Jonathan Walker of Gambaru gym
Cancer has ruined and cut short so many lives. But fighting back from it can unlock deep, deep resources and be a beginning rather than an end. Jonathan Walker tells Mike Hughes about the effect it had on him and his Gambaru gym business.
When he was growing up in Newton Le Willows near Bedale in Yorkshire, Jonathan Walker always knew he would be leaving the Village of the Year 2009 to make his own way in the business world. He loved the surroundings but the future lay elsewhere. Harrogate, as it turned out.
“I always felt that I needed to be out of there and doing bigger and better things,” he says. “I was never going to end up living in a village because I felt that the world was a lot bigger than the area I grew up in.
“My mum and my stepdad split up when I was 18 months old and I used to see my dad about once every couple of months, but I was always inspired by the fact that he had his own business and was in charge of his own destiny. When I was making my plans, I couldn’t see anything other than sport that would get me away from sitting behind a desk every day, but at first I didn’t understand how I could bring that into my life as a career.”
Teaching was a possibility, as was the army and the fire brigade, but nothing struck quite the right balance he wanted of working in sport but also feeling that he was helping people with their health and their lifestyles. Eating well and exercising had always been a big part of his life, and with an uncle playing rugby up near Leyburn and a granddad from farming stock, the Walker men were a formidable team who would give any opponents a run for their money.
“They were all big eaters, but stocky guys who either played rugby or were always active somewhere,” he remembers. “So, as I started getting a bit older and enjoyed my sport, I always thought of that balance of keeping in shape but not missing out on the good food I liked to eat.
“By this time, I was playing county football, running with the county athletics team, setting the area record for the 200-metres sprint when I was 17. Then I went to college at Scarborough and university at Newcastle and all the time I thought playing competitive sport was something everyone should do for the escapism and the mental boost it gave.”
The need to also pay the bills on top of spending time in the gym or on the track or pitch forced him to move into pharmaceutical sales. Still looking after the body and selling a healthy lifestyle, but not the real Walker. It gave him a good grounding in selling and marketing, but after four years it was time to take the big step and fulfil a dream he had started having as a kid back in Newton Le Willows.
“For a time, I thought wearing a suit and having a shave every day was going to be me and that wearing a tie was my future, but I knew I would go back to a tracksuit,” he says. “Ten years ago, I handed in my notice and haven’t looked back since. I got a job at Knaresborough swimming pool, then a duty manager’s role and after that I did my personal training course and started to develop a real interest in weights.
“But I needed to have my own ideas and when I first got the keys to the gym building there was a great excitement about the possibilities and opportunities, mixed with some fear – and a lack of sleep for about six weeks.”
The office was now 17 Station Parade, Harrogate. The Gambaru brand, which covers a 24-hour gym and an up-market healthy-eating restaurant, is named after the Japanese principle of “Being the best you can be”. But the deeper cultural meaning that Walker lives by is more about going beyond what you think are your normal limits and finding those deeper resources.
He was already going beyond the normal limits of a suit-and-tie job, but all the dreams and plans he was building towards were about to be put sharply into perspective as Gambaru came to have a hugely personal meaning and would set him a goal he might never have thought he could reach.
Two years after he bought his gym, problems with his eye led to trips to the doctor and the diagnosis no one wants to hear. In 2008, when he was 33 and had a silver medal from the British Powerlifting Championships, he lost his left eye to cancer.
“Being diagnosed was obviously a very big blow,” he says with an eyebrow-raising understatement. “I don’t think it registered with me at first, if I’m being honest. I was so focused on the powerlifting that when the surgeon in Harrogate hospital said the lump in my eye could be a tumour, I said ‘But I’ve got to compete in six weeks’.
“He sat me down and said, ‘You need to get it in your head now that you are not going to be in that competition’. That’s when I realised it was serious and was going to be more traumatic than I had hoped. I had many questions then – and still have them now – about why it should happen to me when I was trying to be so fit and healthy.
“But, as I started to look for more information, I read about elements like environment, stress and nutrition. The food we eat may be organic, but over-farming in a bid to feed the nation means there are elements missing from our soil now and our water supply can contain oestrogen and antibiotics.
“I was in my own business, training very hard and barely sleeping, so maybe I wasn’t looking after myself as well as I thought. Sleep is a massive thing in our lives, with some people doing very well off a few hours but the vast majority need it to relieve the stresses that can lead to so many problems.
“I have been working with life coach Mike Pywell for the past three years to move Gambaru into being a personal development model, incorporating health, nutrition and fitness. After I came out of hospital and had a business to run and was in the middle of expanding, which I had to put on hold, I put an eyepatch on and was back at work within a week.
“I was learning there was more to health and fitness than just the aesthetics and weights, it was about the mind and how it can be strengthened by the release of endorphins and taking control of how your body can work. After ten days of being told I couldn’t exercise for the next three months, I came here and did 30 minutes on a bike. I could feel the anaesthetic and medicines being sweated out of me and was absolutely exhausted, but I had a smile on my face because I knew I could get through it and be in charge of my own destiny.”
It is interesting to note that is the same phrase he used to describe his admiration for his dad. Both men had taken a grip on their lives, knew what was needed to make all the cogs fit together and were pumping those endorphins because they were creating their own success.
“That was a defining moment for me,” says Walker, now aged 41. “When I look back at it, I realise it was not about me being able to ride 100 miles or bench-press 300kg, it was about my own mind feeling better and me being able to do something other than sitting in a corner rocking myself to sleep.
“The little things in life don’t bother me anymore because they could be taken away at any moment. I feel I have to explore every opportunity, because it will always lead somewhere.”
The New York marathon followed recently, raising money for Yorkshire Cancer Research. He trained for ten months to do it and “went to some dark places” handling the emotion of it all, but came out the other side with even more positivity about what life now held for him.
He comes pre-packed with that attitude, and it spills over into every corner of the business. The gym is open 24 hours a day, new equipment has been installed - including a German app-based system called Egym - and a good friend has moved to be the head chef at the business’s café, NJ’s. Gambaru also has its own adversity awards, working with local schools to identify young people who have used sport to become the best they can.
Walker followed his instincts when he was a child, followed his love of sport as a young man and has now followed his drive to run a successful business. It is a difficult thing to write, but perhaps his cancer made him a fuller person.
Like so many things in our lives, we never quite know what we are capable of until we are pushed almost to breaking point. It’s a lesson that so many entrepreneurs have learned – the journey can be tough, but the rewards are worth it.