Ralph Thompkins, the owner of SWAG Kids Gym, builds confidence and a lifelong love of movement in children of all ages
By Leena Rao
Photography by Darrel Ellis
Ralph Thompkins needs no microphone. In fact, on a recent Monday evening, his voice booms across all 7,000 square feet of SWAG Kids, the West Bloomfield kids’ gym he founded in 2019. Thompkins is instructing a class of 8- and 9-year-olds, encouraging them to jump, spin, and run across an obstacle course he and his team have created. “Let’s go, go, go!” he urges. “I love how you guys are moving.”
With Thompkins’ pep talks and megawatt smiles, it’s clear that each child is growing more confident with every jump.“You have to make this hour count,” says the 35-year-old Thompkins. “In my classes, I coach, engage, and give a lot of high fives. And I see these little cheeks under their masks rise up and their eyes focus more, and I know that they’re happy and they’re ready to go.”
The Farmington Hills resident is laser-focused on positive reinforcement — which, he says, is the basis for any sports program. “We … allow kids to move and exercise with freedom and energy,” he says. “SWAG is literally building the love for exercise for a lifelong journey.”
SWAG Kids (Sports, Workouts, And Gymnastics), offers everything from beginner gymnastics and strength-training to ninja warrior classes for about 240 kids, whether they attend in-person classes at the gym, outdoor classes at their respective homes, or remote sessions. Thompkins’ teaches children ages 10 months and up — and no, that’s not too young for a gym class: He works with babies and young kids on grip strength, comfort with tumbling, and fine-motor-skills development. (It’s worth noting that the gym offers classes for all skill levels.)
As kids run through various obstacle courses, one coach (there are five, including Thompkins) spins tunes in a DJ booth. The walls are lined with jerseys of famous local athletes, from Red Wings goalie Timmy Howard to Lions offensive lineman Scott Conover. There are balance beams (some of which wobble), boxes (for jumping, of course) that can stack up to 6 feet tall, monkey bars, rock walls, hurdles, and incline ramps for tumbling. There’s even a red-carpeted stage — set up to resemble something you might see at a glitzy event — where kids can pose for pictures.
SWAG memberships cost from $50 to $70 per month and comprise around 65 percent of the gym’s revenue, Thompkins says. The rest of comes from private lessons and birthday parties. “I bring my A-game and energy to every class for the kids, but also for the parents,” he says. “It takes sacrifice to bring kids to this program.”
Thompkins is no stranger to athletics. Growing up in Farmington Hills, he played basketball and football. During college at Grand Valley State University — where he also played on the football team — he had his first experience teaching athletics to kids, as a flag-football coach at his local Boys and Girls Club. “I got thrown right into the fire of coaching a ton of energetic little kids,” he says. “That was a huge learning experience for me.”
After graduation, Thompkins took a job at The Little Gym in West Bloomfield, part of the Arizona-based company that operates more than 300 child-oriented franchises worldwide. What began as a part-time instructor role quickly transitioned into Thompkins becoming a program director, teaching classes to kids aged four months to 12 years and hosting birthday parties. It’s there that Thompkins honed his unique, energetic, confidence-boosting style (he says the secret to his stamina is working out at 5 a.m. every morning and eating a solid breakfast).
“Kids want to feel loved. They want to feel respected. They don’t want to feel judged. My favorite kids here are the kids who need the most help.” – Ralph Thompkins
“The Little Gym is where I fell in love with what I do,” he says. “I love helping kids create a passion and foundation for exercise minus the pressure of performance.” In his five years at Little Gym, Thompkins also learned about the business side of operating a children’s gym — and started getting the itch to create his own place. He was further encouraged by the parents whose kids he coached. “Many of my clients would tell me, “You should do your own thing. You have the guts, the energy, the attitude, the everything to make your own gym work.”
One of those parents was Miyali Parr of Farmington Hills, whose three children took Little Gym classes with Thompkins. Parr’s oldest child had some early difficulties walking, and Thompkins helped her son, 12 months old at the time, develop the strength to walk. “He takes the time to learn what each kid needs,” Parr says. “Even if it’s a group class, he personalizes the games and exercises to each child.”
“Ralph does everything with excellence,” adds parent Tiffany Waddel of Waterford, who met Thompkins at Little Gym (and now brings her toddler-aged kids to SWAG). “The music is great, the intensity is great, and they know how to keep them going and entertained.”
In 2019, Thompkins started meeting with banks and real estate agents to find a space, and eventually opened that August at 14 Mile Road and Haggerty Road. “I didn’t really even know what I was getting myself into,” he says. “I totally underestimated the entire process of making something your own.” Adding to that pressure: He’d already collected more than $25,000 in pre-registrations for classes.
“I was literally sleeping at the gym in the weeks before we opened,” he says, because there was so much work to be done to ensure an on-time debut. Thompkins says revenue and clients were steadily growing into 2020 until March, when Covid-19 forced all statewide gyms to close. Thompkins got creative with his “contingency plan,” and started offering Zoom gym classes. Thanks to families posting about SWAG’s online classes on social media, he ended up expanding his client base to Canada, Germany, Istanbul, France, and Japan. (With the pandemic subsiding, some of these international kids remain SWAG members).
In June 2020, Thompkins sold his car and bought a truck big enough to hold all his gym equipment, and began offering outdoor classes at clients’ houses. “We were able to take our show on the road, which was a great blessing because in a normal year I don’t think we would have done that,” he says. By last July, he was visiting 35 houses across Metro Detroit every week. Like other gyms across Michigan, Thompkins reopened in September 2020 with distancing measures and mask requirements, and he’s been pleased with how many kids have returned to in-person classes. (He’s still doing private home visits.)
Despite all the unpredictability of the past year, Thompkins’ commitment to SWAG’s mission hasn’t wavered: “As long as these kids feel good about what they are doing at the right pace, that’s what keeps kids coming back,” he says. “Kids want to feel loved. They want to feel respected. They don’t want to feel judged. My favorite kids here are the kids who need the most help.”