Don Saladino Used the Pandemic to Rebuild His Body — and Business
For years, fitness media has cast Don Saladino as “the superhero trainer.”
It was a moniker the 22-year industry veteran scoffed at initially but eventually embraced as a marketing tool to highlight his work with a handful of celebrity clients at his gym in Lower Manhattan. He never hatched an elaborate scheme to attract actors like Hugh Jackman, Ryan Reynolds, Sebastian Stan, David Harbour, Zachary Levi, and Anne Hathaway — all folks who’d wind up starring in superhero flicks, which is a fact that makes it a much cooler origin story.
Saladino was comfortable in his behind-the- scenes supporting role. He enjoyed being the piece to the puzzle that helped Stan add size for “The Winter Soldier,” Harbour prep for “Hellboy,” and Reynolds get cut for “Deadpool.” Still, there was part of him that eyed a spinoff for his own career. Saladino’s interest wasn’t in developing a cape-and-cowl-donning alter ego for the silver screen so much as it was clearing up time in his busy schedule to focus on creating content to expand his personal brand. Whenever he’d revisit the idea, the questions he encountered boiled down to how and when.
Of all the scenarios he mapped out in his head, the one that never factored into his thoughts was the one that became a reality: a once-in-a-century pandemic would essentially force his hand.
On March 16, 2020, Don Saladino was at home in Long Island when he learned New York State officials had issued statewide closures of casinos, bars, movie theaters, indoor dining at restaurants, and gyms.
The novel coronavirus, the highly transmissible respiratory disease identified in late 2019, had officially become a global pandemic. As a result, many East Coast states adopted similar restrictions as New York. At the same time, the federal government’s “15 Days to Slow the Spread” campaign asked Americans to stay home, avoid large gatherings, and travel only if necessary.
From two weeks to way too long
The mention of a two-week timeline had Saladino’s Spidey-Sense tingling. “I thought the New York City shutdown was going to last at least several weeks,” he recalls.
He, his wife, and two kids planned to hunker down in Cold Springs Harbor, a hamlet on Long Island’s north shore situated roughly 40 miles outside of Manhattan, until conditions improved.
Two weeks came and went, and in that time, things had gotten even worse in New York City, which by then was the epicenter of the pandemic. By now, to those holding out hope, it was clear that no Avengers, X-Men, or Defenders would swoop in to rescue humanity from the dastardly pathogen. We were in it for the long haul.
Saladino felt mounting pressure to make a decision about the future of his NYC gym, Drive495. The longer the doors stayed shut, the more the 15,000-square-foot bi-level health club in trendy Soho became a stress-producing money pit. Though the thought had crossed his mind on occasion, the writing on the wall was too big and bold to ignore: It was time to close up shop.
“Fifteen years is a long time to be immersed in a place,” he recalls about his initial hesitancy to leave the gym. “I had to think about whether it was part of my identity.”
Once he made up his mind, he never gave it another thought. Saladino quickly secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to cover rent and wages for his staff through the end of his lease, and then he hit the ground running.
“For the first time in my career, I had no distractions,” he says. “I didn’t have to deal with a pesky landlord anymore or spend 12 to 15 hours a week commuting. All that I had to focus on was my health, my family’s health, and revamping my business plan.”
A total rebuild
Pre-COVID, Don Saladino had steadily built a following of more than 250,000 on Instagram. He also routinely hosted transformation challenges on his website, donsaladino.com. The issue he faced now, however, was where to produce his training content now that he was a man without a gym.
“When the NYC lockdown began, I’d shoot exercise demonstrations or social posts in a vacant room in my house,” he explains. “It was really bare-bones — no mats on the floor and only a few pieces of equipment. But so many people were in that same position, looking for some direction because they didn’t have access to all or any of the equipment they had been using at the gym.”
Fitness publications were also on the hunt for at-home routines that utilized minimal equipment or bodyweight movements, and they bombarded Saladino with requests.
“Especially during those early weeks of the pandemic, it was a tough time for a lot of people who were trying to stay healthy and keep their fitness routines going,” he says. “I was already giving at-home and bodyweight programs away for free, so I didn’t mind sharing them with fitness outlets to reach more people.”
With a captive audience and increased distribution, his social following and signups for challenges — Boom! Pow! Kablam! — exploded.
More change The fitness industry, especially box and boutique gyms, had an incredibly rough 2020. By spring, nearly all U.S. gyms, studios, and health clubs had closed. By the end of the year, about 17% of those outfits would never reopen, and roughly 44% of the workforce had lost jobs, according to stats from industry watchdog IHRSA.
And the gyms that were permitted to open could do so if mandatory safety protocols were enforced, such as requiring facemasks and limiting the number of guests allowed in at a time. The diehards showed up, but wearing a mask while working out was a dealbreaker to many casual gymgoers.
However, this created an influx of new customers for virtual coaches: Downloads of home and fitness apps grew by 46% in the first half of the year, according to customer engagement firm MoEngage.
Don Saladino used this to his advantage, and with lower overhead, his strategy translated to far greater returns.
That said, the virus continued to spread globally. After peaking in mid-summer 2020, coronavirus infections went into steady decline before roaring back during the fall and winter. Most activities — work, school, exercise, doctor’s visits, even dating — remained virtual.
In December, the nation’s COVID-19 death toll surpassed 300,000. Come the new year, cases shuttled past 20 million.
But after a slow vaccine rollout that kicked off in December, distribution picked up steam by February. That month, more Americans were vaccinated than infected with the virus. States started to ease restrictions, and slowly it seemed as though things were returning to normal-ish.
Superheroes in and out of the gym
Don Saladino saw this as an opportunity to do something that extended beyond the fitness bubble. These types of gestures are not out of character for him. In fact, those who know him well can and will attest that personal gain is rarely his sole priority. Yes, he’s a businessman who wants to succeed. But above all else, he is a husband, father, and a guy who does his best to live by the Golden Rule in hopes of setting a positive example for others, most notably his children. It’s why he visits hospitals dressed as Santa to lift spirits during the holidays and laces up his skates for ice hockey games to raise money for cancer research. And it’s why he tag-teamed with Sebastian Stan earlier this year on a four-week training charity challenge to benefit Ronald McDonald House New York, a nonprofit that assists pediatric cancer patients and their families.
The dynamic duo of Saladino and Stan raised an impressive $20,000, with half of that sum coming from the Saladinos.
By now, Saladino’s home gym was more of a stocked commercial gym. And, at age 44, he’d gotten into the best shape of his life. Trouble was, he had already outgrown the space.
Construction for “The Barn” broke ground in April. The recently completed 2,000 square-foot backyard facility now serves as a gym, media studio, and physical rehab and recovery center.
Saladino now plans to revamp the exercise library on his app (accessible through his website) and host four to six live classes per week.
“It’ll be outfitted by brands I work closely with — Life Fitness, Hammer Strength, and Perform Better,” Saladino says. “It will have everything from a functional training and recovery standpoint, right down to an outdoor infrared sauna, cold plunge, and an area to shoot video and record podcasts.”
As he waited for the finishing touches to be completed on his new workshop, Saladino took his show on the road. First, he set up shop locally at Bev Francis Powerhouse Gym in Syosset and Siege Athletics in Mineola to shoot social media and training content. Then he jetted off on a weekslong West Coast swing to capture interviews and produce training videos with celebrities, fitness personalities and experts, bodybuilders, and powerlifters. It’s these types of projects that Saladino had wanted to do for years but never could because he was tethered to his NYC gym,
Today, nearly 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated. Still, COVID-19 variants have emerged and sent infection rates surging among the unvaccinated, making a repeat of 2020 not out of the question. Should this happen, hopefully Saladino’s approach — staying positive while making the best of any situation — can serve as your superhero script to ensure your sequel is just as good or better than the original.