It was dark outside, sunrise still a ways off.
But inside, the lights were on.
People in workout gear began to file in.
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And Steven Whitehead was waiting for them, a smile on his face.
5 a.m. gym owner
It was a little before 5:30 a.m., but the 30-year-old Kennewick man seemed to have plenty of energy.
When you love what you do, when you believe in it, that can be enough to get you out of bed with a bounce in your step.
Whitehead is owner of Elite Ambitions Training on South Washington Street in Kennewick.
He and his team work with youths and adults, helping them become better athletes, healthier and more fit, better versions of themselves.
They’re tough, no two ways about it. And they get results.
“We’re a little bit different,” Whitehead said. “We’re not your typical gym, not your typical trainers where you come in and we give you a workout and we’re saying, ‘Good job.’ We tell you if it’s not good enough. We hold you accountable, want to make sure you get every penny out of what you spend.”
Whitehead, a Louisiana native, moved to the area in 2011 to play for the Tri-Cities Fever indoor football team.
He ended up doing some youth coaching as well, and he saw a need.
The area’s young athletes were talented, but he felt they could be doing more, going farther. So he dove in.
Through Elite Ambitions, Whitehead and his team offer sports performance training for kids from elementary through high school.
They’re like mechanics, helping tune up the young athletes, Whitehead said.
“You and your coach drive the car, make it work,” he said. “We give the kids the ingredients to become better. We help you become faster, we help you become stronger, we help you become more explosive.”
Elite Ambitions also offers group sessions and private training for adults, plus yoga. The client list includes professional athletes.
Whitehead and his crew also train sports teams in the area.
Whitehead helped Kamiakin High School’s wrestling team make big gains last season, said Jordan Anderson, the head coach.
He and Elite Ambitions trainer Vaalyn Jackson worked on strength and conditioning, pushing the wrestlers, getting them into the best possible shape.
“It happened to be the most successful season we’ve had in a while,” Anderson said.
The team was undefeated in its league, winning the league and district championship titles.
It took second in the region and fifth in the state, with two state champions.
“Steve was a big part of that,” Anderson said.
The wrestlers responded to him and worked to reach the high bar he set, he said.
“They loved him and hated him. They knew that when he was there they were going to be working their tails off,” Anderson said.
Along with Whitehead and Jackson, the Elite team includes co-founder Jamelle Juneau, trainer Stanley Salsbury Jr. and yoga instructor Mandy Lott Brock.
Whitehead has been an athlete pretty much his entire life.
He excelled in baseball, in track. He was a state champion power lifter.
A standout high school football player, he went onto McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., where he was an All-American.
He took part in training camp with the New Orleans Saints.
“My whole life revolved around athletics, which led me to this point, to doing what I love now,” said Whitehead, who also serves as receiver and strength/conditioning coach for the Fever.
Sports taught him a great deal, he said.
To recover quickly from mistakes. To bounce back and forge ahead. To be even-keeled.
To work hard.
Whitehead arrived at the gym at 5 a.m. He switched on the lights, turned on the music, got the place ready.
Within a half hour, it was filled with adults and teens alike, stretching, running, lifting weights.
Whitehead stuck with the students, and he seemed to be in his element.
Showing proper technique. Motivating. Pushing them to do their best.
“What we try to do is just allow kids to know they have ample opportunity to do whatever they want, but that whatever they’re doing they need to put full effort in,” Whitehead said.
They have to commit, follow their trainer’s lead.
He’s often at the gym until well past dark, and back at it before the sun comes up.
But he loves it.
“I don’t even think about (the long hours), to tell you the truth. I’m just hoping that if I work hard enough, it will pay off in the end. The model is, hard work will eventually pay off, even if you can’t see it,” Whitehead said.
“I can’t really call this a job. I would do it for free.”
Over the next several months, Tri-City Herald photographer Sarah Gordon and reporter Sara Schilling plan to document 24 hours in the Tri-City area, spending a different hour of the day with a different person.
They’ve sought diverse subjects — people from different backgrounds, with different jobs, different interests, different stories.
The men and women they’ve found reflect the Tri-City community. They are the community.
So, what will their hours tell us — about who they are, about who we are?
We hope you’ll follow along and find out.
The first six installments of the series — we’re calling it 24 Hours — will run in print and online this week, covering midnight through 5 a.m.
Watch for three more installments down the road.