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"I went from 100 members to 400 members in two years.

"Seventy percent of our clientele comes from within a five- to six-mile radius from where we are. We're talking about Chapultepec, Hipódromo, the Rio Zone, and some people come from La Mesa. The majority of our clientele is middle-class professionals, 20 to 45 years old. Thirty-five percent male, 65 percent female. Women just take better care of their bodies. They're more in tune with the way they look. They're always dieting. They are more in tune with their body's needs. Vanity and health combined.

"The big difference between gyms in the U.S. and Mexico is that in the U.S. you are encouraged in sports from the time that you're a young kid all the way up to high school and university. Until the last day you're in school, you're encouraged to participate in sports. In Mexico, you're encouraged to participate in sports up until the tenth grade. From then on, it's voluntary. There's really not a lot of variety in activities either. In Mexico in general, and in Mexico City, there's soccer, and that's it. Here in Tijuana, with the influence from the United States, there's soccer and a little bit of basketball. Basically, if you go to most of the schools in Tijuana, they don't have 30 percent of the sports facilities that private and public high schools in the U.S. provide. Men and women who graduate from our school system here haven't had half the encouragement to participate in sports that most Americans have had.

"That plays into our gyms here. In my opinion, gyms here should put about 40 percent of their attention into cardio equipment, strength machines, and free weights. They should put the rest of their attention into classes. Why? Because classes encourage you. They tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. In the U.S., you can have a gym that has 55, or 75 -- 70 percent in cardio and free-weight equipment and 30 percent in classes. Why? Because most of the people who go to 24 Hour Fitness or one of those other big gyms already know how to work out with weights. They're encouraged to work with weights. It's almost like something you've got in your genes. You go into a gym, you're gonna use it.

"Most of the people here, males, say, 'I don't want to touch your weights. I just want to lose some weight and that's it. The easier you can make it for me, the better.' When I go to gyms in the United States, most of the people I see are in as good a shape as me or in even better shape than me. Here, I'm in the top 10 percent.

"An American health chain coming into Tijuana would have big problems.

"I once spoke to an older CEO of 24 Hour Fitness, which is the second-largest fitness chain in the world. And he told me, 'I'm everywhere. I'm in China. I'm in Russia. But I'm not in Mexico. I'm not in Mexico City because it's a dangerous place to be. And I'm not here in Tijuana because it would be difficult for us to come in here and duplicate our success.'

"I think they would be successful if they came in here and had the perfect location and the perfect everything else. But their operating costs would be totally different from what they are in the United States. In the U.S., if you go into any health club and you want a personal trainer, which is what everyone wants now, they're gonna charge you $50 per hour. Here, if you want a personal trainer, they're gonna charge you $35 per week. And they'll probably do a better job than they do in the States. I know. I've trained with both."

I asked Peniche if he thought of the "gym rat" part of himself, the exercise enthusiast, as being American.

"I used to think of it that way. I went to high school in Mexico City. I started working out a little in Mexico City. In Mexico City, when I started jogging, people would laugh at me. They'd laugh and yell at me. This was in 1980. Mexico used to lag behind six to seven years with what was happening fitnesswise in the United States. Now, we're up to par with everything. Like the new X-bike, which they invented in San Francisco. It has the handlebars that move. It's the newest concept. It's better than spinning. As soon as it came out, Mexico and Brazil were really receptive. It's to the point where we take a concept and improve on it. I think the classes that we have here are more instructive and more entertaining than the ones they have in the States."

I mentioned to Peniche that I'd browsed back issues of the Tijuana Yellow Pages. I said that in 1996 there were only 25 or so gyms in Tijuana and that in this year's Yellow Pages I counted more than 70.

"I think there are easily over 100 gyms now," he said. "And there are new ones opening all the time. The last time I counted, there were at least 30 places, small ones, that were offering spinning classes."

Not long after I spoke with Peniche, I talked with 33-year-old Leonardo Raul Burnett, one of five personal trainers on NeoSpa's staff. On the late gray afternoon I spoke with Burnett, he told me that he was from Mexico City and that he became interested in sports when he was 12 years old.

"When I was 12, I saw this movie, Hercules, and that got me interested in going to a gym. I saw it and thought, 'I want to be like that.' I also liked Olympic wrestling. So I started going to a gym in the north of the city, in a working-class neighborhood called San Simón, where they taught Olympic wrestling. They also had free weights. I was a skinny kid. The skinniest by far in the family. I weighed 106 pounds. I started going to the gym, and I worked there too, for about one year. I'd work around the gym for eight hours, and when I was finished, I'd work out with the free weights."

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