Kim Nelson: Gym Class Anti-Heroes

Once, I threw a perfect football spiral. It was in third grade gym class.

To give some context, you have to understand just how completely unathletic I was as a child. An extreme bookworm, the most physical activity I ever got–or really wanted to expend–was lugging home my Esprit tote bag full of Sweet Valley High and Saddle Club books from the public library. I was picked last in team sports in gym class often enough that I learned to shrug it off. I quickly realized that it was less embarrassing to pretend that I wasn’t even trying to be good at sports like a prepubescent Daria, rather than experience public mortification when I spiked the volleyball straight into the net, got the softball halfway to home plate, or was the first one out in dodgeball. So the day that we were learning flag football and I threw a spiral that soared across the length of the grade school gym, causing my P.E. teacher to say “Whoa, nice throw!,” is a day that I will never forget. I was never able to replicate that perfect grip and execution, and gym class would remain an unavoidable nightmare in my life until senior year of high school.

That 45-minute block of Physical Education, most especially high school’s coed classes, would fill my stomach with the dread of despair. I didn’t want to play, I didn’t want to sweat and stink up the gym uniform that would live festering in my locker until I brought it home at the end of the week to wash. To avoid most of the action, I often ended up partnering with a girl who was suffering from an extreme eating disorder. Looking back, I’m horrified that I used a peer’s disease as an excuse to get out of wheelbarrow races. Though it’s entirely possible that she was equally relieved to be relegated to benchwarmer since her gym partner was such a tremendous failure at hand-eye coordination.

Things changed during my last semester of gym class in my senior year of high school. I had lucked out and landed a spot in the highly desireable High Adventure class, a P.E. elective so popular that it had a waiting list. The focus of the class was the great outdoors, and this is where I discovered my love of camping, rock climbing, hiking, and rowing. By the powers vested in the school registrar, our small class was a mix of shy kids, film geeks, freaks, and nerd–the Breakfast Club in safety harnesses and climbing helmets.

We were given team building challenges that involved us having to get all of our classmates up a giant hanging contraption in the fieldhouse/gymnastics room. In order to climb up the planks that were taller most of our heads, like an obstacle out of Ninja Warrior, we had to truly work together as a team, hoisting up shorter classmates, reaching down to pull up the remaining people, with even more kids gripping the chain-link sides of the contraption in order to hold the whole mess stable. It definitely taught me way more about working as a team and coming together to overcome a challenge than any dodgeball game ever did. I didn’t have to tolerate the testosterone-charged taunts and showboating moves of the teenage jocks in Team Sports anymore; instead, my classmates and I literally supported each other on ropes, cheering each other one when one of us was close to reaching the top of the gym to ring the suspended bell in triumph.

IMG_5174Near the end of the semester, all of the High Adventure classes went on a 4-day camping trip to Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin. We created our own packing lists and meal plans and learned how to prep for our long weekend off the grid. We left school on a large bus, our backpacks, sleeping rolls, and climbing equipment stowed in the storage compartments.

The hikes we went on were grueling, and we lugged our equipment on our backs all day. We crawled into a cave system with passages so narrow, we had to crawl on our bellies to get through. In the deepest part of the cavern, we turned off our headlamps to experience true darkness. The rugged bluffs of Devil’s Lake were much tougher to grip than the urethane handholds screwed into the gym walls that we were used to. My classmates and I cheered each other on as one by one, we reached the ascent. The trip fell over my birthday, and I got to experience the unique moment of having 30 of my classmates sing “Happy Birthday” to me from atop a bluff, the lake glittering below us. At night, I crawled into a tent with some of my friends from my class to whisper-gossip. “Kim, we’re playing High Adventure Truth or Dare,” one of them said, his face a ghoulish mix of light and shadows cast by headlamp. “How far…. have you… belayed?”

High Adventure stoked my love of the outdoors, and finally awakened my physical side. The satisfaction I found in facing a fear to complete a goal instead of avoiding it would lead me into an adulthood of competitive sports, including coed softball and roller derby. Most importantly, in that class, I learned how to find my people through a common interest. There’s a place for all of us, where we can be healthy and active and accomplish big goals without the jocks screaming at us. And it feels just as good as throwing a perfect spiral football.

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