They're No. 1: Air Force ROTC leads nation in fitness

April 9, 2013

by Käri Knutson

Photo: ROTC cadets running on track

Air Force ROTC cadets run on the track during one of several required group-fitness sessions held weekly at the Camp Randall Sports Center, also known as the Shell.

Photo: Jeff Miller

It’s early on a Wednesday morning.

Really early.

While other students still slumber or are just getting their day started, the Air Force ROTC “Flying Badgers” have already worked up a sweat running laps at the Shell on campus.

That’s what it takes to be No. 1 — and that’s what this group is. The cadets found out in January that their average physical fitness score of 97.42 out of a possible 100 was the highest in the nation, besting 145 U.S. Air Force ROTC detachments.

Last year, they were No. 2, a ranking that was good but not good enough for the cadets or Lt. Col. Todd D. Berge, who oversees the group.

“I told them we could be No. 1,” Berge says. “That lit a fire under them.”

Air Force ROTC is an elective curriculum taken along with required college classes. It provides leadership tools, training and experiences.

There are 85 members, with workouts offered four days a week. They’re required to attend two per week but on Thursdays the entire group works out together.

“I want to instill a desire for excellence, not just while they’re here. We built a culture of wanting to do better. I know that’s not going to go away anytime soon.”

Todd Berge

They undergo a physical fitness assessment each month, consisting of a mile-and-a-half run, a minute of sit-ups and a minute of pushups. They also have their waists measured.

Berge is assisted by Capt. Evan Searles, Capt. Scott Paeth, Tech. Sgt. Raul Dominguez and Tech. Sgt. Shervon Greenhow.

It’s Berge’s sixth and final semester teaching the group before he retires. When he took over three years ago, his goal was for the group to be No. 1. As he prepares for retirement, he considers the ranking a retirement gift of sorts.

When he started with the students, Berge would often show them up by easily running faster around the track.

“Now I’ve created a monster — I can’t beat very many of them,” Berge says. “It’s a little bit depressing, but that’s what I wanted.”

When first-year students arrived this year, Berge told them he’d never had one score 100 on the test. Soon after, three of them earned a perfect score.

Berge is a 1993 UW grad and was once a cadet himself. He remembers the time well. About 10 years ago, Berge says, the military placed a greater emphasis on physical fitness. The regimen these students go through is more strenuous than what Berge says he did as a cadet.

Watching the group, you would assume that most have been pretty fit their whole lives. That’s far from the case.

Sean Patchin, an 18-year-old majoring in computer science and violin performance, wasn’t athletic at all prior to becoming a cadet.

“I did track one year in high school, but I was focused on music,” Patchin says.

When he first joined ROTC, he was a little intimidated. That’s no longer the case. While it once took him 12 and a half minutes to run a mile and a half, he’s down to 10 and a half minutes. In a minute, he can do 70 pushups or 60 sit-ups — a big increase from just months ago.

“I really look forward to coming here,” Patchin says. “When you’re done, it feels so rewarding.”

He knew the goal of being No. 1 was ambitious, but Patchin had faith in his fellow cadets.

“We didn’t take it easy at all,” Patchin says. “We just kept pushing.”

Kayla Williams, a 21-year-old junior double majoring in legal studies and sociology, has seen huge improvements as well. It used to take her 13 minutes to run a mile and a half. Now she’s down to 10 minutes.

“It’s awesome,” Williams says.

Yes, the mornings do come early.

“Once I’m here, I really enjoy it,” Williams says. “It really helps you get ready for your day.”

While Berge is proud, he’s quick to credit the cadets for all of their hard work and he feels confident that they will continue the tradition of success.

“I want to instill a desire for excellence, not just while they’re here,” Berge says. “We built a culture of wanting to do better. I know that’s not going to go away anytime soon.”