Believe it or not, there was a time in American history where gym class consisted of more than just kickball. Screenshot from YouTube.
It is the solemn duty of every passing generation to look upon their youthful successors and impart upon them — with all the wisdom and compassion age brings — the knowledge that their generation is a bunch of soft, pathetic little pieces of shit who aren’t nearly as strong, smart, or successful as the older generation was at that age.
No young man or woman in the history of mankind has reached adulthood without an elder telling them how their generation is weak, dumb, and precipitating the downfall of the human race as we know it. The first generation of Neanderthals to live in a cave likely caught immense amounts of shit from their less comfortable predecessors who were still sleeping outside and getting dragged out of bed by saber-toothed tigers.
Although many people are perfectly content doing little more than admonishing the younger generation for being fucked up and ass-backward, some prefer to take an active role and try to help them become better. Stan LeProtti was one of those people. In the mid-1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was shocked by a then-recent study that found America’s youth to be significantly less physically fit than that of Europe’s. These unfavorable findings elicited a call to action from the president that culminated in a national push to promote a more active lifestyle and a higher degree of physical fitness among America’s youth. In response to this call, a very patriotic PE teacher named Stan LeProtti said, “Hold my beer and watch this …”
Okay, he didn’t say that. But he basically said it through his actions. You see, Mr. LeProtti was a World War II veteran, a member of the President's Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, and the physical fitness coach at La Sierra High School in Carmichael, California. As opposed to most PE teachers, LeProtti took the physical health and wellness of his students very seriously and developed a comprehensive physical fitness program to whip them into shape. Dubbed the La Sierra System, this PE program gained national attention for its revolutionary approach, impressive results, and grueling fitness standards that rivaled that of the United States Marine Corps.
The La Sierra System was a physical fitness program that stood apart from others at the time for its emphasis on all-around, total-body fitness, making it similar in some respects to CrossFit — the primary difference being that participants in the La Sierra System didn’t feel the need to talk about it 24/7.
The program used a wide array of physical activities, such as calisthenics, gymnastics, obstacle courses, swimming, running, games, combatives, and obstacle courses to provide all-around athletic conditioning. Aside from the physical, the La Sierra System also emphasized the importance of psychological toughness and regularly promulgated and reinforced things like discipline, fortitude, resilience, tolerance to pain, and motivation along with the "philosophy" — the "why" — of physical fitness.
This brick shithouse high-school kid is in better shape than 99% of the United States Army. Screenshot via YouTube.
Students in the La Sierra System were tested and ranked in stratified ability teams denoted by the color of their PT trunks. White Trunks were beginners, Red Trunks were intermediate, and Blue Trunks were advanced. To advance to the next level, a student had to pass the "ceiling performance" standards in their respective ability group. Think of it like an Army PT test, except you can’t be drunk, and the reward for passing is a much harder PT test. Beyond the three main groups, there were two subgroups of Blue — Purple and Gold — to set apart the median and top performers of the blue team, respectively. In 1958, Navy Blue was introduced as a new color ranking above Gold.
Because of the David Goggins-level difficulty of earning a pair of Navy Blue trunks, only approximately 20 students in the history of the La Sierra System earned the right to wear them. The Navy Blue program (pictured below) demanded insane physical feats, such as carrying a buddy for 5 miles, treading water for two hours, 34 pullups, 50 handstand pushups, and 100 extension pressups. For comparison, to max out the Marine Corps’ physical fitness test, (depending on your age) you have to perform roughly 87 regular pushups, 23 pullups, 115 crunches, and run 3 miles (not carrying another human being) in 18:00 minutes.
The standards to earn the coveted Navy Blue shorts look more like something you would see in Navy SEAL training rather than in a high-school gym class. Image courtesy of the La Sierra System Handbook.
La Sierra High School closed its doors in 1983, and its eponymous physical fitness program soon followed because of a lack of guidance and a shift of national interest from general fitness to sports. Before the program ended, the La Sierra System managed to gain national attention, was implemented in 4,000 different schools across the country, and even gained the endorsement of President John F. Kennedy.
Accolades aside, the La Sierra System also achieved its goal of improving the health and wellness of America’s youth, albeit temporarily, and achieved its much larger, more discreet goal of showing the Europeans that we are way better than they are. ’Merica.
Eric Miller is a former Army Combat Medic from Parkersburg, West Virginia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and has worked with homeless populations and veteran services throughout the state. He is an avid outdoorsman and has recently become interested in woodworking.
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