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Preaching strength of body equal to that of mind

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- A secret like this is bound to get out. A man of this stature cannot hide his feelings forever.

And so the gentleman places the fitness magazine on the checkout counter. Then he asks the clerk to place it in a plain, brown bag.

"It was like I was buying porn," he says.

This was the old Omali Yeshitela. Or, better yet, the younger Yeshitela.

This was the one-time mayoral candidate and leader of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, before coming to grips with his midlife transformation into fitness freak.

Yeshitela is an activist who likes to whale on his pecs. A social critic with killer quads. He is, for goodness' sake, a 60-year-old power lifter.

"People say, "What do you do for fun or relaxation?' This is it for me," Yeshitela said. "For me, it's a lifestyle. It's not something to do to lose or gain weight. I'm not training for anything. It's just a whole transformation in my diet and life.

"There's an incredible feeling, an incredible high connected with training and being in good shape. I don't know anywhere else you can get that."

So maybe it is perfectly natural a person so committed to social reform can be just as committed to personal health. It just seems strange to hear someone explain he began lifting weights because Huey Newton was assassinated.

* * *

His stomach is taut, his shoulders are wide and his passion is real.

Yeshitela stands near the entrance of the All People's TyRon Lewis Community Gym in Midtown and talks of pride, of hope, of trust. And he finds it all within these doors.

The gym celebrated its first anniversary Thursday. Already there is talk of expanding into the building next door.

It began as part of the Uhuru House with some equipment Yeshitela had been collecting over the years. The nonprofit African People's Education and Defense Fund purchased the abandoned building on Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street and, using some government grant money, opened the gym and a store.

It may seem like a luxury in a part of town where even some essentials seem to be missing, but Yeshitela believes otherwise.

"We have an incredible tradition of athleticism in the African community but not one of fitness," Yeshitela said. "Given the infant mortality rate, the life span in general of African people, accepting the fact that perhaps the majority of the people don't have health insurance, our best bet is to not get sick, to be in good shape."

So there are wellness seminars and plans for aerobic workouts. There are nearly as many women as men among the 150 or so names on the membership list.

More than anything, Yeshitela says, there is a sense of community spirit. In a building that two years ago was abandoned but for the beer drinkers loitering out front, there is a sense of pride and commitment.

"In this community you have to leave to get anything you want. Movies, go to a deli, go to a bowling alley, get an ice cream cone, you have to leave your community. That's why I like this," he said. "I like being able to participate in something that people in the community can call their own.

"I like the fact it's nonprofit. Nobody is making money, it's being done for the community. People who would never come to a gym can walk in here and feel comfortable. That, I feel really good about."

* * *

The reaction used to be immediate. See a body builder, stifle a laugh.

This was the way Yeshitela would perceive weightlifting. It seemed an exercise in vanity. A self-centered pursuit that led nowhere.

Although active in his youth, Yeshitela was never particularly athletic. That he was slender and healthy seemed a given. Besides, who had time for all that nonsense?

The change in Yeshitela's outlook came in his mid 40s when he was living in Oakland and tried to run across a street. This simple act left him sluggish.

So he began running. First out of concern for his health. Later, he realized, he enjoyed it. He would put in 7 miles most days. He began doing hill work. He entered road races, although he was never particularly fast.

It was in 1989 when Newton, a founder of the Black Panther Party, was shot on an Oakland street early one morning.

Yeshitela said acquaintances were concerned about his solitary runs on the street in the predawn hours, and he was asked to stop.

So he went looking for another outlet for his newfound energy.

"I went into the gym for the first time when I was 48," he said. "I started working out and found it to be an incredible feeling."

If he once was embarrassed by his interest in weightlifting, Yeshitela now is a crusader. He has participated in exhibitions in St. Petersburg in order to raise community awareness for the gym and to promote the idea that weightlifting is not just for the young and athletic.

He has done a 455-pound squat and once had his eye on 500 pounds but since has backed off that quest. He has resumed running and has radically altered his diet. His idea of splurging is spreading all-natural peanut butter on a whole wheat cracker.

Nearing his 61st birthday, Yeshitela said he has made no concessions to age when it comes to weightlifting. The only difference he finds as he gets older is that he falls out of shape more quickly if he misses workouts.

"My daddy died at 52 and I remember thinking of him as an old man," Yeshitela said. "I don't think of myself as old. Occasionally something shocks me into remembering that 60 is supposed to be old. But, to me, this is normal. Now I think it's abnormal not to be involved in exercise."

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