Culver City gym helps injured cop try to get back on the beat

Culver City gym helps injured cop try to get back on the beat
Trainer Steve Zim, center, and assistant Bryan Arceo work with Culver City Police Officer Tri Lai as he regains his strength after a devastating motorcycle accident in 2013. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

For Culver City police Officer Tri Lai, it's all about hitting the wall.

A 6-foot wall that he needs to get up and over.


Lai, 40, a 15-year veteran of the Culver City force, was in a severe motorcycle accident while off duty on May 3, 2013. Hit a tree. There was probably a car coming around the curve and he maybe overcorrected, but he doesn't remember. He woke up about four weeks later from a medically induced coma to find his mouth wired shut, suffering from orbital, jawbone and spinal fractures. He was told he might not walk again.

As it turned out, he spent three months in the hospital and an additional nine in physical therapy. Even though he's been offered retirement, Lai has just one goal: to return to active duty.

"Ever since I got out of the hospital, even when I was in the hospital, I just wanted to get back to work," Lai says. "Because I love what I do."

Lai says he's part of a community, a family.

"All the love I have gotten from the department members, like they voluntarily had an officer come in every day, just on their own time, every night, which I don't even remember. Every night there was an officer there. Just volunteering their own time," he says. "I figured the best way to pay them back was show that I can come back to work."

And to do that, he has to vault over that wall in Culver City Park and complete the rest of the physical agility course on April 14 that also includes a "body drag," an obstacle course and a fence climb. Things are promising: He made it over the wall in a recent practice run. Lai has been working out four times a week with trainer and author Steve Zim, owner of the neighborhood gym A Tighter U in Culver City.

Zim, who has trained pro athletes and movie stars like Chris Evans for his role in "Captain America," volunteered to go all in for Lai after hearing about his situation from union representative John Benjamin. Benjamin and Lai were police academy classmates, and Bejamin had worked out with Zim.

"He didn't ask us to do this for nothing, but Culver City is its own community," Zim says.

On a recent day, Zim and assistant trainer Bryan Arceo focused on upper body strength, which they alternate with lower body days. The warmup starts with walking for two minutes on the treadmill at a slight incline and then jumping rope for a couple of minutes, with calf stretches in between.

Then Lai is guided through a sequence of exercises that Zim has devised to build his muscle strength with a firm eye on getting him over that wall. They're all variations on common strength training moves but modified for Lai's ever-increasing abilities. The first is a pull-up that starts with Lai in a squat position on the floor. Keeping his legs stiff, he pulls himself up to a standing position with rings attached to a long rope.

"Instead of doing half of a 100% pull-up, this is 100% of a 50% pull-up," Zim says. "It's a way to build up his back and teach him to use his back muscles to do the movement. They're a big muscle that isn't usually used."

Next comes a set in which Lai does a pullover variation Zim came up with that's sort of a frontal version of a row. He drives his stiffened forearms downward against the weight, pulling through his latissimus dorsi in the back, the reverse of actually vaulting upward. Since he's driving more than his body weight, it's good training for hoisting his body up over the wall.

"He never does the same workout twice. We're always changing it up so he doesn't get bored," says Zim, who has been working with Lai since February.

He puts Lai through a set of decline triceps presses to gain a bigger range of motion in that part of the arm. In just a few weeks, they've made startling progress: Lai couldn't raise his arms over his head when they started.


A move Zim's dubbed "field goals" follows, which starts with Lai taking a dumbbell in each hand straight out shoulder-to-elbow and then raising his arms up in a version of a football referee's stance. This works the rear delts, "one of the most underdeveloped muscles in the body," Zim says, to give Lai an extra bit of strength in connecting the arm movement to the back, also useful for helping him lift up.

In the home stretch of the workout, Lai clips a cable to his shorts to keep track of his pace and starts running uphill on a cardio ladder that's continually moving downward. "The worst thing about this machine is that the timer's right near your face," he says.

They finish up with hanging leg raises, stiff-leg first and then bent-knee. "He couldn't hold himself up three weeks ago," Zim says. Then a final abdominal stretch and sit-ups on an exercise ball. It's been a solid hour and a half of hard work.

"Whatever they ask, I'll try to do it," Lai says of Zim and Arceo afterward, "because I know they've got my best interests at heart."