Somewhere in the middle of a 50-kilometer cross country ski race, the hands and feet begin to sting from the cold, the lungs ache from exhaustion, the hamstrings scream from the exertion, and any sane person begins to question the wisdom of pushing on.
Life - and school - can sometimes feel like an endurance race, as well.
In each case, Darla Baumgarten—a former competitive cross-country skier and coach and a current assistant professor of kinesiology at St. Ambrose—exhorts her students to endure. To push on. To succeed.
Eight years into a career in higher education for which she said she always felt destined, Baumgarten carries an established reputation as a knowledgeable and engaging instructor, as well as a compassionate and perceptive student adviser.
"Darla is loved by the students," said Suzanne Wiese, the Kinesiology Department's administrative assistant. "She is just really all there for the students' success."
Mark Brauweiler '13 graduated cum laude in May with a bachelor's degree in exercise science and human performance and fitness. He said Baumgarten brings her endurance coaching mentality to the classroom. And, as his adviser, he particularly remembered her coaching him through the challenging process of applying to the Doctor of Physical Therapy program, which he will begin at SAU this fall.
"I might not have made it into the DPT program if it hadn't been for her," Brauweiler recalled. "Where there is a problem, she will say ‘OK, let's work through this.'"
Sara Lopata '11 recognized Baumgarten's "all there" passion for students long before she needed it most. But when the young student suffered a serious brain injury from a single-car accident in the summer of 2008, Baumgarten was chief among the SAU faculty and staff who helped her battle back to gain a degree.
"There were times when I was hardcore struggling and her personality helped keep me motivated," said Lopata, who, as a brain injury specialist in West Des Moines, Iowa, now strives to inspire her therapy clients with a similar "push-through" brand of positivity.
Skiing drew Baumgarten from her native Colorado to Marquette, Mich., where an average of 200 inches of snow falls each year. After competing for a time on the national cross-country ski circuit, she earned a bachelor's degree in physical education and a master's degree in exercise physiology from Northern Michigan University. She also served as a graduate assistant coach of an NMU women's cross-country ski team that finished second in the nation.
Baumgarten taught grade school physical education for a couple of years before spending 13 years as an exercise physiologist at Marquette General Hospital. After her husband's work brought the family to the Quad Cities, she learned of an opening in the St. Ambrose Kinesiology Department, where her clinical experience proved to be a welcome asset.
At SAU, Baumgarten has watched the exercise science field grow in stature and the school's Kinesiology Department expand from two full-time faculty members to six.
Now in the process of completing her doctoral dissertation, Baumgarten expects the need for exercise and fitness specialists will continue to rise as baby boomers become senior citizens and a generation of far-too-sedentary American grade schoolers comes of age.
Baumgarten looks forward to preparing future kinesiology students to help both groups shape up. "I am passionate about the field of kinesiology, and I teach them to be passionate as well," she said.
One of her passions has necessarily cooled. Baumgarten doesn't get much long-distance skiing done in the Quad Cities, and her original hope to launch a junior cross-country skiing club here melted long ago. "The snow doesn't stay down long enough," she said. "You can't count on it."