“The expectation is excellence.”
All I could do was nod and offer a weak smile in mute agreement for Tom Howley, the strength and conditioning coach for Cornell varsity athletes. He is a force to be reckoned with, bursting with infectious energy despite the fact that he’s been at work since the football team showed up at 6 a.m. There I was, standing in Newman Arena at 7 a.m. two weeks ago, still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, surrounded by the members of the volleyball team and feeling totally out of my element.
I thought it would be fun, a way to realize my secret lifelong dream of being a Division I athlete by stepping into their world for the duration of one workout. But as I trekked from Collegetown to Bartels Hall with the thermostat frozen at 12 degrees and the sky barely showing the first morning light, I felt doubt sneaking in. I was about to get my @$$ kicked.
That feeling didn’t fade when I stepped through the doors of the Friedman Strength and Conditioning Center, where I was faced with 8,000 glistening square feet filled with benches, weight racks, dumbbells and equipment I couldn’t even name. Many thanks to the volleyball team and junior co-captain Amy Gordon, who welcomed this not-so-intrepid reporter and seamlessly inserted me into their hallway warm-up routine. I felt a little overdressed, since I was the only one not wearing spandex shorts, but a few tin soldiers and walking lunges later, I was slapping hands and getting into the “Yeah Red!” cheers.
Then Howley wrapped up with the football team, and after a brief breakdown, we went through more warm-ups, plyometrics, stretches and agility drills in Newman. Whether it was perfecting running form on turn-and-go sprints or showing us the right arm movement during machine-gun drills around the agility hurdles, no detail escaped Howley’s attention. Not even the transition from Newman to Friedman — one call of “No one’s walking!” is all it takes to spur us back to game speed.
What followed was simply the most productive hour and a half of my life. Not one second in the weight room or later during conditioning in the Ramin Room was wasted motion.
First, we ventured into the weight room, where the team huddled up and listened closely as Howley walked them through the morning’s workout. Except for those nursing injuries, everyone did the same workout consisting of incline bench presses, hang-cleans and squats before wrapping up with a circuit through laterals, lat curls, more walking lunges and an exercise specifically designed to strengthen the rotator cuff, since that injury is common to volleyball players. Howley and his staff design sport-specific workouts for each team, even going so far as to learn how to play any sports they are unfamiliar with in order to identify the muscle groups that each team needs to focus on.
The huddle broke up with a patented Howley grunt —“Unnh!” — which quickly became the latest and greatest addition to my personal lexicon. More impressive than any feats of strength or speed I witnessed that morning was the incredible enthusiasm and vocal effort by the athletes. As impressive as it was to see junior Kara Zaragoza throw up the barbell in a hang-clean, it was even more incredible that her continuous encouragement rang out over the din of both the volleyball team and field hockey team taking care of business.
After the weight work, I followed the volleyball and field hockey players into the Ramin Room, where we split into four groups to do a conditioning workout consisting of laps around the perimeter of the room under the time limit set by the coaching staff. Even though Howley recognized it was late in the workout and fatigue was setting in, he asked both teams to do one extra interval to make up for exceeding the times set for the regular workout. Without complaint, the athletes hustled back to their corners and pushed themselves through one more interval.
But that wasn’t it. To cap off the morning, both teams were put through a core workout. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t doing everything right — I still don’t totally understand what a “suitcase” is — but I got enough right to make me feel as though someone was shredding my stomach with a knife. After a thorough stretch and some chatter about weekend plans — including slumber parties and root beer floats — the volleyball team brought it in for one last team huddle. With some final advice about what to eat before early-morning workouts and a reminder to represent Cornell athletics well over the weekend, Howley sent everyone off to class.
As I hobbled down the hill to CTB to act on Howley’s advice and get something to eat, I was feeling pretty satisfied with myself. I had made it through the workout without embarrassing myself; in fact, I felt like I had done pretty well. Maybe I’m not varsity, but I could be, I began to think.
But the more I considered what I had just done, the clearer the reality became. Yes, I can do an inclined bench press. But there I was, feeling good about holding a 15-pound dumbbell in each hand, when I looked to the right and saw freshman Juliana Rogers throwing up two 40s. And then later, doing walking lunges the length of Friedman with 10 pounds in each hand, I decided to stop before the athletic-tape finish line because the distance remaining was less than a full lunge, feeling slightly shameful as I ignored Rogers’ encouraging “Finish through!”
Two small moments, but the message was clear to me. Sure, I might have the physical capability to get through one workout, and maybe I could even work my way up to doing hang-cleans or hefting equal weight at every exercise.
But the chasm between student and student-athlete is more than the difference between a beer belly and a six-pack or cellulite versus toned muscle. It’s about having the discipline and determination to settle for nothing less than excellence every day. And whether it’s a Friday morning workout at 7 a.m. in the off season or two-a-days during the preseason, the 1,100 varsity athletes who represent Cornell are ready for the challenge. Judging by my largely neglectful treatment of my gym pass over the past four years, I am not.
Nevertheless, it was a privilege to be a part of that for one morning, at least. When I visited Howley the following Monday to ask a few more questions, I could still feel every last lunge from Friday. While that soreness has faded, the thrill of seeing Cornell athletics from the inside of the weight room rather than the press box is still with me. And so is a newfound respect for what athletes and coaches do every day in order to bring home success to Cornell.
Olivia Dwyer is the Sun Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Friday this semester.