Sunday, April 25, 2010

Doin' The AmeriCorps Squat

One of the deepest, most painful shocks that accompanied my transition into AmeriCorps life was experiencing the program's first physical training session. Sure, I'd been exercising at my own pace throughout the month of January, and I fancied myself ready for any physical challenge.

Then I got introduced to the workout world of Badger unit leader Sean Kuether, and pain was my only reward for weeks on end. A word of introduction on Mr. Kuether: he's bouncy, jovial, personable, well-spoken... and ex-military. The director of the NCCC Perry Point campus? Also ex-military. And the assistant director, to boot.

So it's no surprise that the Perry Point training regimen blatantly mirrors the brutal grind of infantry maneuvers. Here's a rundown of how we trained for our first month at Perry Point:

  • Roll out of bed at 5:20 a.m. in a blind, belligerent haze.
  • Meet in the main lobby of the Perry Point dorms with similarly disoriented Corps members by 5:45. Blaring through iPod speakers is a "motivational" play list, including inspirational tunes from the likes of Hanson, the Spice Girls and other wads of used '90s bubblegum.
  • Shuffle down to a chilly corridor and wait there for 10 minutes for no discernible reason.
  • Enter gym, mill about.
  • At 6 a.m., Sean gives the order to assemble. Corps members bellow at the top of their lungs, and groups up into a compressed rectangle of bodies.
  • More orders, dutifully repeated by the corps, as the group efficiently spreads out into neat little rows and columns.
  • Rotations and stretching begins, with all 70-plus people in the room barking out the counts in unison.
  • Next, three rounds of rough calisthenics: bushels of push-ups, sit-ups, squats, contortions, lunges and hops. All exercises are conducted "IN CA-DENCE!," which means counting reps together in rhythm. If the group doesn't display the proper motivation, we're liable to repeat an exercise.
  • Dismissal arrives at 7, and by then, I feel like an overheated tub of animal lard. My first instinct is to melt into an unconscious heap, but on most days I've got to eat breakfast, squeeze in a 10-minute shower and then hop in a van with my team.
So, yes. It was very, very easy to whine about this sort of treatment, which occurred three times a week. And whine I did. I dreaded every early wakeup call, and every week the exercises seemed to grow more fiendish and punishing in their construction. Suddenly we were doing three different varieties of push-ups, tackling the horrendously misnamed "simple sit-up," and taking long early morning jogs that flattened my lungs into pancakes.

Worst of all, I got the sense that all of my preparations in St. Louis had been for naught. Everyone else seemed to be in such incredible shape, while I lay sucking wind. It was high school all over again.

But loathe as I was to admit, I was getting better. Faster. Stronger. Slowly but surely, evolving into an AmeriCorps Super Soldier. In its own, hardheaded way, the Perry Point Plan was dragging me kicking and screaming toward fitness.

The big payoff for all my grunts and sweat didn't arrive until Friday, when my team underwent its second physical assessment for the year. The assessment requires three tests: one minute of push-ups, one minute of sit-ups, and a timed mile run. The first test came toward the tail end of our first month of training in AmeriCorps, and I posted some pretty mediocre results: 27 sit-ups before my gut imploded, 21 push-ups before my arms began trembling all over and I could no longer lift my body, and 8 minutes, 50 seconds on the mile.

When assessment number two arrived this week, I had no idea how I would fare. We had continued the calisthenics and running routines throughout our first spike as a team, but I wasn't sure how much I had honed my muscles over that time. Then I started the timed sit-ups. Determined to improve my total from the last test, I lit off at a fiery pace, one I surely wouldn't be able to sustain. By the 15th sit-up, I expected that familiar burning sensation to arrive in my abs. Only it didn't come. 20 sit-ups. 25. 30. 35. 40.

I finished the minute at 44 sit-ups, an unheard of total for me, and one of the best results for Badger 6. Then my push-ups came, and I again bested myself by a wide margin: 36 in a minute. If you gave me all day, I couldn't have done that even a few months ago.

My mile time basically stayed the same (8:51), but that small disappointment was compensated by the fact that we ran the distance atop the Benjamin Franklin bridge, which connects Camden to Philadelphia. Honorary Badger 6 member David, who works with us at the Camden Children's Garden, accompanied us for all of the workouts, and certainly held his own.

I'm feeling pretty spiffy right now, and it should only get more awesome from here. Not only did I demolish my previous accomplishments, but so did the rest of the team. We're entering our final week in Camden, having an extremely rewarding and eye-opening experience at the garden, and should (finally) learn about our second-round project within the next week.

Physically and emotionally, I'm feeling on top of my game.


Coming up on the blog, I hope to write a lot more about the Camden project before we leave, and to somehow describe the absurd and wonderful team dynamic of Badger 6. I've just been so busy and focused on work lately, the blog has taken a backseat. I think that, overall, that's a good thing. Thanks for continuing to read, and for sending good vibes my way.

6 > 5,



  1. Nah, not taking the bait on that one, Peter. Badger 7's cool. Although your TL needs to practice his double heel clicking.