Entering Konza Strength, patrons are greeted with an open, industrial space. The smell of weights, machines and sweat mingle to form the kind of olfactory backdrop associated with hard work and physical progress. Bright, natural light floods in through the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows facing Fourth Street. Kenney Phillips and Aaron Riekenberg sit on weight benches they’ve pulled away from the workout floor and arranged for the interview where they can still monitor the movement of anyone who stops in during open gym.
“So, how do we start this?” asks Riekenberg with a smile. “Usually we just put a little bit of time on that clock in the corner and it says ‘Three, two, one, go.’”
“Yeah, and then we die!” responds a young woman in the workout area. Riekenberg and Phillips both chuckle knowingly and settle in for the interview to continue.
The two owners of Konza Strength found their way to this partnership in very different ways. Phillips, originally from Florida, attempted to join the Army right out of high school but didn’t meet the fitness requirements at the time. He went back to school and got into fitness as a lifestyle. “At 21, though, I ran out of money at school,” Phillips muses. “And this guy in a funny looking suit said, ‘Give me four years of your life, and I’ll pay for your school,’ which sounded like a fair trade. I wasn’t doing anything else for the next four years.”
Phillips chose the Army over the other branches because they allowed him to pick the career he really wanted, which was a healthcare specialist with follow-on training to be a physical therapist assistant. However, while in basic training, he learned the Army had just changed that specific career path and he would be unable to go the physical therapy route. Instead, he became a combat medic and eventually found himself stationed at Fort Riley.
His enlistment lasted from 2013 to 2017, during which he served one year in Iraq. “I almost made it through my whole enlistment,” Phillips says with a shrug. “My Humvee was hit, and it compressed my whole lumbar spine and kind of crushed it. I recovered, but one day, I was out on the range in full kit and went to stand up and just couldn’t move my legs. I guess the kit had put enough pressure on my spinal column that everything kind of went to sleep and wouldn’t move. So, I got med-boarded and got out in 2017.” He continues, resiliently smiling, and adds, “That’s one of the reasons I do this, to improve the quality of people’s lives and help them maintain independence for as long as they can.”
Riekenberg, on the other hand, was born and raised in southwest Kansas and attended Fort Hays State University, where he competed in track for a year before enlisting in the Marine Corps in 2008. “I wanted to join for a long time, even started talking to recruiters as a freshman in high school, but then I got some good results on the track and really wanted to continue that because standing on top of a podium was a lot of fun,” he explains proudly. “But sitting in classrooms wasn’t really enjoyable. I guess the college thing just wasn’t right for me, so after a year I was ready to go into the military. I also had a close friend pass away, and I kind of realized that I wasn’t getting any younger and nothing was really stopping me from doing this thing I’d wanted to do since I was 13 years old.”
Riekenberg spent four years and two months in the Marines, voluntarily extending those extra two months to finish a deployment. All told, he spent seven months in Iraq, seven months in Afghanistan, and six to seven months in the South Pacific. In 2012 when his enlistment ended, he moved to California to go to school. It was there he met a man that drastically changed his career path. “He was a doctor of physical therapy,” Riekenberg remembers. “And he was using adaptive kinesiology, working with a lot of people that had life-altering illnesses and injuries. I started realizing he had a knack for taking a very simple approach to showing people how to move. He took stroke patients and had them moving around in the pool, practicing walking with a float belt. And as they would get better in the deep end, he would move them closer and closer until they were starting to walk out of the pool and up the ramps,” he recounts. “In the three months I worked with him, I watched people that couldn’t walk start being able to walk, and people using walkers begin using a three- or one-point cane, and I thought that was really cool. I realized I had the ability to truly help people in the weight room, it may not be a pool or be exactly what he was doing, but I did have a skill set to which I could add adaptive kinesiology.”
Riekenberg moved to Manhattan in 2015 to attend Kansas State University and be closer to family. This was around the same time Phillips was starting to work in the fitness industry in Manhattan. Both men were working at different facilities, yet they were struggling with the same feelings. “We both saw that everyone around us was trying to do these high-skill movements, very technical lifts, doing everything for time and always beating themselves into the ground every workout. We thought it just needed to be brought back and simplified. We just need to help people master the basics, time under tension and moving the right way. That’s how we can help people fix their issues and empower their performance,” Phillips explains. Riekenberg, nodding in agreement, adds, “Exactly, we both saw gaps. People were writing numbers on a board saying you have to do this as today’s workout to everyone, but if you understand where those numbers come from then you can see that instead of writing one prescription for everyone, we can write one prescription for each person. You can show each person what’s good for them.”
It was this shared interest in simplified movement being used to help people that ended up bringing them together as partners and friends after a chance meeting in a facility where Riekenberg was working in the fall of 2017. A random text message from a mutual friend about beards was the original catalyst. “I had a really long beard at the time, so this mutual friend of ours was asking me about it, and we struck up a conversation about beards,” laughs Riekenberg. “But I was trying to build my brand and my client base since I needed membership to support a facility of my own, so I asked him where he was training and said he should come to one of my classes.”
But at the time, this friend was actually training with Phillips. “So I said, ‘Bring him too! It’ll be fun,’” Riekenberg recalls, ruefully. Phillips shakes his head slightly, “We ended up combining everyone’s programming that day. It was a bad idea. They didn’t really all go together, so we were all trashed by the end of the session.” Both men let out a laugh at the memory.
Riekenberg collects himself and continues, “But the cool thing about spending so much time at the gym [that day] with each other was that we started these conversations, and we got so tired that we had lost our normal defenses and were just being ourselves. And at that point, Kenney mentioned a space he was going to see as a possible facility, and that perked my ears up. Because Kenney didn’t know that I had also been looking at spaces as well, I just had no idea how I was going to fill one with equipment. I just figured I’d get the people together in a space and worry about equipment later. I asked him about the space he was going to look at, and when we both realized we were doing the same thing, we kind of looked at each other, and I asked, ‘You wanna get breakfast sometime?’” This recollection brings a wide grin to Phillips as well, “Yeah, it was fun,” Phillips adds. “I was expecting some fun conversation, maybe some food. Then we ordered and Aaron jumps into some questions, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m being interviewed. I know how this goes,’ so I put my game face on and answered as best I could.”
Riekenberg chuckles and explains, “I was asking about his methods, and I was telling him about all my years of coaching and what I bring to the table and asked him what he was bringing, and he said he had like 10 rowers, 10 men’s bars, 10 women’s bars…and I don’t know if he could see my jaw dropping, but I was thinking ‘This guy has a gym!’ I asked him if he was planning on opening a gym, and he said he was going to sign a lease after our breakfast. I think it was at that point we realized how perfect the situation was and started negotiating the partnership.”
But there was more to do than just negotiate. With Phillips signing the lease later that day, the two coaches had very little time to build the actual business.
“We opened the doors on Jan. 8, 2018. That was six weeks after signing the lease. But we were waiting most of that time for them to clear everything out of the space, paint, and get down to bare concrete floor,” Phillips explains. “Yeah, we came in on the sixth and seventh to move everything in. So, we had a month to create the business and only two days to physically build it,” Riekenberg adds. “But we wanted to be here, it’s a solid community. They’re going through some great initiatives right now for bike lanes and sidewalk expansions for pedestrians, [Manhattan] is really trying to encourage that kind of lifestyle, and I haven’t seen that a lot. There were a lot of fitness facilities here already, but none of them were doing things the way we wanted to do them.”
“Six seconds of this! Are you serious? Why?” shouts the young woman from the workout area.
“Why not?” Riekenberg retorts beaming, as both men laugh and wordlessly agree to go help the people that have filtered in during the talk.
In the nearly two years that Konza Strength has existed, it has exceeded the expectations of both men. Through their use of functional fitness, they have attracted a large group of people who see the difference in training that they offer. The gym offers people a place to not only grow stronger or look better, but also genuinely improve their lives, mobility and freedom. It has grown more and cultivated a large community faster than either one saw coming, but it’s only the beginning. They already have their eyes set on bigger goals. They are currently considering ways to get more involved with the city as a whole, with plans to work on hosting sanctioned weightlifting events where people could qualify for national meets, as well as possible events geared toward helping local firefighters and first responders.
“We would love to get so many people in here that we need a bigger space and more coaches, but more importantly, that means we would have a community that is that much larger, and we would be impacting that many more peoples’ lives,” Phillips says as the two switch from interviewees to coaches and begin correcting and encouraging.
Lt. Dan Phillips was born in Oregon and now lives in Manhattan, Kansas, with his wife, Ashley, and their five kids—a dog, cat, snake, and two rats. After a six-year stint in the Air Force, Dan attended Kansas State University, during which time he fell in love with the Manhattan area and decided to stay. When not writing, he works as a part-time pilot for the Kansas Air National Guard.