by Marcus Harrison Green
For the uninitiated, Kettlebell Sport might rest somewhere between chess boxing and toe wrestling in the lexicon of obscure recreations.
But for Nikolai and Amber Puchlov, owners of Seattle Kettlebell Club, the sport has become an obsession. And, this Saturday, their venue will host Rainier Valley’s first ever international kettlebell competition.
In Kettlebell, competitors use a stainless steel weight resembling a cannonball with a handle to perform a series of controlled precision lifts similar to the ones executed during Olympic weightlifting.
Nikolai and Amber Puchlov began teaching pop-up kettlebell classes in frigid South End parks before opening their 3600-square-foot Seattle Kettlebell Club club in the Mt. Baker neighborhood. Today, their club is the 8th ranked such club in the world.
The locale is where you can find all six feet and change of Nikolai seven days a week. The lifelong Seattleite and clean shaven kettlebell instructor has the shredded muscular build of UFC Fighter Conor McGregor and the reserve and dry humor of comedian Larry David.
A former power lifter, Nickolai first discovered Kettlebell while rehabbing an injury suffered in the weight room.
“I’m a skinny guy and I found out about kettlebells to prevent injuries to myself […] and also discovered that I got a lot of cardiovascular benefits out of it,” Nikolai says, sitting at his club’s counter as his wife Amber looks on.
As we talk, trainers in the open workout area in the center of the gym put about a dozen members through their paces, teaching them various kettlebell techniques. The group of students swing the peculiarly shaped weight from their knees to above head level; then, gravity assists them in swiftly dropping the weight to their knees before repeating the motion. I am told this maneuver is called a “snatch.”
The morning exhibition showcases a small fraction of the sport that has been around in America since the late 1920s, when it is commonly believed to have been introduced by Russian immigrants. And though the “cannonball with a handle” entered into mainstream fitness more than a decade ago thanks to being a centerpiece of most Crossfit workouts, it has had an arcane status as a standalone sport. A Facebook search for it as a general topic will turn up fewer than 32,000 likes.
The sport, which blends traditional weightlifting, athletic stamina, and martial arts, has developed a devoted community, with some kettlebell enthusiasts traveling around the world for tournaments.
The sport’s mixture of disciplines and the high rep, low impact of the weights hooked Nikolai, and soon kettlebells were all he worked out with. While employed as a trainer at Columbia City Fitness in 2012, he also saw them as a way to help his elder clients to lose weight and gain strength.
“I started using it with my clients and a lot of personal training clients were a lot older—40 and up—and so they needed things to make themselves stronger, durable, and also to drop weight,” he says.
Kettlebells also offer an alternative to what he sees as remedial ways of training.
“We’re not just going to be doing bicep curls and bench press all day long. People want to move and to feel like a strong person again. People used to dance and play sports to get into shape, right? And we’re coming back around to that,” he says.
Essentially locking himself in the gym for countless hours over three years, he put the 10,000 hour principle to work and became highly proficient through progressive regimentation. The approach allowed him to master more than 1000 Kettlebell techniques.
His wife Amber also soon became hooked, though it took some persuasion for Nikolai to share his newfound knowledge.
“After I saw him with his clients, I asked him would he teach me, and he said, ‘no,’” laughing about her own introduction to the sport.
“He was new to teaching and everything, and I was not gifted with athleticism. But I love sports,” she says.
Nikolai soon relented and began teaching Amber in their driveway.
Spending months becoming skilled at the sport, meant she spent a few sleepless nights visualizing how to perform maneuvers she had learned earlier in the day. She loved the sport so much that she trained regularly up to 2 days before she delivered the couple’s first child.
With a couple of students under his belt, Nikolai began teaching regular classes at Columbia City Fitness in addition to his duties as a personal trainer with individual clients. But leading a few classes a week could not satisfy his growing passion to the sport.
Though his personal training colleagues strongly discouraged him, Nikolai decided to make a full-time living from Kettlebell coaching. But first, he had to convince his business- and marketing-savvy wife it could be done.
“I was terrified.” Amber Puchlov puts it bluntly when describing her initial reaction. “I thought he was crazy to try and make a whole business out of it. I very clearly said please don’t,” she laughs.
Amber stands about 5’4”, with an athletic frame, toned from daily kettlebell workouts. Her perpetually smiley and vibrant demeanor complements Nikolai’s more stoic mannerisms.
Thankfully, she also compliments his passionate, “let’s jump head first into the water” style of entrepreneurship, with her shrewd acumen, or as she puts it: “Let’s make sure we can afford to stay in business” mentality.
Work as a personal trainer had been paying the bills regularly, but kettlebell training was a niche’s niche when it came to fitness classes. Trading the stability of a job to pursue a dream was no easy decision.
“I wanted to save money first before staring the business, but he always follows through on whatever he says he’s going to do,” Amber says.
With both committed to the idea, but with little money other than their savings to finance the venture, they depended on the clients Nikolai had cultivated in his previous gig to follow him in his new endeavor. There was no need to worry about their loyalty as the Kettlebell trainer’s unique style had been endearing.
“I’d describe him as an iron fist inside a velvet glove,” jokes Adrian Cowens, who credits both his coach and kettlebells with drastically improving his physical health.
Cowens weighed 387 pounds and suffered from hypertension when he first began training with Nikolai in 2012. Five years later, Cowens weighs 260 pounds and has his blood pressure firmly under control.
Cowens was among Seattle Kettlebell Club’s original members who journeyed with the Puchlov’s through a succession of business iterations.
First, they taught pop-up classes, “whether in rain or snow,” at nearly any park that would have them, including Seward and Columbia City Parks. Then, they would drive to individual homes to hold training sessions. Nikolai estimates he went through eight sets of brakes on his truck carrying around kettlebell weights during this period.
After the class grew to more than a dozen, another local gym offered them a 300-square-feet outdoor patio area, covered by a carport, to teach a class of 12. However, a problem with zoning permits and another wave of rapid growth forced them to move again.
This time they relocated to a photography studio they sublet at the Hiawatha apartments between Dearborn and Charles streets. Occasionally, the photographer would appear in his pajamas while looking for the bathroom and unintentionally interrupt the morning classes. Such moments made for quite an interesting experience for students, explains Nikolai.
Thankfully, an 1100-square-feet condominium soon opened in the same complex. It became the first official location of their own, until less than a year later when the 3600-square-feet space they now occupy along Rainier Avenue and South State Street became available.
More than 100 years old and a former furniture repair shop, the space needed work. It was a project Amber and her aesthetic sensibilities embraced full throttle. She envisioned a space that was more festive fitness utopia than drab workout quadrangle.
“When we first walked in here, this place was disgusting. It had a drop ceiling, two little rooms, and an office,” she recounts, adding that many naysayers said her transformation would fall short.
After spending months renovating the space, including heavy duty pressure washing the walls to expose the brick beneath, Amber realized her vision of a communal style gym.
“I wanted the most beautiful gym in the world because I always hated gyms. I always felt uncomfortable in one. No one has ever called me by my name in a gym, and I never felt like I could relax,” she says.
Amber’s vision is also why you can expect to be greeted by a warm staff and lightly colored cream walls upon at the start of your visit and espresso and hot towels at the conclusion of your workout. It definitely beats the intense sweatbox dominated by type A personalities comparing triceps that characterizes many gyms.
“Everyone here is so positive. It’s really a community here,” says Andy Champman, who began training with Nikolai five years ago.
But Seattle Kettlebell Club offers more than just community-centric fitness classes and a “summer home” atmosphere, as Nikolai puts it. It is also one of the few places in the Northwest that offers exclusive Kettlebell Sport competition classes.
Almost half of Seattle Kettlebell Club’s 116 members are part of the Kettlebell Sport team, which sees members fly across the country to participate in meets with Kettlebell Sport masters from around the world—many of whom are usually highly approachable.
“Unlike basketball where there’s no way you can hang with Lebron James at a game, at a Kettlebell tournament the equivalent of Lebron James will come over, congratulate you on your routine, and then give you pointers,” says Cowens, who has lifted competitively for the past two years and has even designed Seattle Kettlebell Club Club’s blue team uniforms.
The club has realized remarkable success in less than five years of competing. They are ranked eighth in the world—an achievement their coach says they will soon improve upon
“I think we can shoot for second this year,” Nikolai says.
Why not number one?
Well, that title goes to the Kettlebell sport team of St. Petersburg, Russia, where the sport was invented.
“They start them training at 11 years of age over there, so we have some catch up to do,” says Nikolai.
The first step toward that future goal, is Saturday’s Pro-Am Kettlebell tournament hosted by the Seattle Kettlebell Club gym. The event will feature Kettlebellers from around the country and will also have a hefty number of South Seattle participants.
“I’d say half of them are from South Seattle,” Nikolai estimates.
The event will not only be South Seattle’s first Kettlebell tournament but also a chance for many to discover the sport of Kettlebell for the first time.
“Not a lot of people know that Kettlebell is even a sport and a very effective way to exercise. Once you start doing it, it’s really contagious,” says Allison Moore, a former ultra marathon runner who also picked up the sport after an injury and has been a Seattle Kettlebell Club trainer for the past two years.
Cowens has another reason for wanting to attract a crowd to Saturday’s events.
“Man, we need some more black folks in this sport,” he jokes, saying he wants to see the sport grow and diversify.
Saturday will also raise money for a cause near and dear to Nikolai Puchlov’s heart. Proceeds for the event will directly benefit Treehouse, the foster child support organization.
Nikolai, who was born in Northwest Hospital and spent some time in foster care as a youth, wants to eventually establish a sustained donation to the organization and offer expert coaching to foster kids referred by Treehouse.
“We want to get them stronger and build their confidence up,” he says.
When our conversation turns to the future, Amber says she also would not mind franchising one day, but is wary of leaving the South Seattle business for other pastures. “This is home,” she says. Amber and Nikolai have lived in South Seattle for more than a decade.
Until then, there is no rest. As one class concludes and another group of members walks in, Nikolai readies himself to showoff maneuvers he has done thousands of times before just that week.
Once again, it is time to swing some steel.
The 2017 Seattle Kettlebell Pro-Am Competition will take place Saturday, Dec 9th from 9am to 3pm at Seattle Kettlebell Club 1716 21st Ave S, Seattle, Washington 98144. Additional information can be found here.
Marcus Harrison Green is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald. He regularly writes about South Seattle personalities, social movements, juvenile justice and American society. He is also a columnist for the Seattle Weekly, a former scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a past Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be followed on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image by Susan Fried