Getting Physical: From Athlete To Trainer To Potential Ninja, The Toning Zone’s Cherrise Traylor Knows How To Make Her Body Work
“Do what I say, not what I do,” Cherrise Traylor drawls, relaxing her Michelangelo shoulders against a wall.
At her feet, a middle-aged lawyer is attempting to poise his knees on a huge plastic ball, heaving his torso up and down while his arms clutch his chest.
He is also wheezing with laughter. When it comes to anything physical, he knows, doing what Cherisse Traylor does would be pretty much impossible.
A slender, miraculously muscled tomboy with a drowsy voice and silky skin, Traylor has in the past 30 years blistered college track stars, brawled on American Gladiators, played semi-pro football, and prepped President George H.W. Bush to leap from a plane.
Almost as impressively, she’s translated her athletic power into a healthy business. Her studio, The Toning Zone, is a snug Montrose cottage with elliptical machines where the sofas should be, a punching bag in the corner, and dozens of clients who, like the gasping lawyer, have been working out with her for decades.
Traylor’s clients, while fit, act and look their age. Traylor, however, is 47 but looks 25. She currently spends her off hours competing with men in their 20s for a spot on the male-dominated reality show American Ninja Warrior. And she makes living in a human body look like a joy.
”You can’t treat everybody the same,” Traylor says, as Arturo, the lawyer, prostrates himself on a mat. “Thirty,” she informs him. ”You’re doing V-sits and power crunches.”
Arturo doesn’t mind being bossed. He and his wife, who live around the corner, have been working out with Traylor since she opened her studio in 1996. The discipline seems to have paid off: bearded and decked in Vibram running socks, he is solid looking for a man in his 50s.
”Arturo, tell why you’re here,” Traylor says.
Glowing with the exertion, he complies. “Like a lot of other people, I have an ego and I’m getting older,” he says. ”And I don’t want the age to show.”
Nevertheless, he has his limits. He hates it when Traylor counts his sit-ups: in addition to being an attorney, he’s an accountant, and doesn’t like anyone meddling with his calculations. She indulges him.
It’s Traylor’s personal grace, as much as her athletic gifts, that keeps clients returning. She has retained so many of her original clients that she now caters specifically to the middle aged. While a few come in to work off a pregnancy or to cultivate a body part – “butts are what people want now” – most clients care more about quality of life.
That was essentially the goal of President George H.W. Bush, who in 2004 trained with Traylor before jumping out of a plane to celebrate his 80th birthday. Traylor supervised a series of stretches before the former president parachuted onto the grounds of his presidential library.
Some clients crave emotional support along with their leg lifts. And others, such as longtime friend and former City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones, like their workouts to be rowdy. ”With Jolanda you can yell and call her mean names,” Traylor says. ”Ex-athletes are used to being yelled at.”
The women have been friends since college, when they faced each other at track meets. For years, Jones has worked out at the toning zone several times a week, partly for Traylor’s guidance and partly for the challenge of trying to best her. Towering and brawny, Jones, an attorney, looks like a professional athlete. But even she can’t do what Traylor does.
”Let’s call her and ask!” Traylor says enthusiastically, punching her cell phone as Arturo continues his V-sits. Jones, on her way to a meeting, picks up at once. ”Do I compete with Cherrise?” she says on the speakerphone. ”Absolutely. But I can’t beat her.”
Even as a little girl, Traylor did what she wanted, not bothering to consider first if it were doable. The only child of an accountant and a machinist, she was both pampered and intensely parented. The parenting part didn’t always go as expected.
“My mom definitely kept me on the straight and narrow,” Traylor says of her childhood in Windsor Village. “She was very big on good meals, and starting the day with breakfast. She wanted me to play the piano.” But like a female version of Bam-Bam, Traylor from babyhood showed a startling physical talent completely outside her parents’ experience.
“Seriously: no one in my family is athletic,” Traylor says. “Their bodies don’t even look like mine. I used to tell them I was going to play professional women’s basketball when I grew up, even though at the time it didn’t exist. I was the only girl in the neighborhood with a basketball hoop. I competed with all the boys.”
As she got older, Traylor’s tomboy talents made her mother increasingly nervous. Her mother’s solution? Charm school. “It was more feminine than what I was doing, so she was happy,” Traylor says. “They taught us makeup, and manners, and walking. I even did a pageant when I was 13.” Traylor loathed it. Even worse, she didn’t win.
“I was third runner-up,” she says, her mild voice gaining the slightest edge. “I didn’t care for that at all.”
A tomboy she was born, and a tomboy she was finally allowed to be. Traylor’s parents sent her to Welch Middle School’s magnet program for sports, and by the time she graduated from Sharpstown High School she was a shoo-in for a full volleyball scholarship at Rice University.
Traylor’s mother later apologized for trying to muscle her into beauty pageants. “She still apologizes to me to this day,” Traylor says, grinning. Traylor’s father and mother, retired, now provide daycare for what they call their grandchildren – Traylor’s three toy poodles – to give her extra time to train.
At Rice, Traylor continued to inhale challenges the way some people inhale French fries. After two years on her volleyball scholarship she switched to track, earning a full ride in that sport as well. In 1991, the year she graduated, she won the Southwest Conference championship in the triple jump, and at one point ranked 13th in the country in the event.
It was just before graduation that Traylor heard that the reality show American Gladiators was holding tryouts at The Summit. ”I loved that show,” she says. ”I loved the physical toughness of it. I wanted to challenge myself and beat those muscle-bound gladiators.” She won the competition at The Summit, and made it onto the show.
Traylor also began chasing professional challenges. Within months of her time on American Gladiators she headed for the University of Houston, where she earned a master’s of education in health and human performance. A year later, she opened The Toning Zone.
Then in 2000 a new athletic startup caught her eye: the Houston Energy, the local franchise of the nascent Women’s Professional Football League. With 11 teams across the country the league outfitted its players in pads, pitted them against each other in full-contact tackle games, and had its own national championship. In her first two years with the league, Traylor was part of back-to-back championship teams.
“I’d always played tackle football,” she says. “But I’d never played that way before. It was just like the guys played. I loved it.” Traylor played offense her first season, but in her second year she asked to play defense, because she liked making tackles.
In her third season, though, Traylor tore an Achillles tendon. She barely missed a day of work: forcing herself to The Toning Zone two days after surgery, she guided her clients through workouts while leaning on crutches. But it was then, Traylor says, that she realized her body was also her livelihood. Regretful, she turned in her Houston Energy football pads.
For a woman who has spent her life seeking out contests, Traylor carries herself lightly. Even the body that she spends hours each day training looks more like that of a dancer than that of a warrior. Lean close, and she exudes a faint air of perfume.
“I consider myself not competitive,” Traylor says, wrestling for words. ”I mean, I know I am. But there are different levels. I guess what I don’t have is that killer instinct. I just enjoy sport. It just comes naturally.”
That’s not to say that Traylor is some sort of athletic Buddha, indifferent to whom she beats – or who beats her. In 1991, when she competed in the eight-city audition for American Gladiators, her car was stolen the day before the audition. “I was not in a good mood,” she says. But she took it out on her opponents, which she thinks helped her make it to the televised show in Studio City, California.
There, on a frantic scramble up a cargo net, she lost her footing and was eliminated in the first round. That failure, Traylor says, has plagued her ever since. That is why, just three years shy of 50, she has decided to train for something even harder.
For the past few months, Traylor has been preparing to audition for the NBC/Esquire Network reality show American Ninja Warrior. Unlike American Gladiators, this show doesn’t involve one-on-one combat. Instead, each competitor simply attempts to get farther than the others on a punishing, parkour-like obstacle course of tires, chains, ropes, and rings. And unlike American Gladiators, which made a point of using both male and female combatants, American Ninja Warrior almost by definition is for men.
“It’s all upper body strength,” Traylor says. ”So not a lot of women do it. They had a girl who was a gymnast, she’s like five feet tall – and I thought, I’m going to try. But most people on the show are in their 20s or 30s.” To compete with them, Traylor found a Houston gym stocked with the same bare bones obstacles used on American Ninja Warrior and a set of young men who are training on them to also try out for the show.
She smiles impishly and yanks her sweatshirt over her head. ”So this is my new upper body,” she says.
It’s a sight to behold: elegant, lean, every muscle articulated, each bicep as faceted as a gem.
”I made a pitch to the Ninja Warrior people that this is what a 47 year old can do,” Traylor says. ”Hopefully, I’ll be able to represent.”