At one minute to 9 every weekday morning, Joe Wicks psyches himself up. He is preparing for his 30-minute YouTube workout. He practises his lunges, sometimes pretends he is Spider-Man and then launches himself into the middle of his living room in Richmond, southwest London.
Millions of people are waiting in anticipation, streaming from their homes in self-isolation. Then, for the next half hour, they mimic his every move, or do their best to, as he puts together a fun workout geared toward children on his channel -- 'The Body Coach.'
He has been one of the feel-good sensations of the coronavirus lockdown. When schools all over the UK were shut indefinitely last Friday due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he thought up this idea to be the "nation's P.E [physical education] teacher." On Monday morning, when he logged on to deliver his first class, he had 806,000 households streaming the workout. Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand's families were following along, too. By Tuesday, it was up to 954,000 live viewers. Add in all the households with multiple people -- all those pretending to be kangaroos and getting out of breath -- and that number jumps into the millions.
"I know this might sound a bit over the top," Wicks tells ESPN. "But this is now a world P.E. lesson.
"We've had Jamaica, India, Uruguay, Australia, New Zealand and people from Scandinavia. There are so many countries taking part in this because they want to see their kids exercising. I'm taking that role on and helping people get through this time."
It was a triumph, but this is no overnight success story.
Wicks attacks everything with optimism and an infectious personality. He is the sort of man you would love to share a beer with, or date your daughter, or be godfather to your firstborn. Other people say he looks like a clean-cut version of Game of Thrones' Jon Snow, or like the BBC's Poldark. Whatever the interpretation, he just calls himself Joe, husband and father of two, who has one goal: "My aim with this is to change the culture of fitness within a household," Wicks says. "I want mums and dads to get up together and train with the kids, exercise, have fun together and connect through fitness."
Now 33, he originally wanted to be a P.E. teacher and did a university course in sports science. He switched to personal training and completed a course before he tried to drum up interest. Borrowing £2,000 from his father, he bought the equipment, loaded it into a trailer and cycled the 6 miles from Surbiton to Richmond train station every day to hand out fliers and attract potential clients. Up the road from the station is a patch of land called Old Deer Park, where rugby is played in the winter, cricket in the summer. He did bootcamps there, attracting anything between a couple of people and 10 or so, if the weather was nice.
Wicks persevered, knowing this graft would pay off. At the back of his mind, he always had a dream of renting a flat in Richmond, this beautiful corner of southwest London, housed on the Thames and with a sweeping road up a steep hill hugged by shops and pubs.
In 2012, he began to build the 'Body Coach' brand before his big break came two years later, when he launched his own Instagram channel offering 15-second video recipes.
"I applied the same mentality to my social media as I did when I was doing my boot camps," Wicks says. "I thought, well, no one's watching, but I'll keep adding value, putting out good recipes, funny workouts and good videos. And it grew and grew."
In 2015, he launched his own cookbook, "Lean in 15: 15-minute meals." An amazing feat followed: it was the bestselling non-fiction title that year, despite being published on Dec. 28. Six other books followed. He had already launched his popular 90-day plan, which really consists of drinking lots of water, eating protein-rich food and doing four of his workouts a week. It is simplistic but incredibly effective. People gravitated toward it, and now he manages 50 staff from an office 700 metres or so from where he used to graft on Old Deer Park. He has also featured prominently on TV, having his own television show "The Body Coach" with UK-based network Channel 4.
So, when he announced he was going to be the nation's fitness coach and promised to get children up and down the land healthy and happy every morning from their own house, you trusted him.
"P.E. with Joe" -- simplistic, but like everything else, overwhelmingly popular and fun. "I have been working with schools for the last four years," he said. "When I did my first Facebook Live, I must've had 1,000 schools on there or so. Then I started doing my UK tours, visiting 15 schools all around the country. I was supposed to do another this week, but then the schools were shut down and I didn't want to let people down.
"I tried so hard to get media to talk about this when I launched it four years back. But no one really wanted to talk about it. It's taken a pandemic for people to be locked in for them to say, actually what this guy is doing is actually really wonderful. Now it feels great that people are actually enjoying it and they're sharing it and knowing the benefits of exercise."
For the youngsters, he has brought in routines like the 'Spider-Man,' where lunges are now interspersed with pretending to be that superhero. Then there is the 'Pikachu,' where Wicks scrunches himself into a ball and then explodes into a star jump, screaming "Pikachu!" He gets the ideas from a variety of places, but all are given the Wicks treatment.
It's not only for the kids. He has also done tailored training plans for elderly people. He had a lot of feedback telling him how people's grandparents were isolated due to the coronavirus, so Wicks put together a couple of 10-minute workouts for them -- 150,000 people watched them on Thursday.
As he goes through his morning workouts, the comments are relentless. They are like those old 1990s movies where someone is hacking a computer, and the code is streaming down the screen. He cannot see them all -- you would have to take a random screenshot to read any, given the pace they're going at. But that is his older brother and best friend Nikki's role. He gives Wicks shout-outs to read via an earpiece. Millions are captivated as Wicks exercises in his living room (for what it's worth, all of his furniture is currently piled up outside the room, blocking the front door to his house).
On Thursday's stream, it was gate-crashed at the end by his 2-year-old daughter, Indie. Having children -- he also has a 3-month-old boy, Marley with his wife, Rosie -- it hammered home the importance of role modeling. He watched how his daughter mimicked him whenever he ate his porridge in the morning or started doing his squats. He ended up dancing with her, in front of the millions watching. No inhibitions, just trying to bring a touch of normality and fun to these far-from-normal times.
He was nervous before his first stream on Monday, but now it is second nature. "It has taken a lot of time," Wicks says. "So, when I started to see the traction, I was feeling very emotional. It was a bit overwhelming, but I'm in my element. I'm being silly in front of the camera... and then you see there are 11 million views after the Live. If you imagine there are say, two, three, four people in some houses, that's millions and millions of people. That's a little mind-boggling."
Nobody knows when the schools will reopen in the UK, but Wicks will not slow up. "I've committed to doing this until the schools are open, and there are P.E. teachers back in their normal routines. I'll be here, doing this every morning at 9 a.m. -- the only thing that will stop me is if the internet goes down. I don't see this as duty... I see it as... well, I've got the potential to help and I just can't stop or slow down, I love what I'm doing."
Our interview is coming to a close and Wicks has another call to take. It's someone else wanting to hear about this success story. "This is a time where we're so disconnected, I hope we can enjoy this moment as everyone's coming together through exercise and fitness.
"My dream is that when this is over, a kid comes home from school and says to their mum, 'I'm just going upstairs to do a quick body workout' ... that would bring tears to my eyes. That would be the most powerful thing I've ever achieved, if I can take a kid who doesn't like exercise and get them to enjoy it. That would be the ultimate, ultimate achievement for me."
I ask whether he gets a buzz out of Rooney's kids joining in, or the other celebrities who are taking part. He likes to see them as just part of the broad spectrum of people doing his classes but is appreciative of their support. And with that he's off. Bouncing into the middle of his living room, pretending to be a kangaroo, getting ready for Monday's session.
The final question is if there is anyone he would love to have join his classes. "Hmm... how about the Queen? If I found out she was doing my elderly workouts and doing some arm circles, I'd be over the moon."
Don't rule it out. If anyone can get the Queen streaming YouTube and doing her exercises from a self-isolated Windsor Castle, it's probably Joe Wicks.