WATERVILLE — O’Leary’s Fitness will shut its doors Feb. 17, but owner Mike Leary said the gym is not going away.

Instead, the 54-year-old Fairfield native plans on transitioning the gym to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit while finding a new location due to challenges the coronavirus pandemic confronted him with.

“When I opened this time as a for-profit, my logic was, if I can get the general public interested, then they’ll pay for the people who can’t afford it,” Leary said. “It worked a bit, but this whole COVID thing threw everyone a mess and we need to reevaluate.”

O’Leary’s Fitness opened in January 2016. Its name comes from ancestral research. Leary said his grandfather dropped the “O” in the family’s surname “before it was cool to be Irish.” Housed at the former Marden’s building at 184 College Ave., O’Leary’s Fitness offers boxing workouts for fitness and actual boxing training for amateurs and professionals.

“It’s really turned out to be a really popular workout, being a fighter without getting fit,” said Leary. “It’s getting fit without getting it.”

A 501(c)(3) is a nonprofit organization recognized by the IRS as being tax-exempt because of charitable programming. Leary anticipates achieving the status by March 1. Early in the gym’s existence, Leary began hosting a group from the Waterville branch of Families Matter, a nonprofit that provides services, support and special education to special-needs adults and their families.

Since then, Leary has struck up partnerships with Spectrum Generations Muskie Center, a social services organization that caters to older people; Care & Comfort, which provides home health and behavioral health services; Becket House, which provides a structured environment for children to develop self control, and more.

“It seems to be a great outlet,” Leary said. “I understand people’s reservations about boxing, I really do, but there’s another side to it. It doesn’t promote aggression, it controls it.”

During the last legislative session, Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, sponsored bill LD 315, An Act to Promote Healthy Living in Maine, that provided funding for groups that primarily help older Mainers participate in fitness and education programs to prevent falls and to manage chronic illness. The bill was left on the appropriations table when the Legislature shut down in March.

Madigan said she was keenly aware of O’Leary’s Fitness and has a friend whose daughter attends the Family Matters program.

“When I started working on this bill, I thought it might help (Leary’s) gym as well,” Madigan said. “I think he does amazing things for the community. … His heart is in the right place.”

Waterville Mayor Jay Coelho has taken fitness classes at O’Leary’s for the last year. He and Madigan have had conversations about incorporating additional partnerships with O’Leary’s across cities.

“He doesn’t do it because he wants to get rich. He wants to do it because he wants to help the community,” Coelho said. “I think people should pay attention, reach out to Mike, get to know him and see what he’s about.”

This will be Leary’s second foray into a nonprofit boxing gym. He opened and owned the The Right Combination Inc. in Fairfield from 1996-2008. Leary said donations were low and he had to fund the gym out of pocket. After a quick retirement, he opened O’Leary’s as a for-profit business. He believes there is more philanthropy in the region now than when he first tried the nonprofit model.

O’Leary’s does not deny any members on the basis of cost, with Leary offering a sliding scale system. He hopes being a nonprofit helps him join in more partnerships with area organizations. Friends and coaches come and help out, and once the gym becomes a nonprofit, he expects more volunteers to pitch in.

Michael Leary, right, works out with 15-year-old Anna Ortiz at O’Leary’s Fitness on Wednesday in Waterville. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“I really want to focus on special needs adults and people rehabbing from COVID,” Leary said. “Boxing is great, and I love the sport. I love the kids. The workout works. It’s guaranteed.”

Due to the pandemic, O’Leary’s Fitness closed in March for two months. The gym reopened for personal, one-on-one training in May.

The amateur boxing side of the gym remains closed, but Leary, a boxing trainer for more than two decades, is back working with professionals. Group classes are back, averaging around seven participants per session. Before the pandemic, classes had up to 40 people. Even though Leary receives interest from people, membership remains low.

“We’ve been open for a while now, but people are still scared, still nervous,” Leary said.

The groups from local organizations have stopped coming since the pandemic, but will eventually return.

Leary, who does not own O’Leary Fitness’s College Avenue space, is looking for a space of at least 3,000 square feet in the greater Waterville area. He’s not sure exactly when he will reopen, but the upcoming closure is far from imminent.

“It’s going to be how quickly the general public can help and see what we can come up with together,” Leary said. “I’m ready to go.”

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