The New Nerd: Hybrid

Part one of a three-part series exploring the “nerd” identity


Say the word “nerd” out loud and think about what comes to mind: Tragically overweight or deathly skinny, glasses, video games, not good at sports, Dungeons and Dragons, etcetera. Despite the fact that aspects of nerd culture such as comic books and video games are now celebrated and mainstream, the perception of the people who create and or participate in these hobbies are still far behind the times.

Time magazine recently featured an article that highlights Oculous CEO Palmer Luckey, a pioneer in the virtual reality field that is poised to change the way we watch and interact with our entertainment.

Time Magazine Cover of Palmer Luckey, August 17, 2015.

In the story, Joel Stein writes, “He’s a nerd all right, but not the kind who went to a top-ranked university, wrote brilliant code or studied business plans. He’s cheery and talks in normal sentences that are easy to understand.”

How is it that Time, a publication whose very name is meant to represent what is current in our lives, is still perpetuating one of oldest stereotypes?

In our culture, Time’s cover is the equivalent of featuring presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton in an apron cleaning her kitchen. The cover of this magazine — as well as the description of nerds in this article — is offensive and has done harm to this man’s reputation and nerds as a whole. This article demands damage control.

In this series, nerds from all walks of life will be highlighted to show that real life nerds and geeks do not look like that age old stereotype. After we are through here, hopefully we will never have to suffer another cover photo or quotes like the ones found in Time magazine. Without further ado, I present to you the first “New Nerd” also known as, The Hybrid.

The Hybrid

Nerds and jocks/athletes have historically been on opposite ends of the social scale. A conflict as old as cats vs. dogs, these two different cultures have been pitted against each other since the inception of nerds. Images of the high school football star stuffing the A/V kid inside a locker or the basketball team captain ignoring a classmate in the hall when talking to his ‘cool’ friends or a girl are what come to mind when thinking of the dynamic these two groups have had with each other. However, in recent years there has been a shift.

There are now prominent athletes professing their love of different geek fixtures that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. Rhonda Rousey, arguably the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, has made no secret of her love for Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, and all things nerd. During a recent Ask Me Anything on Reddit, Ms. Rousey began with, “My favorite Pokemon is Mew and I used to moderate a Pokemon forum. I’m an active player on WoW (World of Warcraft) and a Mage named Randa on TaichiPanda.”

Nate Irving, a linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts, dished on his love for Pokemon and other video games in The Wall Street Journal last year. There must be something in the Gatorade.

What is causing these athletes to profess hobbies that years ago would have been taboo for a jock to enjoy? Is it because superheroes are now commonly considered cool? Is it because video games are now one of the most popular mediums with the rise of mobile and social games? Is it because nerds like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are heralded as heroes and pioneers that changed our lives forever?

One of the gym members. Photo by Alex Silva

Or is it, maybe, that these jocks and athletes were never just jocks and athletes to begin with? Maybe there isn’t something in the Gatorade, but instead, there is something in the Mountain Dew? Maybe these people were always nerds who happened to also be athletic and enjoy sports. Whatever the cause, what is certain is that the stereotype of the nerd being a non-athletic, unhealthy mess no longer holds true.

Meet the hybrid. The hybrid is a nerd who participates in athletic endeavors such as going to the gym or competing in sports, but also enjoys other hobbies that have been historically looked down upon as “nerdy” hobbies.

To be fair, not everyone I spoke to began life as a hybrid. Most of them began with much humbler beginnings. Like the superheroes we look up to, many of them began with barriers in their lives that were keeping them from reaching their full potential.

Andrew Deutsch, owner of the gym NerdStrong, located in North Hollywood, is one such example. He was not always the athlete his gym members see him as today. Growing up with three older brothers who were really into table tops, Deutsch was introduced to games like Risk, Stratego and Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) at an early age.

Deutsch also enjoys video games. When he went off to college, Deutsch had rich college mates who would let him use their PCs to play the new games of the day such as Wolfenstein, Civilization, and Age of Empires. His passion for gaming has been a part of him for a very long time. On the other side of the token, his passion for working out is something that came later on in life.

“I started when I was 38. I was a little overweight and was climbing up some stairs one day at work, and got tired after three flights of stairs,” said Deustch. I just turned to my wife one day and said, ‘I’m just tired of being tired.’

“If I’m going to be a father to my kid and be around long enough for him, then I need to get my act together,” he added.

Deutsch is now a far cry from the man who had trouble getting up the stairs. He has five years of practicing high intensity fitness activity and has been a Crossfit level one trainer since October 2013. He is also certified in several other disciplines including being an Onnit Level One Certified Academy Trainer and can accomplish feats like shoulder pressing his body weight.

Andrew coaching his members. Photo by Alex Silva

As someone who is now a part of the fitness world, Deutsch sees how fitness is still seen as something that is very much viewed as the vanguard for the muscle bound behemoths seen in popular culture.

“The world of fitness is still the bastion of the jock and the athlete. And that just not the case. That’s not the real world,” said Deutsch.

The origins of his gym, NerdStrong, came from that belief. “It began about two years ago in my garage. I was doing Crossfit for about four years. I loved it, but there was just something missing for me internally,”said Deustch. “I was a gamer and a self-described nerd. I loved working out. I loved the fitness aspect to it, but it was taking itself too seriously for me.”

It is important to note that Andrew was not seeking to re-invent gym culture by starting a gym in his garage. He bought some equipment to put in his garage as a way to get some extra workouts away from the gym. The gym actually began with a more noble and personal intention. Like a good hero with new found strength, he actually started by simply helping out a friend in need.

Photo of David Nett. Courtesy of NerdStrong Gym.

David Nett, a Trainer and part-owner of NerdStrong, remembers being the original NerdStrong nerd. “It was Andrew and I in his garage in the beginning. It was my distress that made Andrew start doing this,” said Nett.

The distress Nett refers to was a combination of several factors that had been building in his life. He grew up in a small town in North Dakota as a self-described skinny, basement-dwelling nerd who enjoyed playing D&D. He attempted sports in his youth, but was never really good at it so he never stuck with it. After he graduated college in the 90’s, he got a desk job working in computers that had him living a sediment life for 18 years. “I was unhealthy, physically sick, and emotionally sick. I was just a big, soft guy,” said Nett.

Right around the time Deutsch began the workouts in his garage, Nett was going through a personal trauma that added emotional weight to his already unhealthy physical weight. He saw Deutsch get healthy through Crossfit and he wanted to get healthy, but Nett was off-put by the culture that comes along with it.

“I was uncomfortable in that environment. Crossfit is great for many people. It’s a wonderful workout and is incredibly good for your body; but the actual environment was not a place I felt comfortable in,” said Nett. “Being around athletes and jocks in a competitive environment — while some people thrive in — kind of made me wilt.”

Deutsch began taking coaching seminars while finding a way to motivate his friend with a workout and an atmosphere that would keep him coming back for more. They would work out twice a week and on Sundays, Deutsch would add an element of gamification to the workouts to keep his friend interested in the workouts as well as incorporating a random element to keep things constantly shifting.

“I would create some sort of game workout based upon Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, or whatever we were interested in,” said Deutsch. “It would involve flipping cards, rolling dice or something along those lines with some sort of randomness.”

Deutsch infused these workouts with the nerdy hobbies he grew up with. “The workout could ‘attack’ you if you didn’t do anything or your team could level up,” he said. “So it was just different aspects of the things that we love, whether it was card games, board games or table top role-playing games.”

Excited about these amazing, nerd infused workouts that Nett was a part of, he began tweeting about it. Suddenly a friend or two people would show up to Deutsch’s garage seeking to conquer whatever boss awaited them inside. Before they knew it, they had a full garage of people paying them every week for these workouts.

Nett coaching members. Photo by Alex Silva

Deutsch was getting certified in different workout techniques while training people out of his garage for money. He began feeling like a coach and he realized he should probably turn this into a proper business.

“I didn’t want to open a gym, I didn’t want to any of these things. It just sort of happened by accident,” he said. “But I took responsibility for these people who are looking for help. There are a million gyms in LA but they are choosing to come here, so I better do right by them.”

In 2014, NerdStrong moved out his garage and into the official NerdStrong space in North Hollywood. Nerds from all walks of life now come to this space to get healthy and fit. Nett is now one of the trainers, leading classes with the same confidence and authority of his favorite superhero, Scott Summers (also known as Cyclops), leads his X-Men with. Some of the nerds that began in his garage have enjoyed similar fitness transformations by way of these workouts and now have taken leadership roles in the gym.

Kimberly BalcumCourtesy of NerdStrong Gym

Kimberly Hughes is one of the coaches/co-owners of the gym who started in Deutsch’s garage. Unlike the other hybrids, she has been a hybrid from an early age. She was the captain of her swim team in high school as well as a huge role-playing game (RPG) and tabletop person. She was also secretary of the science club and a member of the drama club.

Hughes also enjoys reading comics and cosplaying, or dressing up, as her favorite heroes. A fateful encounter with an internet troll was the catalyst that brought her to the NerdStrong dungeon.

“I posted some pictures of myself — before I started working out — in my Wonder Woman costume. I spent so much time making it out of real metal and leather, all those things,” she said. “It’s kind of my pride and joy. Someone replied back, ‘Well it looks like Wonder Woman found the buffet.’”

Spurned by this comment, she turned to NerdStrong and used her Amazonian-like strength and perseverance to train hard for the next Comic-Con. A year removed from that hateful comment and intense training, she returned triumphantly to Comic-Con as Wonder Woman to show the world just how far she had come.

“Having people comment on how fit I was, someone shouted, ‘That Wonder Woman’s got guns!’ That made me feel really good,” said Hughes. “It showed that all the time and effort I put in to make myself healthier was really worth it.”

Deutsch and his team have taken a word that has traditionally meant one thing and thrown it on its head. However, they do understand that the word still has a stigma attached to it that is not easily shaken.

Nett explains, “I have a friend who lives in Texas. Her son, who is very smart, got a nerd award from his teacher at the end of last year. He was very upset by it because he didn’t want anybody to think of him as a nerd.” He added, “I think it would be too soon to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re a nerd anymore, or that it can’t be hurtful. People still use words that have positive connotations to me, but hurtful meanings to someone else. There is still lots of opportunity for people to be hurt by that word, and I think we still have to be careful about that.”

As a lifelong nerd, Deutsch understands the word nerd can still carry a negative connotation.

“We own it in this space (NerdStrong Gym). Outside this space, it is still that way. You look at popular culture, and they very much have their idea of what a nerd is,” he said.

“Here, I would hope that we can break a couple of those barriers internally within each person. A lot of times, stigmas are attached to us socially. So if the social moray out there is that nerd equals one thing, sometimes we attach that to ourselves. In this space you can shed that, and lift like the athletes and do everything that the athletes do. And eventually, those two things will mesh. And so you become something like a nerd elite,” said Deutsch.

Gym members at one of the stations. Photo by Alex Silva

Chrissy Black, Assistant Head Coach at Nerdstrong, further refines the notion of the hybrid and how we can all be what we want to be.

“I feel that, as people, we are so multi-faceted that we have our feet in all different cultures, realms, and all different things. Just like the same way we enjoy all different kinds of fandom,” she said. “I like sci-fi, I like fantasy, I like superheroes, but that doesn’t mean I have to choose one. And I feel that way about fitness and the geek world.”

Within the space of Chrissy Black’s words lies the answer to the hybrid conundrum. Could it be that the nerd community has always had these kinds of people in our midst? Maybe the word “nerd” has never been a one-size-fits-all slur, and maybe nerds are more diverse and eclectic than what Time magazine and popular culture might have you believe. Google the word “nerd,” and take a long and hard look at the pictures that come up. Does that look anything like the people featured in this story?

Header graphic by Jennifer Sandy