BROOKSVILLE — From blue-collar beginnings, Paul Micklow has built Southern Elite Sports from the ground up in just 2 1/2 years.
A native of the second-poorest county in Pennsylvania, Micklow was offered a full scholarship to play football at the University of South Florida after graduating high school. Although those plans did not come to fruition for a variety of reasons, he did move to the area with intentions of doing something with his life.
Since he can remember, the young entrepreneur has loved sports of every kind. He has a background in everything from tae kwon do to track and field. He wanted to take that experience and those passions and translate them into a business.
From there, the dream of Southern Elite Sports was born.
"I was a certified personal trainer," Micklow said. "I had to build a clientele and look into it from there."
His demographic would be children, and he would start with day care centers. In 2007, he began to look into hiring instructors, but it was important to make sure that the plan was his own. He decided to offer mixed martial arts classes, hybrid classes consisting of muay Thai boxing and aikido.
While many other youth organizations of this generation sway toward a noncompetitive method, Micklow, 24, favors the opposite. Competitive athletics is an important lesson athletes learn at Southern Elite Sports, and many parents credit that for the newfound confidence their children have gained from the program.
"I may be young, but I am old-school," Micklow said. "Life is about competition. Some people want to teach kids that everyone is a winner, but that's not how life really is."
He has since partnered with community centers and private organizations to provide martial arts classes and cheer and dance classes throughout Pasco and Hernando counties. Among the community centers are the Jerome Brown Community Center in Brooksville and the Grove Park Recreation Center in New Port Richey. Top Contenders Gymnastics in Brooksville, Anytime Fitness in Tarpon Springs and World of Knowledge: A Montessori School in Holiday all offer Southern Elite Sports programs as well.
"I really admire him because, a long time ago, I did the same kind of thing," said Top Contenders owner Beth Strazzullo, who has more than 30 years of coaching experience. "I watched (Paul) with (his) students, and I said that's the kind of man I want teaching martial arts at my gym."
In a short time, Micklow's company has grown to the point where he employs 10 instructors. He teaches more than 600 kids among all of his classes. He takes pride in his low rates and his ability to provide parents flexible payment schedules without contracts. Because of his background, coming from a large lower-middle-class family, he knows how tough it can be to afford these types of programs for children.
Activity is what drives his business, and Micklow sets a good example. He plays semi-pro football for the Anclote Pirates in the Florida State Football League. He also plans on going back to finish school at some point. He has taken three years' worth of college classes in physical education and sports medicine.
Southern Elite Sports has become a passion not only for Micklow, but for his extended family as well. His girlfriend, Bianca Ullrich, and her father, Stuart Ullrich, have taken a vested interest in helping the business grow. The first independent storefront opened Tuesday at 4917 State Road 54 in New Port Richey.
The Ullrichs "have worked tirelessly and have asked for little or no recognition to get this open," Micklow said. "This has really become a family affair."
Stuart Ullrich has more than 40 years of martial arts experience and lends a helping hand to the curriculum. By the time the new facility gets into full swing, Micklow estimates that the number of employees will double.
And he doesn't plan to stop there.
"I am definitely hoping to open several storefronts in the surrounding areas," Micklow said, "and eventually franchise it around the entire state."