It’s an eerie sight to behold when a location accustomed to the bustling activity of thousands of cadets a day putting feet to treadmill, the reverberating sound and thud of weights, the splashing of water in the pools, the crashing of fists against punching bags or the dribbling of basketballs on the court is now silent—dead silent.
The deafening quiet in Arvin Cadet Physical Development Center caused by 4,400-plus cadets and 71 staff and faculty members in the department of physical education being told to stay home because of COVID-19 is a sound and sight unseen in U.S. Military Academy history.
The Physical Pillar is one of four pillars cadets must achieve to become an officer in the U.S. Army. The mission of DPE is to develop warrior leaders of character who are physically fit and mentally tough by engaging cadets in activities that promote and enhance physical excellence.
However, what does that look like when everyone is not centrally located and is without supervision? This is where the character and mental toughness of these future officers is put to the test physically when not only Arvin or various sports venues at West Point aren’t available to them but gyms across the country are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and now creates a workout equipment availability void for them.
The Director of DPE, Col. Nicholas Gist, said there are positives coming out of it right now with cadets across the country getting on social media and creating various challenges to stay in touch and keep in shape, while being creative and innovative with their workouts and making it work.
“Cadets are using whatever is laying around outside. It could be farm equipment, gardening equipment and I’ve seen a video of a cadet pushing a car,” Gist said. “I’ve seen a lot of body-weight type activities, a lot of creativity like the see 10, do 10 challenge where they do pushups. The Army West Point soccer team has been doing a juggling competition. I’ve seen them do it with soccer balls and now I’ve see them doing it with toilet paper rolls adding humor in there, making a little bit of light of the situation, although certainly not funny, but I think the situation of being quarantined and isolated that using humor helps.”
Teaching through remote learning
There are seven classes DPE teaches within its curriculum; however, through remote learning, only two classes are currently taught to cadets—PE215, Foundations of Personal Fitness, to primarily yearlings, and PE450, Army Fitness Fundamentals, which is taught predominantly to firsties.
“Those are the only two classes we can teach via remote learning, and those are even somewhat modified because they both include physical activity labs,” Gist said. “The other five physical education courses we can’t teach right now. We simply can’t achieve course objectives given the requirement to be face-to-face, to interact physically and a spot to use very specific equipment. A course like boxing, we can’t teach that course, it is just not possible. But we will be able to make those up in the future. Where we are focused right now is on the firsties and PE450 (for graduation requirements).”
DPE continues to promote fitness standards through an app called “Train Heroic,” which applies a variety of things like PE117, Military Movement, programs or no equipment fitness called “Body Weight Master.” There is also an Army Combat Fitness Test preparation program offered, Gist said, that runs anywhere from two-to-eight weeks in duration.
“The app is incredible as it provides video instruction, written instruction, the number of sets, the number of repetitions, points of performance that can be used,” Gist said. “The other thing we are doing is each day, Monday through Friday, is a workout of the day, which we post on Instagram at @westpoint_DPE. Then the commandant’s workout is still being published and used to a limited extent to the cadets who are here at West Point, a dozen or so who are here (in quarantine).
“We are really focused on no equipment workouts right now to reach out to everyone because we know there isn’t a consistent set of equipment available,” Gist added. “People will be creative, some add weight vests to increase intensity, some will modify for their skill for their own purposes. We are going to continue to incorporate as many movements as we can that help prepare for the Army Combat Fitness Test.”
Preparing for the ACFT and remaining physically fit under unusual circumstances
The Army Combat Fitness Test will soon be replacing the Army Physical Fitness Test on a permanent basis Oct. 1 at the beginning of fiscal year 2021. The problem right now is the hurdle of preparing for a test when the equipment used for it is not available.
Before cadets were released for spring break, and then subsequently told not to return to West Point, approximately 2,500 cadets took the ACFT with just short of 2,000 cadets still needing to take it, Gist explained. There were two more iterations planned in March and makeup dates in April and May that are now on hold; however, there are no consequences this year for not being able to complete the task.
“Right now, West Point is working in conjunction with the Army on ACFT implementation. This current fiscal year, FY 2020 through Sept. 30, is the initial operating capability for the ACFT, so it is a diagnostic test this year,” Gist said. “I don’t want to get ahead of Army senior leadership, but we anticipate full implementation will begin Oct. 1. That’s when it will become the test of record replacing the Army Physical Fitness Test.”
Gist said for the Class of 2020, per regulation and policy, the APFT is the graduating and commissioning requirement.
As for training for the ACFT without the equipment available, Gist mentioned a myriad of ways to train without the equipment such as the hex bar and bumper plates, pull-up bar and such at the cadets’ disposal.
“The types of things you can use are infinite … you can train grip strength by filling buckets and holding buckets and doing deadlifts with buckets in each hand,” Gist said. “If you have access to kettlebells, they can provide great resistance for that deadlift move. Or a medicine ball, you can find and implement it, it approximates 10 pounds and throw that around.
“Any kind of high intensity interval training can replicate the sprint, drag, carry, so sprints forward, backward, laterally will help,” he added. “An exercise that I think is popular right now is a burpee. A burpee is very simple and it can be done anywhere without equipment, but it is a whole-body movement (which can include push-ups, jumps, box jumps or pull-ups) … there are a lot of ways to modify body-weight movements that can then replicate the requirements of the ACFT.”
While the ACFT represents an evolution in Army physical fitness assessment and individual and collective readiness for cadets and Soldiers alike, training for it or keeping in shape in general goes back to good old fashioned honor and doing what is required to stay physically fit in the absence of a military environment.
“This is not business as usual, these are not normal circumstances, but it is important to continue to make physical activity, fitness and readiness a part of their daily routine,” Gist said. “When (cadets) get out of bed and put their feet on the floor in the morning, they should inspire themselves to be active every day and to set goals and strive for those goals.
“Now, we tie back to our West Point Leader Development System outcomes of live honorably, lead honorably and demonstrate excellence, so those expectations haven’t gone away, they are still there,” he said. “Whether decentralized wherever they are or centralized at the academy, that is an intrinsic component of what we’re trying to get out of each leader of character at West Point, so living and leading honorably and demonstrating excellence doesn’t stop now because they are not at West Point.
“It’s an integral part of our culture … always do what’s right, even when no one is looking,” Gist added. “Technically, no one is really looking because the Corps of Cadets are home, most of the people who work at West Point are home now, but expectations remain the same, it remains high … our nation has high expectations of us and of our future leadership of the Army.”
Empty Arvin and life without cadets and sports
Outside of being with family, the biggest joy in Col. Gist’s life is spending every day working and mingling with cadets. Gist teaches exercise physiology, boxing and military movement classes as well as SCUBA, while also having the role of officer representative with the Army wrestling team.
“I tell people and cadets this all the time, the best part of any day for me is the time I spend with cadets, family aside,” Gist said. “Probably the biggest drawback is not having that face-to-face interaction because we always say that every interaction with a cadet is an opportunity for development, and we are missing some of that now.”
As the OR of the wrestling team, he witnessed firsthand the ending of the team’s season and feels for all the cadet athletes, no matter the sport they would be playing in March through May and early June.
“It was a crushing day, a crushing moment as I was in the room when Coach (Kevin) Ward let the wrestling team know on March 12 basically the national championships were not going to happen,” Gist said. “It was crushing for the cadets, but it was for me too.”
However, Gist did give some words of advice to all the athletes, especially the firsties, who saw their seasons, or some collegiate careers, cut short due to COVID-19.
“At this point, you can only control your response, you can only control your attitude and actions,” Gist said. “You can’t control COVID-19, you can’t control any decisions that have been made.
“I think they will all handle it, but they will probably always look back and say, ‘wow, that was incredibly disappointing,’ especially the seniors,” Gist added. “But they will also look back and know they were there and demonstrated appropriate leadership for those under three classes through their attitude and behavior, but incredibly tough. I feel for them.”
Currently, day-to-day operations are almost in a stall pattern with the not knowing what is coming next for everyone. The worst part, Gist said, is not working with the cadets and what he calls an incredible group of workers who make up the military and civilian staff and faculty in DPE. It is almost indescribable what every day is like now walking through a building, barren of life and pin drop-like sound.
“I don’t like it, but it is nothing that I would have ever anticipated,” Gist said. “It was great when I could see cadets in action, in class, our faculty in action, our staff in action and now (Arvin) is empty. It’s a strange feeling to see Arvin Cadet Physical Development Center—500,000 square feet with a multitude of venues—empty.
“(In the end), we’re going to persevere. The lights are out. It is not a good feeling, but I look forward to the day when everyone is back here and engaged in sport and physical education, teamwork and camaraderie, where again winning matters—whenever that may be,” Gist concluded. “I’ll conclude that winning matters in respect to COVID-19 as well—we will win.”