I Challenge Myself: Using physical fitness to teach determination

I Challenge Myself: Using physical fitness to teach determination

March 8, 2016

Physical education for the 1.1 million students in New York City’s public school system remains “in crisis,” according to Comptroller Scott Stringer’s aptly named 2015 report, “Dropping the Ball.” But last year I Challenge Myself, a three-person operation in its tenth year, worked to pull 500 high school students from the lower East Side to the South Bronx out of crisis by providing bikes and fitness training. 

“Give kids bikes and you give them freedom, exercise and a foundation to handle long-term goals,” said I Challenge Myself Founder and Executive Director Ana Reyes, a New York City public school graduate and former teacher who was part of the New Visions for Public Schools, New Century High Schools initiative. In a city where 41 percent of high schools lack gym facilities and teens are hard pressed to earn the credits required for a diploma, she said, “determination is a muscle that everyone can train and strengthen.”

This simple premise prompted Reyes to set up Cycling Smarts in 2005, an elective youth development program that uses streets in all five boroughs as a training ground. Partnering with seven schools, I Challenge Myself serves at-risk students, many of whom qualify for free lunch or are coping with chronic health issues, such as asthma. Each spring the Cycling Smarts team trains for the Century Ride, a one-day, 100 mile loop from Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to Carmel, New York, and back along the Putnam County Trail. It is the only challenge of this magnitude offered to youth in the United States. Last June a team of 90 students, coaches and volunteers successfully made the journey.

Since its inception, I Challenge Myself has set over 1,000 teenagers on the road to fitness with bikes and helmets. For students interested in pursuing higher education, Reyes added a weeklong summer College Bike Tour that covers 400 miles from Syracuse to West Point. Consequently, a group of West Point cadets has joined the pool of volunteers, recruited from organizations like the mayor’s office and New York Cycle Club, who double as mentors and role models. Volunteers are closely screened before acceptance. Students visit seven campuses along the route and end their tour at SUNY Syracuse.

“We couldn’t function without our volunteers, which includes most of our board members,” she added. “And for the kids, the Century Ride makes for powerful college essay material, it helps our students stand out from the crowd.” 

This year, senior Jackson Gonzales received multiple college acceptances, two from  schools he visited on the College Bike Tour.  His application included an essay about how the Century helped him focus following the death of his father: 

“The nine other students, whom I now call friends, and I rode together, each with a different reason to keep pushing through this empowering and intimate experience. Sweat and tears ran down my face as I pressed my feet down on the pedals and felt as if I only took one step into a journey that demanded leaps; yet I couldn’t wait until the ride was over just so we could finally see the college we worked so hard to get to.”

Fifteen years ago, an epiphany inspired Reyes to create the nonprofit after she biked the 286 miles between Boston and New York City to raise money for an AIDS charity. A novice cyclist, she took advantage of free training offered by the charity and used the six-mile loop around Central Park to build up stamina. 

“I’d never been an athlete, so completing that challenge was particularly empowering,” Reyes recalled. “I thought, ‘Hey, somebody ought to do this for teenagers.’” 

It dawned on Reyes that she was that somebody.

The timing was right. Childhood obesity was in the headlines. And still today, gains made by young people in other states that participate in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move obesity-prevention campaign continue to elude New York City youth – despite an allocation of $19,076 per child, nearly twice the national average. 

Applying her prodigious energy to I Challenge Myself, Reyes recruited a board from among the cycling community, applied for funding, set up shop in a donated space and started with one class of 30 kids. Since cycling is a male-dominated sport, at meetings she “got a kick” out of being the only woman in the room. “Everyone soon got used to having me there,” she said. 

Partnering with schools allows the $490,000 organization to operate with only three full time staff: Reyes, Program Manager Stephen Anthony and Fitness Coordinator Michael Collins. Participating high schools – Alfred E. Smith, Bronx Design and Construction Academy, East Side Community, George Washington, University Heights, plus three specialized campuses in Washington Heights – provide coaches who serve as on-site advisers. Part-time staff support supplied by nonprofits such as ReServe, which provides retired professionals for an hourly stipend, fulfill other necessary functions as the organization continues to grow.

Last year marked a watershed for I Challenge Myself. The organization launched a pilot program called 4-to-FIT, which provides endurance fitness training in four phases, without bikes, as well as nutritional instruction. 

“We wanted to expand beyond cycling, which is expensive and poses a storage issue,” Reyes said. “Using light equipment allows us to reach more students.” Like Cycling Smarts, this curriculum culminates with a fitness challenge to measure progress. “We’ve enrolled 270 kids in three schools right now with good results. If all goes to plan, we hope that 4-to-FIT will serve as a model for schools in the USA and perhaps even abroad,” she added. 

In May 2015, Reyes was selected by the Hearts on Fire foundation as one of two recipients of the “Be the Spark” award. “I was honored to be chosen, and for our programs to be highlighted within the greater community,” she said. Equally gratifying was a remark that emerged from a 2015 student focus group: 

“I think something I learned from the program is you don’t have to be scared of feeling weak at times. I think it is something a lot of people are afraid of. But in the end, it just makes you feel like you are stronger by leaving yourself open to being weak.”

“If kids take one lesson from our program, I’d like to think it’s to look at challenges as opportunities to learn and grow,” concluded Reyes. “Every struggle can become a teachable moment if we learn to persevere and to pay attention to the fear that comes from the pain and discomfort that is a natural part of growth. We do live by our motto here.”  

Michelle Arnot