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Fighting for Life

Augie Nieto revolutionized fitness when he brought cardio onto the gym scene nearly 30 years ago. Now, after his diagnosis of ALS, his fight for health is personal.

Few people have influenced the fitness
industry as dramatically as renowned
entrepreneur Augie Nieto, the founder and retired chief executive of Life Fitness Inc. A once-chubby teen, he opened a gym while still in college, then bought the marketing rights to Lifecycle exercise bikes, which he sold door-to-door to health clubs while on a road trip in a motor home. Today, Life Fitness, which Nieto sold to the Brunswick Corporation for $310 million in 1997, is the largest commercial fitness equipment provider in the world.

A robust lifelong adventurer with a penchant for fast-paced hobbies such as race cars, scuba diving and Arctic snowmobiling, Nieto found that he was struggling to lift weights, and he fell while water-skiing in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta several years ago. At the age of 47, in March 2005, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS destroys the nerve cells controlling muscles, resulting in complete paralysis. Survival is typically 2–5 years after diagnosis, and no cure exists.

Nieto recalls there was “denial, then anger, then you get ready to fight.” And that’s exactly what he’s doing. He founded Augie’s Quest (www.augiesquest.org) to raise funds, and turned to the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), one of the biggest funders of ALS research. His goal was to put a human face on ALS by going through the transformation as an ALS patient in public, not in private. Nieto, and his wife, Lynne, are co-chairpersons of the ALS Division of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Nieto was featured on NBC’s Today show in a series on heroes; received the International Humanitarian Award from the Young Presidents’ Organization; and set an MDA fundraising record for a first-time event, raising more than $1 million in a single night. Much of the money raised is dedicated to a hunt for ALS-related genes, using such technology as new machines that sift through DNA at lightning speed to identify genetic markers. (Similar, privately funded gene quests are underway for other diseases, including autism, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.)

“I am on a new quest,” says Nieto. “It’s not unlike the early days at Life Fitness. There were so many people who did not believe in the possibility of fitness for the masses. There is the same mindset in the scientific community about the prospect of finding a cure. You have to set achievable targets, accomplish them, and then celebrate your victory.”

Nieto likens his medical research
efforts to farming. “In business, seed planting is the true blank paper R&D. The cultivating is picking the best seedlings and nurturing them. Harvesting allows you to reap the benefits of your efforts. When you cut open an apple, you don’t know the potential of the seeds until you plant them—but those seeds are capable of providing endless supplies of fruit. We believe the fundamental research that we are doing will affect all neuromuscular diseases in the future.”

Nieto’s primary focus right now, in
addition to his ALS work, is enjoying time with his wife and four children. He has
always believed that “the customer has all the answers,” and that the way to personal and professional success is through good relationships. “I learned this lesson in Tibet. When you have your first cup of tea with a Tibetan, you are a stranger. When you have your second cup of tea, you become an honored guest. When you take the time to have three cups of tea, you are family, and for family they will do anything. Take the time to build a relationship, and you will be treated like family.”

Augie Nieto will be presented with the 2007 IDEA Lifetime Achievement Award at the IDEA World Fitness Convention® opening ceremonies on July 6 in San Diego. If you would like to make a donation to Augie’s Quest, please go to www.augiesquest.com for details.

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