The small gaggle of detainees reported to the gym promptly after final bell, the warmish spring afternoon already thickening the air. No one dares be late. They line up dutifully and follow every command — having nearly served their month here, they know the routine. And although most of them tower over the diminutive figure in charge, not a one of them steps out of line.
“All right, let’s go!” PE teacher Jan Pipkin’s voice ratchets the group into a taut line, their adolescent energy coiled and momentarily quiet. Then, “Burpees!” and music and sweat and ponytails fly.
“I’m always impressed at how hard they work,” Pipkin says, while behind her the group jumps, drops prone to the floor and repeats, fast as they can, for 20 panting seconds.
No one here averts their eyes or smiles the sheepish smiles of the guilty; after all, these aren’t truants, gum-chewers or back-talkers kept inside on a brilliant Arkansas spring day. These 10 kids are here voluntarily, part of the school’s Fitness Team. And they’ve got work to do.
Pipkin glances down at the smartphone that’s keeping time with the music thumping from a boombox nearby. A timer hits all zeros.
Don’t let her compact size, friendly greeting or ready smile fool you: Pipkin is one of the toughest cookies in the jar. A few years ago, when Catholic High School invited all parochial middle schools to a city-wide fitness competition, she drilled her charges and reported for battle only to discover the Bears were the only team who showed.
“After that, Catholic High didn’t host it anymore, but our kids really enjoyed it,” she said. “So I just continued it.”
The phone buzzes. “Burpees!” she barks.
The first year, 24 seventh- and eighth-grade kids reported for the workouts and since then, the class has averaged around 10 or 15. There are dyed-in-the-wool jocks like Claire Hiegel, a taut bundle of fast-twitch muscle that barely contains her competitive spirit. She’s done this for the past two years, firstly for the challenge of it and second, to lend punch to her other sports, volleyball and cheerleading.
“My arms are a lot stronger, I can tell since I play volleyball and serving is a big deal,” she said. “My serve, I can just feel it’s better now. The pushups help with that a lot.
“The exercise is great, it really helps you sleep well. It’s hard sometimes because it’s challenging, but it really helps in other sports because it just makes you strong all-around, mentally and physically.”
Classmate and fellow Christ the King parishioner Toby Steinkamp is as mellow as Hiegel is intense. He’s also active, but the whippet-thin golfer and baseballer is here to help reinforce healthy habits as much as improve his drive or his fastball.
“I like the idea of having more exercise,” he said. “As you get older, you start to lose your exercise abilities and you start doing, like, other stuff. It just helps provide a good habit that you can work off of.”
Pipkin said Hiegel and Steinkamp are two of the species the activity attracts, the third being the non-athletic looking for a place to be active without the pressure to compete.
“Last year, I definitely had a range of abilities,” she said. “I had a kid who really couldn’t, excuse my comparison, couldn’t walk and chew gum. And he signed up and made tremendous strides. It really helped him and his self-esteem.
“I could get on the soapbox and go forever on this whole self-image stuff, but I really, truly believe that if a kid has some kind of physical activity in their life, whatever it might be, they will feel better. And I’m not taking about body shape, I’m talking just physical activity and not just to make you look like a model.”
The unerring, unyielding ticking of the clock continues to zero and the Pipkin Platoon powers through windsprints punctuated with sit-ups. The group gulps in the 10 seconds of rest allotted for every 20 seconds of exercise, a rhythm known as Tabata. If the duration of activity doesn’t sound like much, you haven’t tried it.
The kids are working toward testing day at the end of the month-long program based on the Marines fitness criteria, the same program that’s the basis for Catholic High’s and Mount St. Mary Academy’s fitness teams. Mount-bound Hiegel lights up at the mention of the high school programs, which have won multiple national championships.
“Ooh yes, I’d love to do that,” she said. “I’m going to do it.”
Pipkin is used to hearing this; many of her graduates have gone on to compete in various high school sports, including fitness team. She’d love to see more kids involved from other schools and leaves an open gym door invitation to anyone who’d like to join in. So far, no one has taken her up on it.
“The junior high age is where, usually, kids start slacking; if they’re going to be a musician or an artist or something, they just completely give up on physical activity,” she said.
“I’m trying to show kids, and this has always been my motto as a PE teacher, that fitness can be fun.”
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