Uni High's fitness program unique, controversial
Published: Monday, December 13, 2010 - 4:54pm
Uni High P.E. teacher Sally Walker has dealt with crying, complaining and outrage during her tenure at the school, but has also received kudos and gratitude. Since she began in 1983, Walker and her staff have created an unusually demanding physical education program.
Sally Walker in her office at Kenney Gymnasium, where the Uni fitness program was born. Photo by Albert Anastasio (click to enlarge)
Walker has dealt with students who sat down and cried or complained bitterly. She has listened to hundreds of excuses ranging from "I ate too much for lunch!" to "I don't need to do this, it's not like I'm going to be a professional athlete." She has received calls from parents who are appalled that she is forcing their kids to exercise.
"When we first started this [the Uni High fitness program]," Walker said, "there was a mass rebellion."
However, Walker has seen these same kids visit Uni 10 or 20 years after graduation, professing their gratitude for encouraging them to take up a fitness program. She has watched as students who threw temper tantrums during fitness class cross the line at major marathons. Most importantly, she has witnessed a transformation in the mentality surrounding the program.
"There are times when I'm up there [the Kenney Track] working out, not necessarily teaching a class, I just stand there and marvel at what's going on," says Walker. "Kids are just busting their butts! They are working hard. I say 'Wow!' this is pretty cool. What other place could you be at and see 14, 15, 16-year-old kids busting their butts in class? They are doing it because they are being told to."
The transformation has been complete.
"I think by and large our kids have bought into the fact that it's a good thing, whether they admit it or not. They understand and feel the benefits, what it [a fitness program] does for them," she said.
How, over the course of 27 years, has a program that faced such adversity at first become one of the most unique and celebrated aspects of Uni High culture?
The Roots of the Uni High fitness program
When Sally Walker came to Uni High in 1983 as a member of the P.E. Department, the program was similar to many P.E. programs around the nation. Kids could choose what games/sports they wanted to play and popular choices included "bowling" and "badminton."
"When I first started, we [Walker and the athletic director at the time, Mike McCollum] saw from the fitness testing that we were doing, which was very similar to what we do now, that our kids were not in great shape. We decided we needed to do something to correct that situation," said Walker about her decision to start the fitness program.
However, the fitness program that Walker and McCollum started was hardly comparable to the program Uni High students engage in today.
"What we expected from the kids was very different than what we expect now," said Walker. "Quite honestly, what we did then was far easier than what we do now."
The early Uni High fitness classes began with power walking on the track that used to be where the Digital Computing Lab is today. Current Uni students would laugh at the prospect of power walking in fitness class, but for the primordial fitness classes, even power walking was a stretch.
"That's probably where we were from a fitness standpoint, and at least from a mental standpoint, that's all we could handle," said Walker.
After McCollum got married and left Uni a year after Walker arrived, she had an opportunity to step back, review their progress and decide what she wanted to do.
"The first thing that was brought to my attention was that I could go back to the easy way. It was a no-brainer from my standpoint," Walker said.
Walker chose to continue the fitness program, which was not a popular choice.
"Whew, it was tough! I don't think anybody except for me has a true appreciation for how ugly it got. Our kids can be quite brutal," she laughs.
Walker received calls from parents saying "I've never run a day in my life, there's no reason why my kid is going to run!" She would answer calmly, explaining that since the students had chosen to come to Uni, he or she was expected to participate in the mandatory fitness program.
During the early stages of the fitness program, Walker had a different set of staff members than she does now. Although she believes that these staff members fully embraced the goals and ideals of the program, she noticed a drastic change in the atmosphere of the program in January of 1995. In that month, Doug Mynatt and Rebecca "Merf" Murphy were hired to work on the staff of the Uni High P.E. department.
Doug Mynatt: Additions to the fitness program from a competitive runner
In the early 90s, Walker felt that the general opinion on the fitness program was improving as students noticed changes in their fitness levels and parents became more supportive. However, she was even more encouraged by the results that occurred after Mynatt and Murphy arrived in 1995.
"One of the things that changed significantly was when Doug and Merf came, " Walker recalls. "There was a different attitude. Perhaps it was a softer approach. It created a different environment for our kids."
While intangible results such as the ones described by Walker are crucial for the success of a school fitness program, Mynatt and Murphy also brought tangible changes to the fitness program. Mynatt was fresh from many years as a competitive cross country and track runner and road racer. After he graduated from college at the University of Tennessee, where he competed in track for one year, he brought a wealth of knowledge about interval training: a key aspect of competitive running.
Uni High fitness instructor Doug Mynatt records results from the sit-up test. Photo by Albert Anastasio (click to enlarge)
"The first few years, all we did was run," Walker said. "Thanks to Doug, we have a huge variety of workouts that we do now. Merf and I try to follow his lead."
Furthermore, Mynatt brought an understanding of the importance of abdominal strength in improving fitness levels and running performance. He knew many types of challenging core exercises and he began to incorporate these into his fitness classes.
Mynatt's changes were both tangible and intangible. He made the workouts fun and fresh while also providing a more complete fitness base. His changes to the fitness program coupled with the fresh perspective that Rebecca Murphy brought made the fitness program what it is today.
Rebecca Murphy: a knowledge of weight training and sports
What Mynatt brought to the fitness side of the P.E. department, Rebecca "Merf" Murphy brought to the sports and weight training side. Merf coached the Uni High girls basketball team for many years and was an athlete herself. She brought a competitive spirit and a love of sports to the program.
For subfreshman, freshman, and sophomore years, Uni High students rotate between fitness and sports days in P.E. During fitness, students run intervals and perform core work; in sports, they learn how to shoot basketballs and hit a hockey puck and then put their knowledge to the test.
The day's workout is written on a dry erase board. The fitness instructors at Uni High attempt to make exercise fun by incorporating pyramid workouts and interesting exercises. Photo by Albert Anastasio (click to enlarge)
Merf enjoys sharing her vast knowledge of sports with the students and one can tell that she is at home in a gymnasium. She uses a sense of humor that is tough yet affectionate and a fair bit of positive reinforcement to encourage students in her sports classes.
While Merf brought a love of organized sports to the fitness program, her additions did not stop there. In high school and college, Merf was an avid weight lifter. Her expertise in the weight room has helped many students put on muscle during the weight lifting classes taken junior and senior year.
The addition of Doug and Merf along with the recent hiring of Andi Philips, who teaches the health class, completed the staff that now comprises the Uni High P.E. department. Walker attributes much of the success of the P.E. department to the mix of people who work for the program.
"Because we have the staff that we do here, and we believe in what we are doing, that allows the kids to believe in it, and to work hard," said Walker.
Current State of the Fitness Program
After having spent more than 20 years at Uni High, Walker has noticed a declining trend in the general physical fitness of the subfreshman classes coming into Uni. She attributes this to the growing lack of challenging P.E. programs at other school and the rising levels of obesity in America.
"What we are getting on the lower end is pretty low. It used to be that we were getting kids who were running 10-minute miles at first. Now we have kids who are doing 11-or-12 minute miles. That allows for a lot of room for improvement."
And improve they do. Many of the kids who participate in fitness for five years notice drastic changes. Some who are already in good shape coming into the fitness program, such as ballet dancer Claire Liu, have a positive image of the program. Liu says that fitness is "a wonderful way to release stress and a great time to get out of sitting in class all day long."
For others who were not in as good shape at the start of their Uni career, fitness may have been a struggle at first, but has become an adopted way of life. For Junior Jason He, fitness class has shown him results that he never thought possible.
"I went from an 11:42 mile to a 6:52," says He. "That's almost five minutes of improvement. The Uni High fitness program worked for me."
Senior Katy Metcalf not only dropped her mile time from a 12-minute mile to an 8:30, she also developed better eating habits and became a vegetarian during her time at Uni.
"I saw that I could be in good shape," said Metcalf. "This encouraged me to eat better and take better care of myself."
"That's the one thing I take the most pride in. Over the course of time here, kids are able to see a huge improvement," said Walker. But Walker doesn't want her students' improvement to end at Uni. Her goal is for her students to continue to apply what they have learned at Uni after they have graduated. While it may seem that high school students would quickly forget about their days in a fitness class, Walker has found that the contrary is true.
"This summer, the class of 1990 had their 20th reunion. That was the first group of kids that had the fitness program for five years. I spent two days with them and to a person, every one of the them, came up to me and said what an impact our program had had on them and said thank you," said Walker.
Walker continues, "Even some of the nerdliest little kids came up to me saying 'I know I complained a lot, and I didn't understand then what it did for me then, but I certainly understood what it did within two years of having left the program.'"
She continues with a laugh, "Some alums would say, 'certainly I am not a physical specimen by any means, but I still work out because I appreciate what it does for me.'"
"The P.E. department taught us about life."
Keeping in shape is important, but the P.E. department realizes that there are far more important ideals to strive for. Sally Walker believes that one of the prime focuses for her and her staff is to teach morals that can often be neglected in today's world. How to deal with things, how to treat people right, the difference between right and wrong—these are the lessons that students take away from fitness class.
Walker admits that sometimes the staff uses "tough love" but she says that students have remarked to her at reunions that not many of the other teachers at the time would have taken the time to teach morals and life lessons.
Walker says that times have changed at Uni and that now, more teachers are concerned with the ethical well-being of their students. Even so, The P.E. department still takes it upon themselves to impart pieces of life wisdom to Uni students.
Whether the days' lesson is on the consequences of being late to class or leaving trash in the locker room, Sally, Merf, and Doug try to use every opportunity to teach their students.
Perhaps that's what makes the Uni High P.E. Department so unique. Students who spend five years in the Uni High physical education program not only leave in far better shape then they came, but they leave as better people as well.Photos: A snapshot of the Uni High fitness program.