was able to walk without braces and a cane. His lower legs never fully recovered.

Nearly two decades later he can feel his feet and calves but can’t move them normally. His muscles below the knees have atrophied.

Yet, he can walk, run and even teach kick boxing. He remains trim and fit.

Liberato used that experience to choose a career in fitness.

He opened Team Fitness at 1109 Frontier Circle E, No. A, in Lake Stevens in 2002.

Liberato wants his clients to feel this is a second home, the place they’d spend the most time after home and work.

He encourages his staff to greet every person by name so they don’t feel like a number.

He married his sweetheart, Cheri, a nutritionist he met at his gym. They have an infant daughter, Isabella, who he often straps to his chest and carries around the gym.

Even after a dozen years in the business, there’s still plenty of challenges.

Liberato recently shut down another Team Fitness gym in Snohomish.

While the Lake Stevens location is flourishing, Liberato says his Snohomish location never made money and he suspects it’s just a different demographic.

His greatest challenge in Lake Stevens is finding good-quality staff for the amount he can pay them. He currently employs about 70 people, most of them are part-time staff.

The fitness industry business model generally relies on selling memberships to people who don’t show up. Liberato wants his members to show up and work out.

Liberato says it’s typical for only about 5 percent of a gym’s members to actively work out. He says 15 to 20 percent of his members come regularly.

“I try to make things as easy as possible for members,” he said. “There’s enough things in the world to keep them from working out.”

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