Former Olympian advises not-so-athletic on fitness


Although Cheryl VanKuren spends most of her workdays guiding cardiac patients' rehabilitation programs, she's got her eye on couch potatoes whose exercise bikes are collecting dust in the basement.

The former Olympic athlete has developed an exercise plan for people who need instruction on how to fit a fitness program into their lives as a matter of course, not as a quick-fix because they overindulged during the holiday season.

Her "Step By Step" program is less than a year old and has a handful of people enrolled. The idea is not for Ms. VanKuren to beat people into shape with her old field hockey stick, but to show them how they can fit an appropriate exercise plan into their week.

"I want to find out as much as I can about you," Ms. VanKuren said. "What are your barriers to exercising? Are you busy? Do you have three kids and no time? What is your lifestyle? How fast do you walk and why?"

Combining that information with a health screening, the Arnold resident puts together a program designed to take advantage of people's likes and dislikes.

A person who likes to read while exercising, for example, wouldn't do well bobbing up and down on a step-exerciser, but might enjoy a stationary bicycle.

The necessary equipment can be found at home, at a gym and at a fitness center such as the one at North Arundel Hospital Professional Center where she works.

Or people can pound the pavement, if jogging and walking suit them better.

Several follow-up evaluations allow Ms. VanKuren to adjust the specialized program.

The combination of working as a cardiac therapist and starting her own exercise program is removed from what most of her former Olympic teammates are up to. But Ms. VanKuren is doing exactly what she wants to be doing.

A Coopersburg, Pa. native, she devoted a decade of her life to field hockey, playing it in high school and college and touring

TC with the U.S. national team. Sports such as roller-blading and skiing had to wait, because she could not risk serious injury.

But the precarious financial situation and lifestyle of a single-sport athlete led her to hang up her stick.

"It was very hard to make a living, to keep a job, because you were always going away for four to six weeks at a time," she said. She delivered newspapers, sold T-shirts, did carpentry, worked summer field hockey camps and clinics and served as a substitute teacher -- all the while practicing so she could retain her midfielder position on the national team.

Field hockey for Ms. VanKuren culminated in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. The team came in eighth.

"No medal, a disappointment. That's what we're here for," she said.

"That's why I said, 'When I get done with this, I know exactly what I want to do,' " the 29-year-old said. "I want to finish my education. I want a steady job, one that brings a paycheck every week."

In January 1989, she returned to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., where she did undergraduate studies in education with an emphasis in sports medicine.

But this time school was not partly underwritten by field hockey scholarships.

She completed a two-year master of science degree in education with an emphasis on exercise science and wellness in December 1990, then took the job in Glen Burnie in June 1991.

Being a former Olympic athlete cuts both ways in working with heart and pulmonary patients.

"Sometimes I think it's very hard for the patients to relate because they look at me -- I've always exercised, I'm a former Olympic athlete," she said.

But on the other hand, she said, patients know her expertise in working out comes not just from textbooks.

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