It was halftime of Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots, and Lady Gaga was performing like we’ve never seen from her before. Known for her outrageous outfits and tremendous vocals, on this night, the 30-year-old recording artist commanded the massive stage at NRG Stadium in Houston with a physical performance one might associate with Beyoncé’s act.
Gaga opened her 13-minute set by standing on the ledge of the upper bowl of the stadium with the star-lit sky behind her before plunging 260 feet toward the field below, suspended by wires as she danced in the air. Once on the ground, she shuffled through her hits and moved her body in a kinetic carnival of steps, kicks, shimmies and hand gestures without missing a note.
The halftime show was critically acclaimed, and Gaga credited her ability to execute the taxing performance to an esoteric piece of exercise equipment that was developed in the garage of a mechanical engineer during the fitness craze of the early 1980s.
“Well, I work out a lot, and I do VersaClimbing while I sing,” Gaga told Good Morning America. “I’m singing the show while I’m doing it. Because the show is full-on cardio … it’s cardio while singing.”
The VersaClimber isn’t just revered by the entertainment booked at major sporting events, however. It’s also exalted by some of the athletes who play in those big games, including LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And as the Cavs prepare to make what they hope will be a third straight trip to the NBA Finals, it is the VersaClimber — an apparatus so demanding it is often referred to as “a beast” or “a monster” by members of the team — that is keeping them sharp in between playoff series.
The work is showing, not just on Williams’ frame which is noticeably slimmer since he first came to Cleveland, but in Williams’ game, as well. The point guard looks quicker on the court and shot 62.1 percent from the field and 60 percent from 3 through the first two rounds of the playoffs, up from the 46.3 percent from the field (41.5 percent from 3) he connected on in 24 regular-season games with the Cavs.
The machine has not only helped rotation players, but provided an outlet for bench players to prove their value to the team.
“If I put them in groups and we’re competing, now they have an opportunity to show the team how hard they’ve been working,” says Millender. “Even though [they] haven’t been on the court and [they] haven’t been able to show you guys that [they’ve] been working. Now they’re winning races that we have in these competitions.
“So it’s a great opportunity for guys like James Jones, guys like Richard Jefferson, guys like Derrick Williams that aren’t getting a lot of court time, but for them to be able to get out there on that climber and in their group hold their own and show, ‘Hey guys, if my number is called, I’m going to be ready.'”
The 36-year-old Jones is considered one of the top VersaClimber performers on the team — right there with James, Love and Thompson (the competition is swayed toward taller players because their longer bodies climb more feet with each motion).
“It’s like climbing a mountain,” says Jones. “It’s really climbing. It tests your mental resolve, it tests your mental stability, and I’ve always prided myself on taking that challenge, so for me, being a guy that’s not in the rotation, a guy that’s not playing, to be 14 years in and have to be in peak condition, that’s the one machine I’ll say that gives me a run for my money.
“It’s not just the cardio aspect. Mentally, it’s challenging. So when you have these long off days and these long rest periods between games, there’s nothing that can really push you back to that adrenaline, physical exertion level besides playing the game. I think this is the closest thing to it.”
Less than three weeks after the Cavs beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, with James putting the final touches on a championship round for the ages with a chase-down block on Andre Iguodala in the waning minutes, James declared his summer vacation was effectively over with an Instagram post.
The post, a video of a shirtless James grinding away on the VersaClimber for 59 seconds, includes the caption: “Me and my girlfriend! All I need. VersaClimber is her name. #LoveHer #BackAtIt #StriveForGreatness”
A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on Jul 8, 2016 at 9:15am PDT
James owns three VersaClimbers, which he keeps at his various homes around the country.
There is no secret to James’ success. As he strives to make a seventh straight Finals appearance this June and has soared through the first two rounds of the playoffs averaging 34.4 points on 55.7 percent shooting, 9 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.5 blocks, the results are some combination of natural-born talent and an extreme work ethic.
The VersaClimber simply provided an outlet for that desire to improve. First for James personally, and now for his teammates along with him.
“I mean, it’s just an edge,” James says. “You got to have some kind of an edge to get on that machine, in my opinion. And you can’t beat it. It’s you versus the machine. It ain’t going to talk back to you, it ain’t going to say nothing to you, you got to be willing to put in the work on it.”
The commitment has worked out for James. Others are finding it worth the work, as well.
“He would always do it solo, and then a lot of the players started to see what he was doing in the summertime, see what he was doing in between playoff sessions and figured, ‘Let me give it a shot,'” says Mancias. “And it just kicked everyone’s ass. So guys were like, ‘I like that. I like the challenge.’ More and more guys started following it so now, guys are all over it.
“We’re proud and happy,” Mancias adds. “Another trend that we started.”