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By Matt Kollmansperger
According to Wilderness Adventures, “by experiencing the great outdoors, students will learn to respect, appreciate, and enjoy what nature has to offer us. Educational wilderness adventures not only offer fun and excitement for today’s youth, but allows for the opportunity to learn about the world around them and allowing to learn who they truly are.”
Over the past decade, outdoor sports in Richmond have certainly seen a rise in popularity and participation. This spike did not come by through just coincidence, and Collegiate school is a great example of this. The school’s program, Outdoor Collegiate, was started in 2011 by Brad Cooke, a Richmond native and Upper School History teacher. Cooke participated in outdoor sports growing up: “I did a lot of rock climbing back then, that was kind of my primary focus, and I started a climbing program at VMI and started one at Fork Union.” Cooke also participated in mountain biking.
Unfortunately, the path to a vibrant school outdoor sports program is not an easy one. “Outdoor programs always have to fight for legitimacy” Cooke said. He was tasked by Collegiate to start a program that could involve high schoolers more in the outdoors. “When they hired me, in they said ‘There’s a lack. It’s traditional sports and that’s all we are; we just need something else.’” And that is where Cooke began to fill a very vacant niche: one for those who don’t generally fit the traditional mold of high school athletics. Cooke said in a recent podcast “When you get to junior, senior year, if you’re not playing varsity or not starting, you’re just gonna be sitting on benches… and so this gives kids an opportunity to do other things.” In this podcast, Brad Cooke joins hosts Alex Shaw and Ben Moore, both fellow outdoorsmen, on their blog Waterways to discuss the program and its effects on the school and students. Also involved with young and novice paddlers, Moore offers insight as well on introducing people to the sport, by talking about the effects of paddlers seeing places on the river from different perspectives. “They get both angles of it, from land-based going out onto the water and then from water-based, starting at the top and paddling. I think that kind of scope of knowledge is pretty cool.”
The wonder of outdoor sports continues to impress many in its effects on its participants and anyone who is involved. Personally, it has provided me an opportunity to latch onto and specialize in something, or multiple things, that I enjoy doing when I have found that I don’t necessarily fit the typical Collegiate student athlete profile. In an environment where traditional sports are a spectacle seen and glorified, those who are not involved often fall to the shadows and do not have an interest in athletics at all. Programs like Outdoor Collegiate provide an opportunity for teens to build their confidence, be outside, and to see the city from perspectives they have never seen before, all while being able to do these activities with people just like them. “I feel like part of my job, is to help build that confidence up, and so if you have a kid who has not had success at traditional sports and is surrounded by people who are good, giving them something else to identify with, I think, is really important.” Cooke says. Most importantly, the people you identify with are people that you can share bonds with for years and years to come. “The groups that I get are kids that are typically across all four grade levels. Boys and girls, oftentimes kids that don’t hang out socially, you get them all out in the river in the middle of a rapid, and that group comes together. And they support each other and they help each other.” Cooke elaborated.
I talked to other kids who participated in the school’s program and just in outdoor sports in general. Many of the responses came in support of the team aspect. It seems as though people view it as a very individually challenging sport, yet the team aspect is still present. Grayson Hoy (‘19) talked about his experiences in the rock climbing program: “You’re not going against someone else, you’re going against your personal best. You’re always trying to better yourself.” Some may think that this seems like a strictly individual sport, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Elka Cuttino (‘19) said “It’s not a traditional team, but there’s still a community for it.” I think this pretty well sums it up. Though it may not be a defined group of people who compete collectively for one goal, everyone involved in the sport is supporting you and pulling for you.
I also talked to participants about what they found most appealing about the actual activities, such as rock climbing, paddle boarding, and mountain biking. Josh Van De Putte (‘19) talked about his love for snowboarding: “I like the raw natural feel of being outside.” The atmosphere around outdoor sports adds to the benefits even more. You are forced to essentially compete against nature; there are no penalties or timeouts. “You’re not confined to the rules and structure of traditional sports, you’re kind of given an objective and you do it your own way.” Van de Putte said. Jack Lerch (’19) also commented on this aspect. He said “I feel like there’s less margin for error in extreme outdoor sports like that which forces you to be fully present in what you’re doing, and it makes it more of a mind and body activity.” This forces you to completely invest yourself and be present in what you are doing, yet another benefit to the outdoor sports world.
Some may see this style of activity as lacking direction or a point, but Lerch begs to differ. “There’s no point to it, and that’s kind of like the coolness of it.” This allows the participants to expand and explore in any way they want to create a personalized mix of activities for every season out of the year.
Featured image courtesy of Outdoor Collegiate.