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posted: 3/5/2017 7:40 AM

Drill sergeants: Trainers expect 100 percent effort from their 'recruits'

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  • Trainer Steve Amsden, himself an Army veteran, pushes Fittest Loser contestant James DeBouver to give his all to each exercise.

      Trainer Steve Amsden, himself an Army veteran, pushes Fittest Loser contestant James DeBouver to give his all to each exercise.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Push Fitness trainers, Joshua Steckler, Patrick Stille, Michelle Jeeninga and Steve Amsden are working with this year's Fittest Loser contestants.

      Push Fitness trainers, Joshua Steckler, Patrick Stille, Michelle Jeeninga and Steve Amsden are working with this year's Fittest Loser contestants.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
By Dave Gathman
Daily Herald Correspondent

Professional trainer Steve Amsden spent seven years in the Army, and the way he runs the Fittest Loser boot camp shows it.

Ordering the dozen or so exercisers to pick up 30-pound dumbbells, Amsden barks, "This will be your rifle! I expect 100 percent effort and if you're not making that, all of you will suffer!"

A half-hour of exercises later -- planks, jumping jacks, bicycling with feet in the air, jumping around and squatting while holding iron weights -- and Amsden says, "Work hard! Don't screw your battle buddies!

"If someone gave you a grand every time your knee touched your elbow, you'd be able to do it every time!"

The Iraq War vet, 36, says he has ordered the Fittest Loser "recruits" to do a lot of the same exercises he had to undergo during basic training in the Army.

"This is a friendly version of those the Army does," Amsden said.

Each contestant in this year's Fittest Loser contest works out twice a week with a Push Fitness trainer on a one-on-one basis. In addition, the four suburban military veterans competing in the contest undergo a blisteringly intense 45-minute bout of calisthenics every Saturday at boot camp at Push Fitness in Schaumburg.

Just like in the military, the Saturday sessions help build a unit morale among the group. That camaraderie extends to the Saturday weigh-ins as well.

The weighing-in is done by Janet Ford, a volunteer who works as a nurse-midwife at Alexian Brothers Hospital -- herself a Fittest Loser contestant last year.

During the first post-boot camp weigh-in, the male contestants had dropped from 9 to 12 pounds each. But the lone female contestant, Penny Brown, had dropped only two pounds. Ford consoled Page on her comparatively meager result. "Women always have more trouble losing because of our hormones," she said.

Sure enough, a week later, when Ford weighs the sweaty quartet after the second boot camp, Brown has the largest decline -- six pounds.

When Ford announces Brown's total, her three competitors cheer with a generous, we're-all-in-the-same-platoon "Yay!"

Penny Brown

U.S. Navy

Fittest Loser contestant Penny Brown of Fox Lake, who served in the Navy, is working with trainer Patrick Stille.
  Fittest Loser contestant Penny Brown of Fox Lake, who served in the Navy, is working with trainer Patrick Stille. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Brown, 37, is working with trainer Patrick Stille.

When asked how the 45-minute boot camps compare to the physical training she got as a new recruit at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in 2001, Brown says, "We did a lot of running and pushups and marching. But I think this is harder.

"For me, the worst of boot camp in the Navy was more of a mental thing, the feeling of being away from my family for the first time."

Her Navy boot camp included both sexes. They were led by one female and two male RDCs (recruit division commanders), as the Navy calls its drill instructors.

"Patrick's more encouraging while the Navy RDCs were more scary," she said.

James 'J.D.' DeBouver

U.S. Army

Fittest Loser contestant James DeBouver, who served in the Army, is working with trainer Steve Amsden.
  Fittest Loser contestant James DeBouver, who served in the Army, is working with trainer Steve Amsden. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

DeBouver, 33, said the Army's version of boot camp was much tougher than Fittest Loser's.

"It's not even close," he said of the workout Amsden had just put the quartet through. "But on the other hand, I'm not 20 years old anymore."

During the weekday workouts, Amsden is his trainer, and the ex-soldier often assigns him homework, such as working out on DeBouver's home elliptical machine or climbing the stairs in his home multiple times.

"Since my specialty was going to be the field artillery, they didn't cut us any slack," DeBouver said of his Army training. "I'd often be holding up my M-16 (rifle) just like we had to do today with that barbell. But unlike the barbell, if you ever let your rifle touch the ground while exercising, you would be in for a world of hurt."

"My wife was an administration specialist in the Army and her physical training was much easier because if you're a clerk, you're not going to be carrying 100 pounds of equipment on your back."

In the Army, "part of the drill instructor's job is to induce a stressful environment so a soldier going into the even more stressful environment of war can operate successfully," said DeBouver, who suffers from post-traumatic stress because of horrifying combat experiences in Iraq.

Another objective is to teach that while every individual soldier is important, you're not an individual but part of a unit. Like those three other Fittest Loser contestants who cheered being beaten by Penny Brown at the second weigh-in.

Russell Page

U.S. Air Force

Fittest Loser contestant Russ Page of Antioch, who served in the Air Force, does squats under the watchful eye of trainer Joshua Steckler.
  Fittest Loser contestant Russ Page of Antioch, who served in the Air Force, does squats under the watchful eye of trainer Joshua Steckler. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Page, 60, is working with trainer Josh Steckler, the owner of Push Fitness. Page said Steckler often assigns him to do running, planks and stretches as homework.

Comparing the new workouts to his Air Force basic training, Page says, "It's as rigorous -- even a little bit more intense on Saturdays. But it's shorter. In basic training, we worked out every other day for two hours. We'd do an endurance run for a mile and a half, and then it would all culminate in an obstacle course, which actually was kind of fun. But Air Force basic training was probably easier than basic in the Marines or Army."

In the military, the "career" airman said, "you train as a team and you're expected to bring along the one who has fallen behind."

He said that in case the air base must be evacuated quickly, the Air Force expects plane-repair technicians like him to be able to carry around all the tools they need in a "Kennedy box" that can weigh more than 100 pounds. He said some female airmen had toolboxes that weighed more than their bodies.

Page said the Air Force in the 1970s had some female drill instructors and "they were as tough as the male ones. Some of the things you heard coming from their mouths were amazing."

Tony Wiszowaty

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve

Fittest Loser contestant Tony Wiszowaty of Schaumburg who served in the Marines with trainer Michelle Jeeninga.
  Fittest Loser contestant Tony Wiszowaty of Schaumburg who served in the Marines with trainer Michelle Jeeninga. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Approaching 70 years of age, Wiszowaty muses that "there are times in life when you wish you could do something over again. With my health deteriorating and my weight going up, I was beginning to think that it would be good to be able to do Marine boot camp again.

"But every day of boot camp was torture."

In the Marines they say that pain is weakness leaving the body," he said. "But as tough as drill instructors are, they really love their recruits. They know that if you get into a fighting situation, they have formed you into a condition where you have the best chance of not coming home on your shield."

Wiszowaty, 68, said Marine boot camp was like the Saturday boot camp in Schaumburg, but went on for 24 hours a day. "We were trained to be ready for anything at any time," sometimes being awakened by surprise in the middle of the night and sometimes being forced to grab a meal while just walking through the mess hall without sitting down.

Wiszowaty is working with trainer Michelle Jeeninga. Push Fitness's only female trainer, she married Steve Amsden while he was serving in the Army, then joined him in working for Push. They divorced in 2012, but still work there together. "We get along great," Jeeninga said. "Steve is my new husband's best friend."

"In the Marines one D.I. said that 'if you work until you drop and after you drop, you set your toes in and give an extra inch, I'll never send you back' to repeat the course," Wiszowaty said. "I think about that sergeant every time Michelle asks me to do one more rep. If she says we'll do something for 30 seconds, I'll do 31 seconds."

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