So you want to go pro?

Editor’s note: “Focus on Fitness” is a Clarion feature with healthy lifestyle advice from local and national health and fitness experts. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

The first TV at Moose Pass Elementary showed up on a warm spring day in 1971. It was a big enough event that it brought me inside on a very nice day. Harvey and Betty Ainsworth donated the set and brought it in to the room known as the “little room” where my Mom taught first through third-graders.


Harvey turned on the set and adjusted the rabbit ears to bring in the Pass’s one channel. The game had just begun, Game 4 of the NBA finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Baltimore Bullets.
I sat down on the floor and began to watch. When the game ended the Bucks had pulled out a win and the championship. I sat alone in the classroom thinking the NBA would be a great career. Work hard and you can accomplish anything, the American dream. I clicked off the set and headed out to the dirt court with a rim 6 inches too high and a wood pallet for a backboard to begin my journey toward the NBA.

My dream was shattered on a cold day in November three years later. I was in fourth grade and had made it to the “big room” where my Dad taught fourth- thtough sixth-graders. There was a sub that day and she was asking each student to discuss what they wanted to do for a career. When I told her about my NBA plan she let loose with a hysterical rumbling laugh that shook her belly repeatedly from high to low. I walked back to my desk as she continued to bust a gut. The scene was burned into my memory. Her reaction made me evaluate my goal more closely. Later I would come up with a more realistic goal, to earn playing time at the varsity level at Seward High School.

During my 25 years in teaching and coaching I would occasionally hear young people talk about going pro in their sport. Very few people have the God-given talent, drive and passion to go pro.

I have personally known a couple of athletes from the Kenai Peninsula who had that combination. Molly Tuter, who led Soldotna High School to a state championship, went on to star at Arizona State and played in the WNBA. Stacia Rustad led Kenai Central High School to a state championship and went on to star at the University of Maine. The WNBA had not yet formed when she graduated and she entered graduate school.

Rustad’s P.E. teacher in elementary school, Don Weller, will tell you her athleticism was pretty easy to spot. She was able to standing long jump 7 feet in first grade, which is way off the charts. Fitness testing is done in schools every year and understanding the results of those tests will help an athlete evaluate their athleticism and learn their strengths and weaknesses. These results can also be used to guide kids toward activities they have natural talent for. All athletes can improve their performance in sport through training. However, there are limits and people with natural talent tend to make greater gains through training. Natural talent is not something an athlete can change but they can change their level of commitment. Even if athletes do not have opportunities after high school the development of a passion for sport can improve quality of life and even improve social mobility.

Drive and passion are a choice and encompass the mental aspect of sport that sets athletes apart. An athlete with superior natural talent who lacks drive and passion is destined to mediocrity. In his book “The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo” Irving Stone quotes one of Michelangelo’s first teachers: “Everyone is born with a little talent; but with most people, how quickly the flame flickers out.”  Sport, like the arts, offers an opportunity to find a passion in life. This is an opportunity based not on athleticism but a conviction to do what you have to do to be the best that you can be at something. A colleague of mine put it this way, “find something you are willing to bleed for.” This process provides you with the tools you need to be successful in life. It can even result in direct job opportunities. Drive and passion do not go unnoticed by future employers.

Kenai Central High School athlete Joe Sandahl had this bit of wisdom to share when discussing goals near the end of last track season: “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

Not all athletes are destined to earn a college scholarship or go pro. However, all athletes can make the commitment to show up for practice everyday, workout in the offseason and learn the strategies of their sport. That journey, those efforts, will result in a quality of life superior to one without a passion for something.

Charlie Stephens is a retired P.E. Teacher and owns/operates Kenai Sport & Train, Inc. which specializes in P.E. consulting. He can be reached at


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