April 2019 - ATHLETE PROFILE
ATHLETE PROFILE - Jennifer Merritt
Residence: East Greenbush
Family: Twins, Eli and Eliot, and two rescue dogs, Mumford and Eva
Occupation: Social worker at Albany City Schools
Primary Sports: Running, Weightlifting, Hiking
Secondary Sports: Paddleboard, Kayak and Spinning
By Dave Kraus
You work up a sweat just watching her lead the class. Jen Merritt never stops moving, and her boundless energy is infectious for the 30 or so students in this Saturday morning fitness session. She leads them by example in a constantly changing collection of aerobic exercise that leaves everyone sweaty and smiling at the end of the 60-minute class. Today she is wearing her mermaid outfit with clamshells printed in strategic spots. It’s one of many theme ensembles she uses to help make her classes more interesting.
Jennifer’s constant energy and good cheer has been her trademark since 2006 when she started leading group exercise at the Greenbush Area YMCA in East Greenbush. Her first class as an instructor was a 6am weightlifting body sculpt class, and today she still teaches that same class at the same eye-rubbing early morning hour.
But she has also taken on eight more weekly classes sandwiched in around her full-time job. Those include three HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) classes, two “urban fit” boot camps, and three spin classes.
Her fitness career started off unexpectedly, when a friend who was an instructor told her she should consider leading classes. Jen recalls saying, “That’s crazy, but OK,” and accepted help to learn the basics, and get her first certification from Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. Today she has added certifications from National Academy of Sports Medicine and Madd Dogg (spinning) to her credentials.
But she’s always willing to do more to pitch in, said fitness director Cathy Van Orden, who is her supervisor at the YMCA. “With Jen, it’s never a matter of whether she has the energy do to it,” Cathy said. “It’s only whether she can fit it into her schedule.”
That busy schedule extends far beyond the YMCA and makes her an example for her family and friends. Even in her professional life as a social worker in Albany City Schools, she reaches out to help others. She provides counseling services to students to help with anger management, building social skills, and linking to community supports and providers.
She also makes sure to dedicate time to her ten-year-old twins, Eli and Eliot, to show them the value of exercise. This past summer the family drove cross-country to hike in the Badlands of South Dakota and Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah. This year it will be hiking and kayaking in Canada.
Originally from Guilderland, she recalled that as a child she would go out with her parents, who were avid runners. But in high school she became a “band geek” and hardly worked out at all.
Her life away from fitness extended into college, where she graduated from SUNY Albany with a degree in sociology and then a masters in social work. Then, at 25, she realized she needed a change. “I had gotten kind of overweight and I decided I was going to get healthy. My first run was so awful the whole time! Then when I was done it felt so great. So I just kept going farther and farther. I’ve been running ever since. I feel like the more I exercise, the more energy I get.”
She quickly met other runners – who she calls her “fitness friends” – and her mileage gradually went up until she completed the 2008 Wineglass Marathon in Corning. She went on to do four more marathons before foot surgery in 2015 forced her to cut down her mileage. “I run for fun now” she said, but she still loves to run the “Seneca7” relay each year in Geneva, where she participates on a seven-person team that runs 77.7 miles. She also runs here at home all year, where not even single digits outside can tame her enthusiasm.
She also contributes her dedication and energy for running into her volunteer mentoring work for the STEM running club (Strong Through Every Mile – stemrunning.com) in Albany that helps women who are survivors of domestic violence. Many club members come from difficult life situations, some living in halfway houses or other temporary shelters. “We start out with people who have never run before and get them to a 5K in a 10-week period,” she explained. “They get a love of running. It’s very empowering and they are able to see they are able to accomplish so much. I also find it to be very personally empowering to see people going from having some significant difficulties to being able to run a 5K. At the end of that race you cry because it’s so beautiful.”
Jen said she’s also learned a lot from the club and from her fitness teaching activities. “It’s all taught me to love what you are able to do. Everybody has a different level and you should be proud to embrace whatever level you are at. I love people and fitness more than ever, seeing how close it brings people together. I think the sense of community here at the Y is amazing.”
She has also learned to read body language; particularly in the spin classes she said are her favorite to teach. “You can feel the energy in the room, whether there’s good energy or no energy. If there’s no energy or passion, then I need to change it up.”
Last year Jen was voted favorite instructor by members at the Greenbush Area YMCA, and while she deeply appreciates the honor, she also keeps in mind the larger purpose behind her work. “It’s not just about being an athlete, it’s about helping other people.”
Dave Kraus (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a longtime area cyclist, photographer and writer who wishes he had half of Jen Merritt’s energy. Visit his website at krausgrafik.com.