Natalia Rivera-España has seized the pandemic opportunity.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Unsung Santa Cruz: Why one woman’s outside-the-box idea could be a fitness game changer

Natalia Rivera-España didn’t intend to start a business, but she spotted a big need during the pandemic and knew she’d regret it if she didn’t act. The result: GOAT Santa Cruz and signs of an outside workout phenomenon.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to start a new business, especially one that directly served the public, conventional wisdom dictated that, above all else, you would need a building … you know, with walls?

But that was pre-pandemic thinking. The COVID-19 era has forced many to think outside the box, even if that box is brick and mortar, and includes air conditioning and indoor plumbing.

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Standing firmly outside any box, metaphorical or actual, is Santa Cruz’s Natalia Rivera-España, the entrepreneur behind a new fitness center called GOAT Santa Cruz. That barnyard-redolent name is an acronym that many sports fans will recognize as the “Greatest Of All Time.” But, in this case, it stands for “Group Open Air Training.” This place could just as easily be called “WWW: Workout Without Walls.”

Located smack dab in the middle of Live Oak, just across the railroad tracks from Simpkins Family Swim Center, GOAT is a fitness center that does its business under a large shade structure in a parking lot, open on all sides to the weather, good or otherwise. It’s a business plan that makes no sense whatsoever — unless you happen to be living through a global pandemic in a temperate climate where it commonly approaches 70 degrees in January. In that case, it’s kind of ingenious.

The setup at GOAT Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

GOAT has been in operation for a year and a half, offering a variety of group workout classes in weight training, stationary cycling, yoga, martial arts, Pilates, barre, Zumba, and TRX (a technique of resistance training using anchored straps and a person’s own body weight). A low-intensity workout for seniors is also part of the class schedule.

There is no membership, per se. Classes are charged a la carte, though you can buy in bulk for a discount. On many days, classes start before sunrise, and go well past sundown, between 40 and 45 classes offered per week.

Natalia Rivera-España, 38, is still a bit gobsmacked that she’s even in the position of running a small business employing about a dozen other fitness instructors. At the time of the pandemic shutdown, Rivera-España was working two jobs, one as a fitness instructor with a local chain fitness center and another as an emergency-room technician at Watsonville Community Hospital.

She balanced her work life with her family life with her husband, Scott, and their pre-teen daughter. She was not, she said, any kind of entrepreneur, nor did she want to be.

Natalia Rivera-España surprised even herself with her new venture.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If you were to tell me then in March (2020), that you’re going to start a business, and I’d be like, ‘Nah, you’re joking! Get out of here!’ It never crossed my mind.

“If you were to tell me then,” she said, “in March (2020), that you’re going to start a business, and I’d be like, ‘Nah, you’re joking! Get out of here!’ It never crossed my mind.”

But when the shutdown came, she and many other fitness trainers across Santa Cruz County suddenly were out of work. People used to their regular workouts had nowhere to go. State and county protocols prohibited much of the kinds of indoor activities that gyms and fitness centers offered.

But outdoors? That was a different scenario.

A few weeks after the shutdown, Rivera-España flashed on the concept of a gym without walls, a “permanent” outdoor workout space. Such an idea would be a non-starter in much of the rest of the country, vulnerable to blizzards, arctic temperatures, thunderstorms or stifling heat waves. But in Santa Cruz? Why not?

On top of that, having worked in chain gyms, she knew intimately about the downsides of indoors fitness training at such facilities: the stuffiness, crowds, the depersonalization and commercialization that characterized many gyms. She wanted something different. At the same time, she knew of a lot of fellow instructors who were looking for work. And she was hearing from many people who were desperate for some way to connect and to stay fit during the shutdown.

The outdoor tent setup at GOAT Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“You have no idea how many times I would lay awake at night, and go, ‘Are we doing this? Is this a good idea?’” she said.

So in the summer of 2020, she went searching for an ideal spot for her open-air fitness center, designed a business plan and a website, took out a loan against her home, purchased the equipment and hired the instructors.

“It’s all group exercise,” said her husband, Scott. “Group fitness instructors tend to have a following. And no one had a good answer of how to go forward. And then Natalia just took it upon herself to put all the pieces together.”

Then, having hired the plane and put on the parachute, she had no choice but to take the leap.

I knew that if I didn’t do it, I’d really regret it. So that’s what kind of made me realize that it was at least worth trying.

“I knew that if I didn’t do it, I’d really regret it,” she said. “So that’s what kind of made me realize that it was at least worth trying.”

It was then that GOAT was born.

Julie Graff was one of those instructors thrown out of work by the pandemic shutdown. She and Natalia had been friends for several years, and Graff jumped at the chance to be one of the first instructors to be hired at GOAT.

“I could see it in her face,” said Graff. “She just thinks everything through. Natalia is not that person who just throws all caution to the wind. I mean, she’s going to research it. So I knew when she pulled the trigger, it was going to be phenomenal.”

The omens, however, were not good at the beginning. GOAT opened in August of 2020, at the exact moment when the CZU fires were causing havoc all across Santa Cruz County and when it was specifically bad for one’s health to be outdoors breathing smoky air. In 2021, uncommonly ferocious winds damaged the shade structure. Within her first year of operation, Rivera-España was reminded exactly what the risks were putting her faith in the hands of Mother Nature.

The Live Oak space is, essentially, just a parking lot. That means it has no electricity and no running water. GOAT has a portable toilet and hand-washing station on site. As for power, “well, we own a Nissan Leaf, which is essentially just a battery on wheels. So we really just plug everything into the car. We have solar panels at home, so we charge the car at home, bring the car over here and it stays here for several days.”

Short of fire and high winds, other aspects of the weather have created only mild challenges for GOAT’s instructors and clients. Sometimes it’s quite chilly in the early mornings. Sometimes the rains come.

“Today, we had a 6:15 class this morning,” Natalia said at the GOAT site while a cycling class of about 20 people was churning behind her. “My car has an alarm for low temperatures, and it was cold. But there were 10 of us here. We made it happen. You know, the way I see it, if you’re able to go out for a jog, then you’re able to come out for a workout like this. You just throw on some layers and you get warm.”

Patricia Eggers of Santa Cruz is one of those people who loves workouts, but disliked the gym experience. She drops by the GOAT site at least twice a week, for cycle classes, TRX training and other activities.

Gym owner Natalia Rivera-España.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She loves the outdoors feel and the fresh air that are part of the GOAT experience. But she said even more attractive to her is the sense of community that GOAT has created. “There are a lot of members who I’ve become friends with,” she said. “It’s kind of nice to chat before and after the workout, and you meet others sometimes on the street, or in stores, because the community has become so large, and everyone’s just so super-nice. And you’re not judged on how you look or the way you’re working out.”

GOAT has also done fundraisers to raise money for local nonprofits in causes ranging from fire relief to foster care. GOAT is now facing the challenge of being too successful. On any given day, you’re likely to find many of GOAT’s classes are full, with a waitlist. And Natalia is even wrestling with the problems of too much success.

Julie Graff showed up recently to lead a morning class only to find GOAT’s lead instructor unexpectedly already at work leading her own class. “And so I said, ‘Gosh, did you add another class?’ And Natalia was like, ‘No, I just felt so bad. I looked at my 9:30 cycle class and saw that there were 15 people on the waitlist. And I just felt terrible that they weren’t going to get a workout.’ So she just emailed everybody on the waitlist and did another class.”

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Today, even as the threat of COVID-19 lingers, the tent structure in the parking lot next to the portable toilet still feels a bit makeshift, a bit temporary. What does the long-term picture for GOAT look like?

Natalia Rivera-España has never run her own business before. So this kind of entrepreneurial thinking is all new to her.

“It’s such an interesting question,” she said, wearing a knit cap emblazoned with “GOAT Santa Cruz,” “because as the business grows, and you have to make decisions on whether to make some longer-term commitments, it’s something I’m grappling with. What’s it going to be like a year from now? People might not ever want to go back to indoors workouts, in general. Even if there’s COVID or not, they’re really enjoying this. So this tent will hold up.”

For more information on classes, schedules, and prices at GOAT Santa Cruz, go to its website.