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NSU alumni create military-themed gym

Gym also features cafe

In 2011, Kelsey DeSantis made waves on the internet when she created a video asking pop star Justin Timberlake to be her date to the annual U.S. Marine Corps birthday ball. Now, the veteran and Nova Southeastern University alum is focusing her efforts on a military-themed gym and cafe.

Opened in 2015, Military Muscle Gym is unlike a typical gym. The Davie-based facility occupies a warehouse-like space shared with Spyke’s Grove at 7250 Griffin Rd. The spartan gym has no exercise machines, but it does offer free weights, instructional classes, and a backyard grove often used for training exercises.

Military Muscle Gym Military Muscle Gym interior

“It’s a team environment,” DeSantis said. “We have pros and people who have never worked out.”

A native of Southern California, DeSantis took up Muay Thai as a teenager and joined the Marines at age 18, where she picked up Jiu-Jitsu, Mixed Martial Arts, and wrestling. DeSantis became a K-9 Military Police officer in the Presidential Helicopter Squadron. It was in the Marines that she met partner Jake Milkovich and friends Christopher Piper and Dan Beja.

DeSantis decided to ask Timberlake to the ball when he teased his Friends with Benefits co-star Mila Kunis after she received a similar proposal. DeSantis’ video became a viral hit, and to her surprise, Timberlake accepted.

“It was a lot of fun,” she said.

DeSantis & Timberlake

After leaving the Marines in 2012, DeSantis returned to California before coming to South Florida with Milkovich to develop a career in MMA. The two began attending Nova Southeastern University, with DeSantis getting a Business degree at the H. Wayne Huizenga College of Business and Entrepreneurship, and Milkovich a Criminal Justice degree from the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. It was at NSU that DeSantis met Professor Kimberly Durham, Psy.D., chair of CAHSS’ Department of Justice and Human Services.

DeSantis and Durham worked together on the creation of the Office of Academic Affairs' Veterans Resource Center, which was funded by a $25,000 grant from The Veterans Trust. Located in the Rosenthal Building, the center offers various services and resources to student veterans.

“It’s a place for veterans to hang out, eat, or use a computer,” Durham said.

Durham said she had a positive experience working with DeSantis.

“I’ve never met a more vibrant, professional, energetic, and positive individual than in Kelsey,” she said. “She was dedicated as a student and will do great things and make a mark.”

Piper and Beja also attended NSU after the Marines, where Piper pursued a Criminal Justice degree and Beja a degree in Exercise and Sport Science from the College of Health Care Sciences. Together, the group founded the nonprofit HELO Foundation to assist veterans in adjusting to civilian life, but the foundation was not able to sustain itself.

“It’s hard to survive when you’re working for free,” DeSantis said.

The four regrouped and decided to use their talents in training and teamwork to create the gym in partnership with the Military Muscle exercise clothing brand.

“The values instilled by the Marine Corps helped us along the journey to adapt and roll with the punches as things changed,” Milkovich said.

The gym relies on social media and word of mouth to attract clients rather than traditional advertising. In just over a year, the gym has built a following that includes veterans, athletes, people who do not exercise regularly, and people who want training prior to entering the military or law enforcement.

“We’ve found our niche in terms of getting people who otherwise dislike the gym environment,” Beja said. “It speaks to that community and family feeling that’s common in the military.”

Piper agreed. “We have people at a high level who still get pushed beyond their limits, or some who can barely lunge at first but are breaking serious barriers.”

As a result of the gym’s success, the group took over the management of the Spyke’s Grove cafe, now renamed 50 Cal Cafe, in keeping with the military theme. The cafe offers a 10 percent discount to NSU students.

50 Cal Cafe

Outside of work, DeSantis and Milkovich have a two-year-old daughter, Paige, and two dogs, including DeSantis’ former military work dog, Axo. Paige is probably the gym’s youngest participant.

“She does squats,” DeSantis said.

There are early plans for a second location, but Milkovich takes the business’ future in stride.

“I want us to be wherever we’re meant to be,” he said. “I’m here for the journey.”

DeSantis sees the gym and cafe as building on what she did in the Marines.

“Service was our purpose, so the gym is our purpose continued,” she said.

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