Truth be told, it was never his dream — but it quickly became Chris Downing’s destiny. Chris Downing will tell you his success as the owner of Chris Downing 24 Hour Fitness, at 109 E. Main St. in Louisville, was a dream come true.
The dream, however, was someone else’s. A model and actor by profession, Downing said he was urged to consider becoming a personal trainer by his uncle, Henry Downing. It was the last thing on his mind.
“I told him modeling was my plan A, and acting, my plan B,” Downing recalled, laughing.
After all, he was making a good living as an actor, snagging parts in network TV shows, movies and commercials.
“I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” Downing said. “I had contractual obligations for modeling and acting.”
But Henry Downing wouldn’t let it go, telling his nephew that he was having dreams in which he saw him as a trainer.
When Henry Downing died unexpectedly from a heart attack, it was a huge blow to his nephew because the two always had been close. Henry almost was like a father to him, Downing said. But the seeds of Henry Downing’s vision already had begun to grow.
While in Nashville, Tenn., to film a commercial with country-music star Carrie Underwood, Downing said, he was shopping at a Whole Foods store when a customer stopped him to ask if he were a trainer. During workouts at the YMCA in Nashville, Downing said, two patrons approached him for workout tips, which got him into trouble with the management, who thought he was a professional.
On the plane ride home, Downing said, a fellow passenger asked him about his “career” as a personal trainer. Hint taken.
Downing continued to model and act but decided to take a first, tentative step toward personal training.
“I didn’t want to make a fool of myself,” he explained.
Tammy Kaylor says Downing’s decision, saved her life. On Oct. 31, 2009, Kaylor received an ominous report from her physician due to her weight. She had had her gall bladder removed, suffered from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and needed a walker.
“I was 697 pounds,” she recalled. “I knew I was dying; I just knew I wasn’t going to make it to Christmas … I was literally suffocating under my own body. I was lying in my hospital bed in my home, and I just sent up a little pathetic prayer, asking God to send help. I believed I could lose weight; I just needed someone to believe in me. I was even starting to wonder if God believed in me.
“The next day, I get this phone call from Chris. It was out of the blue. But I was in a bad mood; I let it go to voice mail.”
Kaylor said Downing, a friend from church, ended the voicemail message with, “Tam? I believe in you.’”
“I thought ‘Only God could do that,” Kaylor said. “It was super, crazy specific.”
“When I told her I wanted to train her; she started crying,” Downing recalled.
He invited Kaylor to visit the Southeast Community Center, where he was conducting some classes. Though it was November, Kaylor said she wore sandals because she couldn’t put on her shoes.
“I show up, and they’re doing crazy stuff, ‘Insanity’ stuff,” she said, laughing. “But those ladies were very nice to me, very encouraging.”
Kaylor said that when she and Downing embarked on a simple walk around the gym, she had an asthma attack.
“My inhaler was in my sweatshirt across the gym and he’s panicking because he thought he killed me,” she laughs. “It’s comical, now.”
But Kaylor stuck it out. Prior to her workouts with Downing several days a week, Kaylor did pool exercises designed for her by Downing. By June 2010, she lost 148 pounds. Today, the former Repository Teen of the Year is back at her high-school weight.
“I’ve struggled with weight from childhood,” Kaylor said. “It’s embarrassing, but I’m proud of the fact that I never gave up. It’s amazing to me how a simple little prayer was life-changing.”
Full steam ahead
Downing first joined in partnership at Vibe Fitness and assumed sole ownership of the business in 2011. In 14 months, the facility has grown from just 25 members to 250-plus.
“The reason I wanted to come to Louisville is that, if my uncle’s dream was real, it would be bigger than me,” said the GlenOak High School graduate. “I had the thought that if it works in Louisville, it will work anywhere.”
It sure seems to be working. The enterprise is growing like muscle. Chris Downing Fitness Center has exploded to include multiple daily classes, including cardio, strength, weight lifting, boxing, kickboxing, Zumba — plus kids and seniors options.
Last fall, Downing converted the building’s first floor into space for additional classes and opened “Health Nutt,” a healthy cafe and smoothie bar. Downing now employs 15 at the facility.
It seems Uncle Henry knew what he was talking about, Downing acknowledges with a smile.
Downing said his goal is to push people beyond what they think their limits are.
“I try to put (training) in terms that we have one hour to change people’s lives,” he said. “You don’t know what people are dealing with when they get here.”
Michelle DeSantis Alexander said meeting Downing changed her life.
“He’s so inspiring and motivating,” she said. “He loves what he does. He loves people.”
In 2010, the North Canton mom of three said she was overweight and suffering from anxiety and depression when she spotted a newspaper article about Downing’s gym.
“I called, and couldn’t believe I was doing it, first of all,” Alexander laughed. “I left my phone number and hung up really fast, and 30 seconds later, he called me right back. I thought ‘Oh my gosh, now I have to do this.’”
Alexander said she lost about eight pounds that first week and went on to train with Downing three days a week for the first year.
Now 58 pounds lighter, she also became a personal trainer. Her family also is on board, with husband, Brad, and the kids working out, too. Alexander said Downing has a gift for inspiring others.
“He is intuitive and manages to encourage, inspire and motivate each person he comes into contact with,” she said. “I had the chance to become the person I didn’t know I could be — and now I get to help other women.”
Living the dream
Downing Fitness also has become the go-to place for young athletes and sport clinics. A number of athletes from area high school sports teams can be found there in the offseason.
Another client is Reggie Corner, a McKinley High School alumnus and NFL player who is completing rehab for a knee injury.
“I tell them, ‘You have to be willing to do what everyone else isn’t,’” Downing said of the athletes he trains. “It’s also getting them to realize that it’s OK to dream, and that ‘you are your own worst enemy.’”
What seems to set Downing apart is his passion and dedication to helping others — regardless of whether they are a member of his gym. He seeks to empower others to make better choices and live better lives. He publishes The Decision, a newsletter filled with motivational information and tips designed to inspire confidence and success in readers.
“It’s powerful stuff,” he said (request one free at www.chrisdowningfitness.com). Downing also produces his own YouTube channel, “D24 Sports,” which features training routines he’s designed.
Downing said that, for him, fitness is essentially about self-love.
“What I do is empower people to do their absolute best,” he said. “There are so many people who have no self-esteem. I try to emphasize that they were born to do great things. You can’t be a better mom, a better businessperson, or help others if you’re not in a better place.”
CHRIS DOWNING FITNESS CENTER
109 E. Main St., Louisville
Smartphone app with class times and additional info available through website