Popular Park Hill Gym Pinned by Pandemic
By Bob Moses
For the GPHN
Tamba Mbawa waved goodbye from his fitness studio at Dahlia and East Colfax in early August. The next day he painted over his portrait on the side of the building that housed the Up Gym for the past eight years.
Growing up in Denver, Mbawa started lifting weights when he was 13. He attended South High School and played on the wrestling and football teams. He was named DPS All-City Wrestling Champion during his senior year in 2001.
Today, married, he and his wife Takara have two lively children – a son, Malik, 12, and daughter Ziah, who is 8.
When Mbawa opened Up Gym in Park Hill in 2012, a handful of his previous loyal clients followed him from his past tenure at Bally’s Total Fitness. The business grew slowly but steadily for the next eight years. Before the pandemic hit in early March, the gym had more than 90 regulars, many of who came several times a week for spirited group sessions. Others opted for individual appointments with Mbawa or one of his two trainers. By the end of June, business had had dropped by over 50 percent.
No two sessions with Mbawa were the same. A typical “Tamba Time” could include stretching in every possible direction, exercising with or without weights, boxing, skipping rope, doing five to 10 exercises on a ball, and running around the gym – or the block. An hour or half-hour with Tamba was a hands-on experience. He instinctively knew your limits and would nudge you beyond them.
Over the years, the business grew organically. Drawn by word-of-mouth, people stopped by to peek inside. Mbawa would invite them in – and to come back for a free session. That’s all it took.
Over the years, when business dipped, Mbawa would use his free time to knock on doors in the surrounding neighborhood, invite folks to stop by and say hello. That’s how he found me. He knocked on my door. Not interested, I said. Well, stop by some time, he countered, leaving with a smile. Four months later, I did. Hooked after that first free session, I signed on. That was five years, a heart attack, and 35 pounds ago. Did he change my life? Yes, you could say that.
Fitness has always been Mbawa’s mission. When I learned the Up Gym was closing, I asked him what will he miss the most.
“The people,” he replied, without hesitation. “I tried to hang on as long as I could, longer than I should have because I had become a part of their lives. We became friends. It’s been a pleasure to watch them grow and to see them change their lives. I’ll miss that the most.”
When COVID-19 passes, I asked, will you open another gym?
“No,” he replied. “The pandemic was scary for me. It was scary for my clients, as well. I should have closed three months earlier when I started to lose money. I dug into my savings. Then I dug into my kids’ savings. I’m not going to do that again. Who knows when the pandemic will end? Who knows if it will ever end? I need to go into a business where nobody can shut me down.”
What’s next? I asked.
“Real estate,” he said. “I’m studying for my license. I need to make some money.”