Roy Simonson does not care if you remember him. The man who started Eagle Fitness with his brother when he was only 21 years old, and sold it to Cybex less than 4 years later, does not think that was a big deal. For the uninitiated, those early designs arguably signaled the beginning of the end of Nautilus’s dominance in the market. The same man who started a revolution in equipment design with the cable-based FreeMotion Fitness in 1999, is not concerned that his name comes up when we discuss the history of our industry. And somewhere in the middle of all this, at the age of 48, this unassuming engineer was still racing single speed track bikes on the Velodrome, placing 3rd in the Olympic Qualifier for Men’s 1000m Time Trial. Missing the top podium spot by 1.6 seconds.
If you ask him, he will shrug and give most of the credit to good genetics.
Luckily, there are those of us who do remember, and are not likely to forget his outsized contributions to our industry or to our lives anytime soon.
These interviews are intended to highlight how active lifestyles fight off or delay the onset of chronic issues, and the importance of community in shaping our opinions about health, sports, fitness. And of course – if we still choose to compete at anything above a recreational level – can we still improve? This interview covers all of the above, but a conversation with Roy Simonson cannot ignore a few questions about the health & fitness industry, which we discuss towards the end of this interview.
I hope you enjoy my conversation with a man I have worked for, and long admired: the wonderfully original Roy Simonson.
60+ years in 60 seconds
Athlete: Roy Simonson
Where you call home: San Clemente, CA
Basic Biometrics: 6-1, 200, HR low 50’s in the morning, max HR has always been age predicted (220-age) and can sustain about 8-10 beats below this for maybe 10 to 20 minutes depending on how much I want to suffer.
Occupation when not participating in your sport or activity: Fitness equipment designer – primarily commercial strength training equipment.
Sports/activities in order of time and preference: The only indoor fitness routines I’ll do are either strength training or short intervals on a concept 2 rower. One-hour absolute max for strength training and on the Concept2 – I’ll do 10 to 30 second intervals for up to 30 minutes. My outdoor fun is cycling, walking/ hiking/ hills.
Did you play sports when young? Growing up in Minnesota, I played hockey year-round and that was the most sheer fun I’ve ever had. Absolutely loved every minute of it. I’ve done lots of cross-country skiing, snowboarding, climbing around in the woods and mountains, and just love to be outside. Also raced bikes on the velodrome for 30+ years. I’ve always wanted to be active and fit my whole life, and I can’t image being sedentary.
Past injuries, fully recovered: Lots of injuries : broken toes, fingers, hands, wrists, collar bones. Mostly hockey related along with lots of stitches. I’ve had multiple knee surgeries to both knees, a torn bicep, a titanium plate in big toe – like an idiot I dropped a 100lb plate on it. I once ran my hand thru a skill saw and had to have multiple nerves reattached (another stupid move on my part) Lots of skin left on the road from cycling crashes. All pretty normal stuff accumulated over a lifetime of having fun
Follow up: do these past injuries effect you today? Arthritis? So far – not at all.
Past injuries that effect today: Structurally, my knees have always been pretty tweaky. My knees are just not very efficient. Today, they are a little arthritic, but I can still do most stuff I enjoy. Running and things like playing basketball are out of the question. Other than that, things are good.
Current injuries: I’ve had problems with blood clotting – first occurred after a knee surgery as a youth and have had several episodes since. It turns out I have 2 genetic markers that make me about 50 times the norm susceptible to clotting so now I take a blood thinner and will continue to do this for the rest of my life. This isn’t a big deal at all, the biggest risk is of a brain bleed should I violently strike my head, so I don’t ride my mountain bike on the crazy stuff anymore
Age when I stopped recovering quickly from injuries: I’ve always been very fortunate that I heal and recover very quickly. I’m 68, and so far, there has never been a point and/or age when I feel like my recovery noticeably declined. I keep my workouts short and intense, and I never grind myself down to the point where I can’t do whatever I want for the rest of the day. Up until my early 50’s, my strength and endurance were as good as ever. Since then, there has been a slow and steady decline, but nothing drastic.
Your ability to heal quickly – do you think that’s genetic? Or a result of a lifetime of being active? I think it’s both. Can’t discount the genetics, but being fit and active for so many years, the body wants to return to a state of wellness. If you’re healthy, and well rested, your body heals faster and the rate of deterioration is much less.
Medications I currently use: The only medication I’ve ever taken is the daily blood thinner I’ve been on for the last couple of years.
Supplements I currently use: Never have taken any supplements or vitamins.
Dietary choices or restrictions: Don’t drink any alcohol or coffee. Don’t eat junk or fast food, but I am not a fanatic about my diet. I eat a lot, but it’s good quality food. I do have a weakness for energy bars. To me, they taste good, are fast and easy to consume – and I’m a lazy and incompetent cook. I’m lactose intolerant so that’s about the only restrictions I have. I’m also very fortunate in that I’ve never had to worry about putting on weight and getting fat – I’ve got a fast metabolism and burn calories like crazy.
Average hours of sleep: I typically sleep 8 hours and can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. Having a good feeding, going outside, sitting in the sun and sleeping for 20 minutes is underrated.
Do you track your quality of sleep? I’m a technology idiot, can barely turn on a computer and don’t track anything. No HR devices, no smart watches, no computer on my bike, no social media…… too much outside noise and information that doesn’t interest me
Greatest fitness / athletic achievement as a 50+ athlete: Good question, but I don’t have a good answer. I’m not really interested in competition any longer, I did enough of that when I was younger. Really loved it, but now I just do what makes me feel good and happy, and don’t have to deal with all the things that go along with trying to compete at a particular level.
When you close your eyes….how old are you? Absolutely not 68. I intentionally dislike looking in the mirror. The image does not match how I feel. In the mirror, I see my father. Your surroundings become your norm – if you surround yourself with young and vibrant people, it will change your outlook.
Specific to athletics and training
Like most kids growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, Roy did not specialize in any single sport. Hockey was probably his dominant sport when young, but he participated in just about every outdoor sport / activity ever invented by adult or child. He believes that each of us has an activity that just comes naturally – and for Roy, it is cycling and hockey.
Years ago, I recall Roy saying, “any event that lasts longer than I can hold my breath, is too long”. This completely explains why this tall, lanky Nordic bundle of fast twitch fibers excelled in the sprint distances on the track, usually either the 500 or the 1,000 meters. When competing, Roy could generate up to 1800-1900 watts on the bike. The goal in these sprint events – Roy tells me – is to get up to 90% of your max, then hold on as long as possible. He succeeded with this strategy well into his late 40’s – when he placed 3rd in an Olympic qualifying event at 48 years of age – with a family and running a growing business.
Over his 30 years of racing, Roy earned multiple records and podium finishes, racing single speed track bikes that he designed and built himself. (track photo) Today, Roy no longer competes at the velodrome, but he’s determined to not let those fast twitch fibers completely fade. His strength workouts regularly consist of 405lb deadlifts and basically lifting and moving other heavy objects. He shares a great deal of the “farm boy strength” training philosophy of his friend Hillis Lake.
You invented the first cable-based circuit equipment (FreeMotion Fitness) allowing the average member to strengthen every plane of movement. Have you always trained functionally?
Since our early days with Eagle and Cybex, my issue with traditional equipment has always been: humans do not move in a single plane in real life. You can only push or pull as much as your body can support that effort. Unless you’re training for an athletic event, every training session should contribute to real world function. Your #1 priority should be your health.
You were born with a high percentage of fast twitch fibers. What does traditional cardio exercise look like to a track cyclist?
Cannot do indoor cardio workouts. Just mind-numbing to me. The only indoor cardio I can tolerate is intervals on the Concept II. But if I’m outside, with a group of guys I enjoy, I can walk, hike, paddle just about forever.
Are we doomed to lose power as we age?
Not at all. For the most part, we are predefined genetically of where we’re going to fit in the physiology spectrum. But even those who were born with a lot of fast twitch fibers – who had great explosive power when younger – tend to turn into endurance athletes as they age. Endurance is great, but it’s a mistake to lose your ability to quickly produce power.
Why do we stop training for explosive power as we age?
It’s just what we knew – what we expected. So that’s what everyone did. We were ignorant about the importance of maintaining the body’s ability to move explosively and generate power.
More about physical / mental health and community…
What is Roy’s “why”? What drives your level of fitness / activity? We are meant to move, meant to eat well, meant to sleep deeply. Mental and physical happiness – it’s all connected somewhere. Don’t know if there’s an easy explanation, but when I’m outside and moving, I can feel the connection.
It’s not news that obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death. (Roy pauses here for several seconds) I lived in Sweden for a bit and visited Norway – touring the fjords by boat. There was a husband and wife – so obese, they couldn’t stand in line to get off the boat. Spent all this time, saving for this vacation, and could not physically enjoy the experience.
The health benefits of training: is that a focus? Or just a happy and beneficial outcome?
Never been a conscious thought. Growing up, we were 2 blocks either way to a lake or to the woods. Being inside was a punishment. The natural inclination was to be outside and moving. Today – too many distractions. Physical education is not taught, or not emphasized. Not sure there is an easy solution.
“…living a long healthy life is dependent on 3 things: Good luck, Good genetics, Good habits. The only one we can control are the habits, so that is what I focus on along with doing what makes me happy and try to eliminate anything that doesn’t“.
In your 60’s – have you changed how your approach to recovery for the body?
Nope, still train hard, rest hard as always
How do you feel – physically and emotionally – when you miss several days of training?
Never really miss more than a few days of doing something active. I feel good when I’m outdoors and moving.
Do you find a supportive community in your sport / activities?
You find community wherever you choose. I tend to be very individualistic, and get along just fine by myself. I don’t join clubs, or belong to groups. Happy by myself. In my entire life, 95% of the time, I’ve trained by myself. It’s just easier this way. When I go into a gym, I fight the urge to help people, correct their movements. I see dangerous things.
Any family history you’ve been able to avoid? And/or how healthy were your parents at your age?
I come from a long line of northern Europeans, tall and slender. When my Dad was 60 and I was 25, we could wear the same clothes. And I still have a photo of my grandfather from 1917 – our bodies are identical, tall and lanky. Both parents were very healthy, both had high metabolisms…but dementia is a worry in the later years. And sadly, my good hair days went away in 1990.
It’s a cliché, but living a long healthy life is dependent on 3 things: Good luck, Good genetics, Good habits. The only one we can control are the habits, so that is what I focus on along with doing what makes me happy and try to eliminate anything that doesn’t.
Has being 60+ changed the way you use primary care as a healthy resource?
I’ve been on Medicare for a few years now, so it mandates annual check-ups and bloodwork. Before that, I never had regular checks or went to the docs for anything other than treating injuries.
What could you do in your 30’s and 40’s that you cannot do today?
Cannot do the same level of start & stop explosive movements as well as I’d like – like sprints or hockey. And if I do not stay active, my knees feel worse. The more active I keep them, the better they feel. Truly “use it or lose it”.
Fitness Industry Chatter
How do you see your influence in the fitness industry?
Don’t really care. I give it zero thought. When I consider the last 40+ years, there are 2 things that make me happy:
* We provided a lot of jobs for a lot of people, and by extension, we helped put a lot of children through higher education.
* We also helped a lot of people feel good about themselves physically because of equipment we designed and built
How did you come up with the idea to start manufacturing strength equipment?
I like making stuff. Don’t care if it’s a house, motorcycle, or exercise equipment. I focused on fitness equipment, because I could see the flaws in the current equipment, and saw the opportunity. I was an absolute horrible student in HS. In college – went in the direction of being a PE teacher.
In 1979, while Roy and his brother Mark were watching the superbowl, they had the following (mostly accurate) conversation. At the time, Roy needed only one more quarter to graduate…
Roy: “what are you going to do”?
Mark: “I dunno”.
Roy: “lets start a business”
Mark: “tree trimming?”
Roy: “Nah, that only works 9 months of the year. ….let’s start a fitness equipment company”.
Starting Eagle Fitness was a complete afterthought. A “why not”?
Once the superbowl was over (steelers narrowly defeating the cowboys), the Simonson brothers borrowed a $1,000, converted Roy’s car into a pickup truck alternative and started a business that would help revolutionize the fitness industry. After being acquired by Cybex, Mark stayed on for a while – working mainly in the back office. Eventually, he left Cybex to go back to school, then to Medical School. Today, he’s a very recently retired physician.
Are you done contributing?
Maybe not. Not sure there’s really anything revolutionary to be made in strength training. Today, it’s more a matter of refinements. I am still working on two new machines that I’ll be able to introduce soon.
Nope. I do hope that when they’re introduced, when they’re used – they will be seen as “Of course! Why didn’t we think of that”?
From Eagle, to FreeMotion, Resolute and Eleiko – have you created your personal “holy grail” of design?
The holy grail of strength equipment does not exist. I’ve always created what I felt was the best at the time, but as a designer, you always hope your best work is still in front of you. And right now, all design is really evolutionary, not revolutionary. Regardless of the category – these are just tools; they all serve a purpose.
Your opinion of the current fitness equipment market, specifically strength?
Everything is more refined, more aesthetic. But if you close your eyes, it’s basically the exact same as it was 40 years ago. In some ways, we’ve regressed – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Look at the dumbbell: the least sophisticated tool in the gym, but if you know how to use them…arguably the most useful tool for the most members in the gym. In this case, the regression is a bonus.
Anything you would change about today’s fitness industry?
Education. In the gym – we have a room full of great tools, but most people don’t know how to use them. No idea. This is still one of the major shortcomings of the industry – all of us – we’ve all contributed to a brutal lack of education of how to train.
I grew up on skis, but never touched a snowboard. When I wanted to ride a snowboard for the first time – I signed up for an adult bombers program. I completed two 8-hour sessions of how to use the board properly. So, before I hit the mountain on my own, I had been through 16 hours of education of how to safely ride a snowboard. And I grew up on snow! Most people in the gym? Zero hours of education.
BONUS question: there’s a rumor you created the original goalie mask for hockey?
Maybe not the very original, but easily a very early design. Up until the 8th grade, we didn’t even wear masks. I got tired of eating pucks, so I made my own. By 17, making goalie masks was a real business. I made masks for colleges, and for goalies in the World Hockey Association. Even for the 1972 US Olympic Team goalie.
Putting on your coaching hat…
What advice would you give your younger self?
(a chuckle) So many people say they wouldn’t change a thing? I would change 1,000 things! I did so many stupid things – business, financial, relationships. But we’re human, we make mistakes. My advice? Forgive yourself. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good. And don’t pursue any activities that you don’t enjoy. You have choices. Every day, you have choices.
What advice would you give any 50+ individual that believes their athletic days are better left in the past?
Your quality of life is entirely up to you. The body still wants to repair itself. No contradictory evidence that says at any age – even if you were very unfit – that you cannot improve your strength and fitness.
Getting fitter/stronger is really a combination of two things: muscles do get stronger, but first, the neuropathways turn back on, learn the movements. Not trying to turn people into super athletes, just encouraging them to turn back the clock to how our forefathers had to move daily just to survive.
Any final hard-earned wisdom you’d like to share to the 60+ crowd?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We make conscious decisions every day of how to live our lives.
Roy is a very uniquely gifted individual, and age Is definitely no barrier to the daily activities / sports he enjoys. At the age of 68, he remains extremely healthy, no chronic issues, and still trains at a high intensity. As he likes to remind people, good habits are the only part of the health equation that we control – so choose your habits wisely.
Questions for Roy?
Include any questions in the comment section below and I’ll forward their replies.