BY WES CIPOLLA
When I knocked on the front door of the CAGE in Schuylkill Haven, I was surprised when owner Kristy Touchinsky-Sanchez greeted me in a purple dress. I wasn’t the only one.
“I can dress up!” She told a skeptical friend. “I’m a chick sometimes.”
(She had a bridal shower later that day).
Touchinsky-Sanchez opened the CAGE in 2016, and it is the kind of gym that deserves a name in all-caps. A competitive powerlifter herself, she has created a place where weightlifters, bodybuilders and Spartan racers can get a lot of encouragement, much of it unprintable. It is the kind of place where there’s a warning to “Don’t eat the chalk.”
“I’m strong and I’m good at it,” she said, sitting with her legs crossed on a utility bench. “I can lift a lot of weight for my size.”
When she felt insecure about her appearance in high school, she started lifting. Fitness runs in the family — her father, sister, brother and son have state and world records in powerlifting.
Touchinsky-Sanchez is aware that many people dislike working out, so she wants to make it fun. Motivational rap music blares on the speakers, and the walls are full of colorful artwork. She offers morning and evening classes that she calls “power training” and “warrior boot camp.”
“It’s very intense here,” said Dominic Krammes, who has been working out at The CAGE for a year. “We like intensity.”
Krammes, 21 (“Just a baby” in Touchinsky-Sanchez’s eyes) used to go to Planet Fitness, but didn’t feel like the people there were helping him reach his best.
“The people here, the environment,” he said, “they’re really uplifting. I didn’t know how to do anything. A lot of the people here help you out along the way.”
“You kind of have to have a purpose to come here,” Touchinsky-Sanchez said. “It’s not like going to Planet Fitness where you have 20 treadmills. You don’t use a machine. Your body is a machine. You use what God gave you.”
Krammes’ soon-to-be-brother-in-law Ben Schwenk, 15, is nearing the state deadlift record.
“I deadlifted 505 yesterday,” he said nonchalantly.
He likes how dark the gym is, and his fellow lifters give him helpful advice. He first came to the CAGE in June and has noticed improvements in his life since then.
“I don’t let things bother me as much now,” he said. “I just kind of go with the flow.”
To Touchinsky-Sanchez, physical, mental and emotional strength are all the same. Part of the reason she founded The CAGE was to help veterans reentering civilian life.
“People who have stressful jobs need an outlet,” she said. “This is their second home. To come here and not be looked at a certain way, like much of our society does when our bearded, tatted-up guys get out of the service. There’s no judgment in our gym. Everyone’s family; it’s home.”
When Morgan Reinoehl first came to the CAGE, she didn’t even know what a deadlift was. After a few years, she is deadlifting 330 pounds, the heaviest she has ever lifted.
“I’m mentally stronger in every aspect due to lifting,” Reinoehl, 26, said. “I feel like you’re only as good as your leader. To me, (Kristy) was always very encouraging and pushed me to my limits. When I wanted to give up she continuously pushed me to move forward.”
“Come on girl, let’s go!” Touchinsky-Sanchez shouted as Reinoehl struggled with the 330-pound weight. “Squeeze! Come on, squeeze that butt!”
The weight falls from her hands.
“Come on girl,” Touchinsky-Sanchez said, “get out of your head. This is an easy weight for you.”
When the pandemic came last March, the CAGE had to close for several months.
“It was rough,” Touchinsky-Sanchez said, “but our members are like our family. They supported us through it.”
The CAGE got busier after it reopened. Some of that extra traffic came from a newfound desire to get fit after months indoors. Some of it was customers migrating from a gym that closed and has not yet reopened.
“Once we reopened, my goal was to get things up and running again,” Touchinsky-Sanchez said. “Give up, fail. Those aren’t part of my vocabulary.”
And that is why she tells Reinoehl to “Keep that stomach tight, shoulders back!” as she tries to lift 330 pounds a second time.
“Yes! I got it, I got it,” Reinoehl said, after she lifted the weight higher than she ever did before. “It feels so good, yeah.”