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Keeping fit and healthy: at 53 years old, Leon Van der Merwe is more active and fit than most people half his age. He owns and runs Van der Merwe Health Centre. The centre covers 10,000 square metres and is the largest health club in Switzerland.

Leon Van der Merwe is trim and lithe and sets a fine example to his centre's 1,800 members regarding the benefits of an active and fit. ness-oriented lifestyle.

His centre is located in an industrial area in Allschwil, a village near Basel on the border with France. Leon says that when he first opened the centre in 1983, it was used in a public forum as a terrific example of where not to open a new business.

The centre opened as a tennis and squash club, with three tennis courts and 12 squash courts, making it the largest squash club in Switzerland at the time. The reason it was criticised was because there were already three existing tennis and squash centres within a one-kilometre radius.

Nobody thought the new one would make it but they were wrong; the centre was full from the start. Leon thought that he could do it better than the others and he was right! His success was based on the name he had made for himself as a professional tennis and squash player, his love of sport, his enthusiasm and his 'go get it' spirit.

Coming to Europe

Leon hails from Cape Town, South Africa. When he was 25, he decided it was time to see the world so he took six month of unpaid leave from his job as a school teacher and came to Europe. He didn't do the traditional young persons Eurail pass tour, however, he played tennis through Europe instead. "I played (and won) enough tennis tournaments and won enough money to get by," says Leon. "I played, maybe a month and a half in one place, made some money and then toured again. I saw a lot of Europe that way."

After Leon returned to South Africa, Europe stayed on his mind. So, the following year he decided to come back, stay in one place and get to know the culture and the language. "I didn't decide on Switzerland," be says. "I just decided to go back to Europe.

I was looking for tennis contracts with the contacts that I had made and had options in Germany, Austria, Holland and Switzerland. I took the Swiss contract because it was the best one. I only looked at the contract then, I didn't look at the area. Swiss teams were allowed one foreigner per tennis team. I was hired as the foreigner on the Basler Lawn and Tennis Club (BETC) team. The BLTC had been Swiss champions in the 1960s and then they went down but in the mid 1970s they started coming up again and started organising. Tennis was at a high in the late 1970s. It was an exciting time to play."

The Centre

The same year that the BLTC hired Leon, they had also brought in a new trainer from Lausanne. He went back to Lausanne when the year was up and BLTC offered Leon the opportunity. "I reluctantly took the job," he says. "I didn't want to do it. I thought I would go back South Africa. I was freelancing; giving lessons at different clubs and that suited me just fine. Anyhow, I took the job and then I started my own tennis school. The next step was to build on that and build a tennis centre. I built the centre in 1982 and we opened in 1983."

The centre has developed and matured along with Leon himself, who in addition to keeping very fit has become an astute businessman. In 1992, he made the first big change to the centre; he turned some tennis court space into a three-story health club.

In 1997 he eliminated tennis entirely. "Eliminating tennis was a business decision, a question of space and volume," he says. "With three tennis courts you're lucky to have 12 people at ally given time. But now, if the centre is full you have 120 to 150 people in here. The popularity of tennis has gone down worldwide. It's the same with all sports. There are worldwide trends. Squash is down too."

Focus On Fitness

Another key factor driving Leon to make changes was the advent of the fitness craze. "I realised pretty soon after opening the centry," says Leon, "that I had missed out on fitness boom which started in 1982. If you look at the centre now, you would think we had planned it this way from the start but actually it just developed."

Now the space (plus a little more built both up and out) that previously held three tennis courts has a bowling centre with 10 bowling alleys, eight billiard tables, a creche, a hair salon, six badminton courts, physiotherapy offices, a cardio vascular training area, a spinning room, a room with back machines, a room with abdominal machines, an area with balancing equipment, class rooms for classes such as tai-chi, yoga and pilates, locker rooms, saunas and a restaurant. The original squash courts are still there but some are due to be replaced soon with more fitness-oriented equipment.

The Future

"The Van der Merwe Health Centre is a health centre," emphasises Leon. "It is not a place where you simply move weights back and forth; we have a more health oriented philosophy. I see it as a preventive medicine centre."

"I train a lot. It's my life. Training at the centre is my luxury. The things I am adding on are the things that I do and like and that I believe in," says Leon. In keeping with his desires and the prevailing trends in the fitness business, which Leon follows carefully, he plans to add water to the centre. Not a swimming pool where you swim lengths but a small pool where you go in a bit, move around and feel better afterwards. He also plans to fully integrate the physiotherapists into the centre. Currently they are an independent business and rent practice space from the centre.

"The therapy area is the locomotive for the centre," explains Leon. It draws people in and many local doctors send their patients to the centre for physiotherapy. Leon's next change to keep the centre thriving is to have only physiotherapists as instructors and have them work 50 per cent as an instructor and 50 per cent as a physiotherapist. This would only improve the quality of training support at the centre.

Choosing the right people

As in any business, choosing the right employees is one of the keys to success. "When I choose an employee, I watch the way that person walks," says Leon. "If somebody has a quick step you can be sure that person has a high energy level. Way back, I used to look at people's physique to see if they were strong. That means nothing, I learned with time. A fitter person is more slender not stronger."

Expert Advice

"I know pain. To be pain free is a huge plus. My aim is to grow old without pain! Fitness is the best health orientated activity to do by far. You can't do anything better physically," says Leon with conviction. "I would also advise anyone over the age of 35 to do more strength training and less cardiovascular training."

"I used to run all my life. I come from a family of four kids: we all participated in sports and played competitive tennis. We always ran. We ran to the tennis courts; we ran back. Today I know how important strength training is. If you have cardio vascular activity in your life, if you walk briskly, if you take the stairs instead of the lift, if you cycle a bit then you're generally fit. You still can't compete in sports, obviously, for that you've got to train. But, we don't have strength training in our day-to-day. Some people tell me, 'I work in the garden' or 'I do household work' That's not strength training. To avoid aches and pains, you've got to work on your back muscles; you have got to work on your thighs and your abdomen. And you've got to do it with purpose. A strong body is like a motorcar with more horsepower. It's a stronger machine."

For more information contact: Van de Merwe Centre AG, Gewerbestrasse 30, 4123 Allschwil. Tel.: 061 487 9898. Website:
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Title Annotation:Expat Profile
Author:Littlejohn, Simone
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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