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Fitness in Fatigues

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You don’t have to hang around a gym to be reminded that you’re not quite as buff as you were five years ago.

OK, not even as together as you were a year ago.

Sure, you live in L.A., where fitness centers are as ubiquitous as ski lifts in Aspen. You’ve replaced your psychotherapist with a personal trainer. Your bedroom looks like the Dodgers’ weight room at Vero Beach.

But even that doesn’t work. What can you do to stay the fitness course? Join the Army?

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Fighting the workout blues myself recently, I drove up to Wildwood Canyon Park in Burbank an hour before dawn, looking for signs of life.

Under the light of a full moon, a small group of sweatshirt-clad joggers stood around, anxiously awaiting the arrival of “Master Chief” Tina Castaldi, a drill sergeant/actress who would command 35 enlistees and me in a one-hour “Killer Boot Camp” workout commencing at 0530 hours.

Slapping my arms to ward off the cold, I approached the stretching, jogging-in-place athletes, reminiscing about boot camps past like a bunch of Army buddies at an American Legion reunion.

“Mentally, this workout really pushes you; it gives you a real kick in the butt,” said two-time boot camp veteran Anthony Santillo, 34, a sales rep from Montrose. “It pushes you beyond anything you think you can do on your own.”

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“I’ve been with trainers and been to gyms,” said Chris Deiser, 38. “Now I like someone to discipline me into making fitness a part of my life. Discipline and fun at the same time.”

I could handle that, I thought.

Castaldi--dressed in Army fatigues, a camouflage fabric baseball cap and big black combat boots--appeared and, after greeting the troops, began roll call.

“Dina!” barked our “sarge,” a 5-foot-2 bundle of solid muscle with a voice that could break the sound barrier.

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“Here, Master Chief!” shouted Dina Hardy, 28, a Disney animator.

“Rachel!”

“Here, Master Chief!”

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Each time Castaldi shouted the name of a new recruit, the entire corps was ordered to sprint to the edge of the lot and back.

When roll call ended, Castaldi commanded the red-faced and out-of-breath troops to pledge allegiance to a small American flag she pulled out of the trunk of her car and then ordered the assembled to “drop and give me 20!” Push-ups, that is.

In quick succession, we alternated sprints and crunches, as Castaldi walked from private to private, barking a clipped, “Hup, hup, hup! Look alive, now!”

We did jumping jacks until my head swam and squats until my thighs burned.

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Watching Castaldi, 29, bend and stretch in perfect time to the salsa beat blasting from her cassette recorder, it was hard to imagine that this incredibly fit Maryland native had been diagnosed at the age of 11 with a rare bone disease that causes a deterioration of the hip joint.

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The young athlete, who had once received a presidential physical-fitness award, suddenly found herself in a wheelchair for several months to avoid further damage to her hips. She underwent a series of corrective surgeries, then lived in leg braces until she could walk on her own again at 14.

“I was in denial at first,” Castaldi said. “But I’m feisty, and at 12, I ran the 50-yard dash at school, with polio braces on my legs. I wasn’t going to give up. That’s always been my attitude.”

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After completing nearly five years of course work at the University of Maryland, which she attended on a full theater scholarship, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.

While awaiting her big break, she taught aerobics classes at Valley gyms, eventually earning her certification as a personal trainer in 1994.

Castaldi settled in Toluca Lake three years ago and decided to combine her acting and athletic talents. The result was her Master Chief alter ego.

“People love the ‘G.I. Jane’ aspect of training,” said Castaldi, who has trained about 450 clients--including Disney executives, attorneys, bookkeepers and actors--in her boot camp. “They’re bored with gyms, which were hot in the ‘80s. Now they want a community-type experience.”

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Castaldi takes before-and-after photographs of her boot camp clients, and keeps close tabs on their weight, body fat and eating habits during the six-week session, which costs $600.

Back at Wildwood Canyon, as the black sky faded to gray, 35 joggers began trickling back to the parking lot after running a one-mile course along the De Bell Municipal Golf Course, where early birds were beginning to tee off.

Out of breath, my heart pounding, I ran the final stretch, dizzy and red-faced with exertion as Castaldi and those who finished ahead of me cheered me on.

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The recruits, some stripped down to shorts and T-shirts after their aerobics efforts, hit the mats for more stretching, relay races and jump rope. The workout ended with Castaldi reading an inspirational poem about rising to one’s potential.

“I live my dreams every day that I wake up,” Castaldi said. “I love to perform as the Sergeant of No Pain, No Gain, and I get to inspire people to do what they think they can’t do. What could be better than that?”


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