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Arnold co-founder Jim Lorimer.

Arnold 25: Jim Lorimer

WWII veteran, FBI agent, and 86-year-old fitness guru shook hands on a deal that brings over $40 million worth of impact on the city

By David S. Lewis

Published February 1, 2013

Early in your career at Nationwide, you established a pioneering work fitness program to encourage employees to stay healthy. Nowadays, most of us are working behind a desk, staring at a computer for eight hours a day, and it’s hard to find time to devote to a health-minded lifestyle. What should we be doing to that end as a workforce?

There has been a phenomenal change in our society with respect to fitness, working out, and the health benefits of fitness. I was fortunate in the early 1960s to be in a position to establish one of the first large-scale corporate fitness centers anywhere in the state, which was right there at Nationwide Insurance. I began it and I ran it as just sort of a side thing; that was not my job, but people knew I was interested in fitness. In fact, I was chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee for Women’s Track and Field during that period. Just with my overall involvement with the field, I was a natural person to lead that program. And then when we moved to the new Nationwide building later on in the Sixties, I had Arnold Schwarzenegger come in and he cut the ribbon on the fitness facility at Nationwide and its new building. CBS’s 60 Minutes program came in and covered it. The number of corporations that have their own in-house fitness areas continues to increase all the time, but, also, the number of independent gym operations in the country [have increased]. Again, many years ago, there was just the YMCA; that was it. Either you worked out at the YMCA or you worked out in your garage – but then a number of facilities that we started here, that my son first started, about 30 years ago, were among the first here and he grew it up. It’s now Metro Fitness, but he built it up to a ten-gym operation. Of course, you have Lifetime Fitness and all the others that come in, a wealth of fitness options. Opportunities for training in our society have grown just exponentially over the years and it has been a very beneficial societal thing, but, also, a new way for people to express themselves and stay in shape. I think there’s a lot of real health benefits in our society. The accessibility there is now to fitness facilities, but it began all very long [ago] in in-house corporate facilities and I was on the cutting-edge of that.

One reason I personally like the Arnold is because it hosts one of the country’s largest fencing tournaments and, as a fencer, and a participant in a sport that is somewhat eclectic or just not as common, I appreciate seeing some of those sports represented. Fencing is one. Ballroom dancing [is another]. This year, you have the Highlander games. Was there a conscious decision to be inclusive of more “fringe” sports?

Well, yes, the conscious decision was to, again, number one, focus on as many Olympic sports as we could. Fencing is a great Olympic sport. But it’s also being attuned to what is happening in society, what directions are being taken, and giving expression to those new directions all the time. For example, we do have Zoomba on our program this time. And we do think ballroom dancing is great.

But the fencing is an especially great sport, however you measure it. But what we’ve done every single year is establish our community as a city that is interested in a range of sports and fencing as a consequence – I’m sure you know, but the national championships in fencing are going to be held here in Columbus in the third weekend in July. The national body that controls fencing came in here and announced that recently, and it really heels on the fact that they know that we have a very strong interest in that sport in Columbus, as exemplified by the great success we’ve had at the Arnold fencing competition. Each year we bring in Olympians who demonstrate for the kids and it’s run very, very effectively by Julia Richie here in town, so one thing leads to another there. But we’re just trying to give expression to all ways people become fit and have fun. And we’re up now to about 35 different sports and events. There’s no event anywhere that we know that has a greater variety of sports opportunity and opportunity for physical expression than the Arnold Sports Festival. And this year, as you just mentioned, we’re having the Scottish Highland games, which are very promising and are a huge activity in this country. Some people don’t know how big it is. There’s more Scottish Highland games in the United State than there are anywhere in the world. The biggest games, numerically, are in South Carolina and on the West Coast. And so we will be the first ones to do anything of fair size for the Scottish Highland games. And along with that, they have a Scottish dance competition, and we’re also going to have four different Scottish pipe and drum bands that weekend, so there’s going to be a huge event on the Columbus Commons [that] Sunday, so we hope people come out to see that. Similarly, emerging in recent years has been something called “survival games,” and we’re having a huge survival game event down at Berliner Park, south of the city there, and that will also be Sunday of that weekend. So the survival games, which 2,000-3,000 people could go into that, is a game in which families and individuals climb over barriers and go through mud pits. It’s a very, very popular activity, something that’s a little bit cutting edge in our society, but this year we’ve added the program because we have people that can run it effectively and, even though it’s the first weekend in March, the Scottish Highland games and the survival games, which are held outside, will be feasible. Otherwise, we’d fill six venues in town because it was all indoors, but this year we’re going outdoors.

You guys seem really in tune, fingers on the pulse of emerging fitness trends. Tough Mudder and those other survival competitions have only been around for a few years, but you folks noticed it and jumped on it. Is that still something that you’re largely responsible for, keeping your eye on the pulse of fitness?

We have a dynamite setup of six people that work year round on this, and as you may know, the model we have here is this model that involves a large number of competitions, including twelve of the Olympic sports, but the center of the weekend is this huge fitness expo – why, that has become something that has become attractive on a global basis. And the past two years, so far, we have had an Arnold Sports Festival Europe in Madrid in the October of each year and this year – why, in just ninety-three days, at the end of April, in South America, we’ll have the Arnold Sports Festival South America in Rio De Janeiro, and that will a sort of miniature version of the event we do here, but it’s a reflection of the globalization of the Arnold Sports Festival concept.

And this is the first year for that?

This is the first year in Rio, yes.

That’s very exciting.

In Madrid, we’ve had it the last two years.

While we’re still talking about eclectic sports, you are, and correct me if I’m wrong, you are eighty-five years old, sir?

Eighty-six.

Eighty-six years old! As you’ve seen sport and fitness develop in the last few decades, if you were born, say, the same year that I was – 1983 – what would you have undertaken that wasn’t available in your day? Would you have tried things like extreme skateboarding, or survival games?

I don’t know. I was rather adventurous. I don’t know if I would have considered I would be good at skateboarding or not (laughs). I was always more focused on the sports that have some sort of strength dimension to them. I participated in, of course, sports like football, track and field, and the like. I always loved weightlifting. So I think those basic sports are what I would have continued to gravitate to, although, I admire those who are participate in all the sports. The thing is to give expression to what’s true to you in a physical sense, and have fun with it. And whatever it is, if it has a physical dimension to it, do it. Because it’s all sport, and it gives you a chance to express who you are in a physical dimension.

You still work out, I assume.

Well, I work out almost every day. Of course, my offices…are located in the rear of the Metro Fitness Center here in Worthington, so I don’t really have an excuse not to work out – a huge gymnasium is adjoined to my offices, so I try and work out almost every day. I work out with progressive resistance exercise. I happen to believe that progressive-resistance exercise is the fountain of youth.

How’s the landscape, the changing landscape of the city here changed in the last few years affected the festival? There’s a brand new hotel, and I’m sure it’s also booked…are you nearing a critical mass?

First, we’re very pleased to be on the cutting edge of the city’s potential to handle large events, as we have 175,000 people from over eighty nations and every state in the United States come in here for the weekend. As a consequence, with 18,000 athletes competing in six different venues, we’re filling 100 hotels in the central Ohio in the area. And so that says something about our city’s capability for handling really large events and the logistical support involved in this, what with transportation and bussing and private transportation – it’s very interesting and very real. But I think what is most significant about it is that we have almost 1,000 volunteers who help us on the weekend, and about 150 of those are doctors and nurses. And, tell me, what other city in the United States are you going to get 150 doctors and nurses helping you protect the health of the young athletes who are here? And again, with the one thousand volunteers who handle all sides of the weekend, that’s a growth we’ve experienced over time, but the willingness of the community to become involved in a large project of this type has great economic meaning to the community, with $42 million infused in the community each year for this one-weekend event.

Favorite Shakespeare quote?

I have many of them and I would say one of them is: “Beware of entry into a quarrel, but, being in it, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee.” [Hamlet, Act 1, Scn. 3]

Badass. Thank you, sir.