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Program promotes student fitness … and mud!


September 3, 2019 Valley Creek School, Calgary
Students tackle one of two mud pits during the annual Thermopylae Obstacle Course Race at Valley Creek School in Calgary last June.

More than 2,000 students, teachers and volunteers gathered at Calgary’s Valley Creek School on June 4 to crawl through mud pits and hurdle over walls while completing a 5K run. In spite of this daunting challenge, every competitor left with the satisfaction of having completed the largest ever Thermopylae Obstacle Course Race to be held at Valley Creek School.

Complete with 20 obstacles and two mud pits, the course is ready again this year to challenge Calgary middle school students ranging from grades 4 to 9.

“The fitness program is shared with other schools around Calgary and attracts all sorts of students. It is not just for typical athletes, but anyone interested in fitness, even ones who do not like physical education,” says founder and organizer Michael Maher.

Although some may recognize “Thermopylae” as the location of an ancient battle between Greece and Persia, students in Calgary know it best as a unique fitness program. Throughout the year, Valley Creek students participate twice a week in Thermopylae training led by Maher and fellow volunteer coach Renee Mechelse.

“I hope to encourage and inspire students to fall in love with fitness and find a way to include some exercise in their everyday lives,” Mechelse says.

Maher started Thermopylae in 2006 at John Ware School in Calgary and brought the morning fitness program with him when he moved to Valley Creek Middle School in 2007. In 2012 students asked if there was a way they could measure their fitness against other kids, so Maher came up with the obstacle course race (OCR) and invited other schools to join in the competition.

The race had 120 student participants in its first year and has since grown to include about 2,000 participants from 24 schools. There is no entry fee or cost to the students, except the sweat they expend in training, Maher says.

In addition to training and the Thermopylae race, students participate in Thermopylae fitness games hosted by different schools throughout the year. These physically challenging games allow students to see how their fitness is progressing.

Maher has presented his Thermopylae program at phys-ed forums, at the conference of the Health and Physical Education Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association and at a conference in Las Vegas.

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