From playground to gym partners

After growing up together, John Swertfager and Skaz Gecaj are side-by-side once again as they open their new business venture, Apex Fitness, in Cross River.

On a recent trip to Cross River, I stepped through the front door of Apex Fitness; it smelled of a fresh coat of paint — and new beginnings.

Neat and tidy, the gym was preparing for its final inspection ahead of its opening. Co-owner John Swertfager greeted me and gave me a tour of the 4,000-square-foot fitness center. I quickly noted its size — bigger than many private gyms but smaller and more intimate than the typical fitness franchise.

We were joined by Skaz Gecaj, co-owner of Apex Fitness. His is an imposing frame, offset by a  teddy bear-like demeanor. The two explained how their blood, sweat and tears had been poured into this new project.

After opening up a personal training business in a 300-square-foot garage just across the street last year, the two quickly realized they were due for an expansion.

“It just exploded and we found we couldn’t work together (in that space),” said Swertfager, explaining that with multiple clients, from high school students looking to play college sports to older adults seeking to keep fit, there wasn’t nearly enough space to train without bumping elbows. 

“We were like, ‘We have to expand.’”

And thus, Apex Fitness found its home at 20 N. Salem Road in Cross River. Swertfager and Gecaj, both with degrees in business, combined their educations and family backgrounds to begin this new venture. Gecaj, a first generation Albanian-American and first generation college student, knew about commercial real estate thanks to his father’s business. Swertfager’s family owns AIA Promotional Source, a marketing company also in Cross River. Between their business degrees and experience working for their respective family businesses, the pair had the perfect storm for creating a small business themselves.

Not to mention their lifelong friendship. Swertfager and Gecaj met as kindergartners at Increase Miller Elementary in Lewisboro. As the two largest kids in their class, they became fast friends — and it stayed that way. Both now 28, they have spent close to a quarter century by each other’s side. 

“I’ve known him longer than I’ve been speaking English,” Gecaj said, which made Swertfager laugh. 

The two attended John Jay High School, were teammates on the football team and trained together during the off season. Gecaj went on to start for four years on Pace University’s football team, while Swertfager played four years on the Long Island University baseball team. A few years since their graduation, the two are still dedicated athletes. Swertfager works part time alongside his father and brother as assistant coach of the varsity wrestling team at John Jay. Gecaj, on the other hand, has competed in power lifting and strongman competitions.

Much of the gym was set up by the co-owners themselves. They laid brick, poured concrete and did much of the heavy lifting. While a series of roadblocks delayed the official opening, the pair hopes to have operations in full swing before the end of the year. With high-end, state-of-the-art equipment (including unique pieces like two ski ergs to simulate skiing indoors), a personal training studio (that doubles as a room for group classes) and men’s and women’s locker rooms, the fitness center is ready to accommodate all athletic skill levels. Swertfager even has the New York Giants’ yoga instructor, Gwen Lawrence, to teach yoga classes to gym members.

Luckily for them, Swertfager, Gecaj, and Swertfager’s wife, Maddy Crabtree, have already racked up a dedicated clientele from their time in personal training. In almost two years of personal training, they had 10 clients commit to NCAA Division I athletic programs. 

“We’re not even open yet and we already have 75 members,” Swertfager said. He explained that since many local gyms in the area have recently gone out of business, there is a new gap in the market they hope to fill. 

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