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Squash, as a career choice, is not for everyone, but it has worked out for Clive Caldwell. Mr. Caldwell learned to play squash at age 11 at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. By age 18 he was Canadian Junior squash champion. He won two world hardball squash championships, in 1980 and 1982, but he never went to university.
"I wasn't a very good student," Mr. Caldwell, who is 58, confided the other day, leaning back in a thickly padded leather chair in the dining room at the Cambridge Club, on the 11th floor of the Richmond Tower at the Sheraton Hotel. "I thought I would end up as a squash professional."
He did a bit better than that. He bought the club.
"All the good fortune in my life has come out of squash and clubs," says Mr. Caldwell. For all its grandeur, perched in the sky overlooking Nathan Phillips Square, the Cambridge Club carries with it a certain warmth, which makes sense; it has been a second home for Mr. Caldwell for over 30 years.
The Cambridge Club, a men's-only sports club, opened in January, 1973, atop the spanking new Sheraton Centre. The club's founder, Jim Bentley, had taught Mr. Caldwell squash at the Toronto Cricket club. Mr. Bentley hired Mr. Caldwell at age 21 as the club squash professional. The boy's parents were not too pleased. "They didn't really think their son should be pursuing this kind of a career," he said.
Mr. Caldwell bought a small stake in the Cambridge Club but then sold it, investing instead in the Adelaide Club, in First Canadian Place. He had meanwhile married a young woman named Marianne. Then Clive brought his wife the proposition that would change their lives. "We had three children," he recalls. "We owned a house at Roxborough and Yonge in the early '80s. I wanted to sell our home and buy a much bigger piece of the Adelaide Club. She said yes. We rented a house for a couple of years."
The gamble paid off. In 1991, having consolidated his ownership of the Adelaide Club, Mr. Caldwell came back and, with the late Jack Lawrence, one of the founders of Nesbitt Burns, bought the place where his career had begun: the Cambridge Club.
"It was really on the verge of bankruptcy," he says. "I came over to see Jim Bentley. I felt that I could revive it. We spent in excess of $2-million on the property. The members needed some love. We tried to serve them at a higher level."
Today Mr. Caldwell's Cambridge Group of Clubs owns three top sports clubs in the financial district: the Cambridge Club, Adelaide Club and the Toronto Athletic Club, on the 36th floor of the TD Waterhouse tower. He can walk between his properties without stepping outside, and quotes The Who's song Going Mobile: "I'm an air-conditioned gypsy."
"The PATH is a significant advantage for us, being so connected to it," he notes. In 1999, Mr. Caldwell added the Montreal Athletic Association to the Cambridge Group of Clubs, renaming it the Club Sportif MAA.
The other morning I joined Mr. Caldwell at the Cambridge Club at 8 a.m. for the tail end of his thrice-weekly fitness routine with trainer Marcelo Olenewa. Mr. Caldwell wore track pants and a Cambridge Club golf shirt; he has the swagger and sailor's vocabulary that one would expect for someone who grew up in sports clubs.
We did some tricep dips (perched in the air with your arms at your sides, you grip steel tubes with each hand, and then let yourself drop and push yourself back up). Then we moved to a machine to do weight pulldowns. As Mr. Olenewa added weight -- 35 lbs, then 42.5 lbs, then 50 lbs, I winced.
"Don't be a suck, Peter," Mr. Caldwell said. "It's a bit of a war zone in this club. It's every man for himself."
Although Mr. Caldwell is 10 years my senior, I gave up on the weights before he did. He then gave a tour of the club, a risky endeavor -- mainly for him.
"Clive, I see you just walking around being interviewed this morning," quipped Dave Grand, a member here for 18 years. "Look at this body," the owner shot back. "You don't get a body like this just walking around." Nearby, men of a range of ages sat clad only in towels, reading newspapers in a lounge area of wooden tables and comfy chairs.
"It's unbelievable how it becomes part of your fabric," Mr. Grand said. "You go away for a couple of years and come back and you hear the same jokes."
Later we toured his other two Toronto clubs. The Adelaide Club sprawls below ground in First Canadian Place. Mr. Caldwell has festooned the stairways with an impressive collection of posters of squash and tennis matches, plus the Kentucky Derby, Indianapolis 500 and Superbowl.
Mr. Caldwell, an art collector, also has enlivened the walls with two originals by the New York contemporary artist Frank Stella: a sculpture and a painting, along with numerous Frank Stella posters.
At the Adelaide Club, along with studios for yoga, pilates, spinning and aerobics, women have their own fitness area.
"The women love [having their own fitness area] because men are pigs," Mr. Caldwell jokes. "They dress in a way that men love it, and then they want us to stay away from them."
He showed me the lounge, with a bar, tables and a pool table. "Even though we are fitness gyms, we are clubs where you get to know people and socialize," he adds.
The Toronto Athletic Club, our last stop -- also a co-ed club -- offers a cooler, more corporate feel, with accent walls painted orange. Staffing the club's sports medicine clinic was Chris Broadhurst, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Phoenix Coyotes. He was helping a young hockey player, perhaps 10 years old, to get over a leg injury.
In the fitness rooms, I stood staring at the stunning views out the floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, until the boss called me to order. "Come along, Peter," he commands. "It's my f---ing tour."
He showed me the bar, with its dramatic views, explaining his future plan to tear out some offices to enlarge the members' lounge. "This is an office for the general manager," he said. "They've got the best space in the club. It should be for the members."
He also showed me, "the tallest swimming pool in the world" -- 25' long, with four lanes. Then we returned to the Cambridge Club for a beer.
"I meet with our new employees and I always tell them four things when we finish," he said. "We are making decisions in favour of our members. We are looking to improve. We ask people who work with us to improve their skills and education. Lastly, "Even if you're not a believer, cleanliness is next to Godliness. It's a sweaty place. We gotta work like hell to keep these places clean.”
Senior writer, National Post