Steel Warriors is the anti-knife-crime charity turning street knives into free-to-use outdoor gyms. MF editor Isaac Williams meets its founder Ben Wintour, as well as calisthenics athlete Goku Nsudoh…
Wintour: “Having lived in the area for a couple of years, and endured last year’s lockdowns in a matchbox-sized flat, Finsbury Park – with its running trail, duck pond and disproportionate number of playgrounds – has become essential for my sanity and general sense of wellbeing.
“There’s just enough green space to briefly forget you’re in a city of 8.9-million people, and walking around takes a lunchtime-compatible 20-25 minutes. More to the point, as of 2018, there’s even a gym. Equipped with pull-up bars, dip stations and concrete platforms, this free space is the work of Steel Warriors, the charity set up to tackle London’s knife crime epidemic.
“Each month, thousands of knives are taken off the streets, and in just one week from 26 April to 2 May this year, 400 knives were seized. In that same period, 994 knife-crime-related arrests were made.
“The more knives are on the street, the more kids feel the need to protect themselves. It’s a vicious cycle, not easy to break. But it’s exactly why Steel Warriors’ work is so important.”
Ben Wintour co-founded the charity while working for a PR agency. His campaign-led role involved a lot of news reading, and the scale of London’s knife problem became impossible to ignore.
“We [Wintour and co-founder, Pia] tried to understand the key motives for carrying knives, so we started speaking to a lot of young Londoners and people who had been affected by knife crime – as well as the police. We established there are two main reasons for carrying a knife: protection and bravado. Obviously there are a whole host of other reasons, including a lack of support at home and feeling disenfranchised from their communities, but they seem to be the main two.
“We found out that the police were taking a ton of knives off the streets each month, which was a really shocking insight. And essentially we wanted to find a way to put all that knife steel to some good use.”
The solution was simple: melt it down and turn the steel into gym equipment.
“We decided to turn it into something that can help people feel confident in their bodies,” says Wintour. “It also allows people to flex their bodies in a healthy way, and brings people together to form a new community that focuses on something positive. It’s a new group of people that are focused around fitness, rather than violence.”
The first Steel Warriors gym went up in Tower Hamlets’ Langdon Park in 2017, and was such a hit that gyms in Lambeth’s Ruskin Park and the aforementioned Finsbury Park – all ‘gang-neutral’ areas – quickly followed.
“The first was a bit of a trial run,” says Wintour, “but we were pleased to see people were using it, clubs were coming together and we were getting lots of brilliant feedback. But we weren’t going to make a difference with just one gym, so we soon decided to get more up. It’s so nice to see people coming together around these spaces.”
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One such club is Team Instinct, a group of elite calisthenics athletes who compete worldwide. The team is captained by Goku Nsudoh, who’s only too happy to share the Steel Warriors message. “Steel Warriors creates spaces for young people that are safe and protective,” he says, “and I want to be behind that.”
Nsudoh first got into calisthenics at secondary school, as a way to feel more confident in his own body. “I was bullied in primary school,” he says, “and when I moved up I obviously didn’t want that to happen.”
Told that lifting weights would stunt his growth, calisthenics seemed the perfect alternative: a way to get stronger, without placing unregulated stress on a growing body. It’s also, crucially, completely free. With many of the kids who get caught up in knife crime coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, paying £20 or £30 a month for a gym membership simply isn’t an option. With calisthenics, all you need is a square foot of space – even the bar is optional.
“When I first started training,” says Nsudoh, “the one thing I didn’t have was money to go to the gym. Being able to go to any park or any old pull-up bar is a great thing for anyone who wants to start working on themselves.”
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And these gyms really are for anyone. At Finsbury Park, for every bloke bashing out muscle-ups and full planche holds, there are people like me, struggling through sets of air squats and press-ups. Which is one of the reasons calisthenics is the perfect distraction for young men trying to escape lives of violence: the opportunities for growth, while still engaging in a bit of healthy muscle flexing, are limitless.
“Calisthenics itself doesn’t mean anything other than bodyweight training,” says Nsudoh. “I started with the same things that beginners now would start with. Even now I’m doing flips and stuff people would say is crazy, I started at the same base level as everyone else. It’s like jogging: everyone can wake up and do a slow jog, but not everyone is going to be able to run a 5k or 10k. They can be milestones, but it takes time and practice to get there.
“With calisthenics there is so much freedom. Get to the bars, practise swinging, and check out YouTube for tips and inspiration. You can set your own goals and build up to them. So say your goal was five pull-ups, to build up to that you can do negatives (jumping up and lowering slowly). Play around, have some fun, and go from there.”
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While Steel Warriors has found a way of turning destructive weapons into genuinely positive, community spaces, plans to build more have been curtailed by its main sponsor pulling funding earlier this year. Still, Ben Wintour remains optimistic that the charity can continue to make a positive impact.
“The plan is to build more gyms,” he says, “but it’s also to find out how we can engage people even more, on the ground, with these gyms. We’re hoping that with some more funding we’ll be able to continue on our mission and make a real difference.”
Steel Warriors recently teamed up with Vivobarefoot, as part of the brand’s ‘Movement Outsider’ series. Find out more at vivobarefoot.com