Written by Melissa Bean Sterzick | Photographed by Vincent Rios
Joe Charles is more than familiar with the ups and downs that come in life.
He enjoys and is grateful for the ups. And when he gets knocked down,
it’s his policy to get back up again—as quickly as possible.
Charles has been a fixture on the sand near the Manhattan Beach pier since
he started running an exercise bootcamp there in 2000. He uses his background
in competitive fighting, his strong voice and high energy to inspire students
to try harder and work smarter. He is known for offering prayers, sharing
snacks, calling out to passersby to join his class and sometimes handing
out $100 bills for push-ups.
In 2015 Charles suffered a stroke that affected his speech and ability
to walk. Rehabilitation, patience, determination and the support of his
dedicated bootcampers found him back on the beach hollering orders after
just a year. Hermosa Beach resident Mike Garrity is one of the passersby
who got to know Charles. Garrity is a retired Air Force officer who saw
Charles’ bootcamp in action and has watched him work to regain strength
after suffering a stroke.
“He definitely has a zest for life. It would be easy to give up—but
Joe definitely has not given up on anything,” Garrity says.
Charles hoped to compete in the 1984 Olympics in judo, but an accident
at work left him with a broken femur. Doctors told him he might never
walk again, but after a couple years he was strong enough to do martial
arts again. He fought on the Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit for
many years and won the UFC Super Fight Russia in 1998.
In 2000 he retired from fighting and began leading GI Joe’s Bootcamp:
The Exercise and Fitness Program on the Beach. In 2008 the bootcamp earned
the Small Business of the Year Award presented by the Manhattan Beach
Chamber of Commerce.
By that time, Charles had spread his reach and participated in a radio
show, started a pier-to-pier run/walk and offered bootcamps at several
venues. He’d also created his $1,000 Push-up Challenge and turned
it into a tribute event to honor his son Shamor, who was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Charles says his career built itself. Fortune came his way in the form
of opportunity, people and job offers that expanded his role as an exercise guru.
His amazing return to the sand after his stroke earned him the 2018 Raising
Awareness in Stroke Excellence Outstanding Stroke Survivor Award from
the American Stroke Association. The awards support stroke awareness in
the U.S., where nearly 800,000 people experience a stroke each year.
Manhattan Beach resident Tanya Walker Wirth attends Charles’ bootcamp
at 6 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Between the beautiful setting,
the challenging workout and Charles’ many friends on the beach,
she feels like she’s part of a community of health and wellness.
She says Charles does the entire workout alongside her.
“He pushes you in a way where he’s stern but flexible. He is
pushing himself too,” she says. “I have to give it my all.
It has been a physical commitment and an emotional inspiration.”
A recent second stroke was a setback, but he has not lost his enthusiasm
or resolve to succeed. He hopes to host his annual $1,000 Push-up Challenge
on July 4. And he’s leading two sessions of his bootcamp three days a week.
“I can’t give up,” he says. “I think I’m
back on my feet again. I’m doing it. I just keep going—and
then some.” •