Lifetime achievement

Five athletes of varying ages share their fitness stories.
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Mo Steffens, 27, trains on an annual schedule. In the fall, she’s poolside, coaching girls’ swimming at East Kentwood High School.

Then, come winter, she’s racking up miles, running to get ready for the racing season. Once she’s got her legs back, she’s into the pool, and come warmer weather, she’s biking to her day job as an accountant. She’d like to run a half-distance Ironman triathlon soon (a grueling, hours-long challenge even for top athletes), but she’s staying realistic: She’ll probably log a marathon first.

This addiction to cardio is not, strictly speaking, what normal people like to do to themselves. But Steffens wrings satisfaction out of it — both from gritting her teeth through the training itself and the thrill of getting it done.

“I love the natural high,” Steffens said. “I love feeling like I just ran through a brick wall and accomplished something amazing. When I’m in the right mindset for something like that, I love being able to feel my body accomplish amazing things.”

Steffens grew up in Grand Rapids, but she remembers that her family was constantly in or around the water.

“I started swimming by being towed behind my dad’s sailboat when I was 4 years old,” she said. “Every summer, we were by a lake, we were by a pool. Something.”

Swimming became a big part of her life, and an increasingly serious one as she trained all the way through her high school career. But she describes herself as a “swammer” now — in the past tense. Her appetite for running, she said, could keep her moving six days a week.

But she’s kept coaching, sharing what it feels like to conquer those challenges with another generation of swimmers. Listening to Steffens talk about it, the secret of all that running, swimming and biking comes down to something simple. You do it because you can, because it changes who you are, and because it gives you a bigger idea of who you can be.

That’s part of what brings her back to the pool each fall.

“It’s the girls. I like being able to provide a safe environment where they can become confident, independent, strong-willed young women,” she said. “I like pushing people to reach their full potential and recognize their full potential.”

Pamela Collins went from running to mountain biking after an injury. Photo by Quinn Kirby

Keep rolling

Pamela Collins was out running when it happened: a tear in the tissue in the ball joint in her hip, sidelining her from a sport she’d enjoyed since she was about 30. She’d loved it — the sense of accomplishment, the rush of endorphins and, most of all, the community.

But Collins, injured at age 50, was facing a long battle through physical therapy to get back to running. That left her with a tough decision to make. She decided on mountain biking.

“Instead of spending thousands of dollars on physical therapy, I decided to spend money on mountain bikes,” Collins said.

That path landed her on the board of directors for the West Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance, a group of hundreds of regional cyclists that work to boost the sport — in trail maintenance, race planning and more.

Decades ago, Collins found running as she was trying to stay fit after pregnancy. It’s a familiar choice to countless Americans — running being the most accessible sport on the planet. Mountain biking requires a bit more commitment, and not only because of the investment it demands in a bike and other gear. The sport can be fast-paced and dangerous in a way that running isn’t.

“The first time getting on a mountain bike, I thought, there’s absolutely no way that people can do this,” she said. “How do you ride over roots and rocks and down this tiny little trail with trees that are in the way? I found it very, very challenging. Not only physically but mentally. And I still do, sometimes.”

She paused for a moment and corrected herself: “Not sometimes,” she said.

The Tokyo Olympics brought a perfect example: Mathieu Van der Poel, a world-class cyclist who briefly had held first in 2021’s Tour de France, came over an obstacle during a cross-country mountain bike race. He thought there would be a wooden ramp linking the top of a boulder to the course below. There wasn’t — and that was the end of Van der Poel’s race.

“It’s certainly a different zone than what running was. With mountain biking, you really need to stay focused on a multitude of things when you’re riding. That’s when mistakes happen and when you get hurt. You have to remember skills for every situation on the trail, and there’s always a different situation that you’re approaching,” Collins said.

Collins connected with the WMMBA after she founded her own area group ride on Facebook and the group reached out to her. It was a rewarding way to get into the community. There are a lot of reasons to do it — but the community is a big part of it, she said.

“(There are) the physical and mental benefits, but I feel most importantly it’s the relationships you build with the people you’re sharing your sport and your passion with.”

Svihl masked up and on guard. Photo by Quinn Kirby
Dale Svihl has been fencing for nearly 20 years. Technique is extremely important in the fast sport. Photo by Quinn Kirby

En garde!

Dale Svihl is terrifying with a fencing foil in his hand, drawing up broad, white-clad shoulders and floating like a ghost into his sparring partner. There’s the metallic flashes, the noise of the foils skipping off one another, and then — point! — an electric buzzer.

Fencing can be an odd activity for beginners to watch, mashing up the stuffy tradition of swordsmanship with the frenetic pace of a ping-pong volley. But it’s a thrill watching Svihl dance down the lane, picking his way through their defenses on the way.

“When you’re out there, it happens so fast,” Svihl said. “You don’t think. You’ve just got to be able to react.”

Svihl, 60, has been at it for nearly two decades now, making him one of West Michigan Fencing Academy’s veterans. He’s got a long history at competitions, and he said he’s been nationally ranked in his age division.

“It was cool. I got a lot of mileage out of that,” Svihl said, laughing. “The nationals (tournaments), if you keep going enough, your points keep going up.”

Svihl has lived in the Grand Rapids area for decades and recently retired from a longtime job in sales. He found fencing nearly 20 years ago when he found an ad at the library for adult fencing classes. Since then, it’s become a key part of his life. He comes to the fencing academy, on Godfrey Avenue SW in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, a few times a week.

“You just get done and … there’s a smile on your face,” he said. “Because even if you got the touch … it was so pure.”

One of the pleasures of fencing, Svihl said, is that you don’t have to be built like a statue to excel at it. It’s a technique-heavy sport, with skills built less through bench-presses and more through relentless drilling.

That makes the sport as much a mental game as anything else — like chess, but it’s combat. There’s a lot of focus that goes into deciding how to play.

“Or, if they’re really better than you, it’s, ‘How can I upset their game plan?’” Svihl said.

Another built-in perk of the sport is the camaraderie. On a recent Tuesday night, there is a teenage class just starting. The academy’s schedule is packed with lessons and classes for all ages.

There’s a blond-haired teen across the room warming up. Svihl points over and said he’d been training since he was a boy, and he’s watched him grow and fenced him for years.

“Now I can maybe 25% of the time beat him,” Svihl said with a smile.

Ethan Dolsen readies for some bouldering. Rock climbing can be a full body sport, from finger tips to legs. Photo by Quinn Kirby

New heights

When Ethan Dolsen first walked into a rock-climbing gym in Byron Center, he was only 9 or 10 years old, trying it out after rave reviews from his brother. It wasn’t long until he was hooked.

“I got back in the car, and my dad was like, ‘How did it go?’” Dolsen remembered. He was flush with excitement from the day, the self-satisfaction of conquering the wall and smacking a button up top. “I was like, ‘I want to do that again.’”

Dolsen is 19 now and recently finished high school. And he’s all-in on climbing, working the front desk at Terra Firma, a climbing gym in southeast Grand Rapids. For the first few years, Dolsen was an interested-but-still-casual climber — going with friends and enjoying himself. But as he got older, he got stronger, and he started to see this more as part of who he was and who he could be.

“I kind of started to amp up the time that I would climb and started to think about the training I would get,” Dolsen said. He talks now about weighted pull-ups, the importance of a good diet and rest, and about a “campus board.” This is a hard thing to describe. Picture a climber wriggling up a ladder-like series of shallow, fingertip-deep ledges. If the image in your head looks uncomfortable, then yes, that’s it — you’re getting the hang of it.

But strength and conditioning are only half of what it takes. Dolsen said climbing is an intensely precise sport, with a big premium on the perfect foothold and the best way to leverage your grip up to the next handhold. He’ll practice without using one arm, or without using one leg, challenging his body to learn how to work with constraints.

Climbing reached new heights in 2018 with the release of the movie “Free Solo,” a documentary following climber Alex Honnold as he climbed the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park — without ropes. It’s an arresting documentary, one that makes a viewer feel that Honnold, across his hours-long trek, could easily fall out of the shot at any moment and tumble to his death. Daniel Duane, writing in the New York Times, called it “one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind, ever.”

Dolsen saw it in theaters, rapt and in awe. He’d been aware of Honnold — a big name in the climbing world — but he’d never seen this. Nobody had.

“There’s something that all climbers kind of relate with when they’re watching climbing. Their palms kind of get sweaty,” Dolsen said. He remembers, sitting in the theater, his palms were sweating “like crazy.”

“In that moment, I remember leaving the theater, and I was extremely motivated to climb more and push my limits and reach my goals.”

Byron Doss took up dancing at Calvin College. Now, he teaches it. Photo by Quinn Kirby

Stepping out

Byron Doss didn’t discover dancing until he was at Calvin  College (now called Calvin University), wandering into a salsa event with a group of about 20 people. He describes it now as kind of a light-bulb moment — that he was free to pick up whatever hobby made him happy. So why not ballroom dancing?

He started off watching videos and training himself, he said, before joining the ballroom dancing club at Calvin. “And from there I also started to go to ballroom competitions. And once I realized I needed a lot more training, I spent a lot of time going back and forth from Chicago to train with people.”

Now 34, Doss teaches dance in the movement science department at Grand Valley University and at Social Dance Studio on Four Mile Road in Comstock Park.

“It gave me a way to express myself to music. I really got the chance to do something with music that I never had before,” he said. “And I would say, the social aspect. When I was traveling a lot and competing a lot, you make so many friends along the way. It’s like you’re always meeting new people and getting to enjoy what you do with them.”

Doss shared a video of a recent competition in Chicago — a waltz. He’s in all black, spinning gracefully around a polished ballroom floor. Anyone who’s spent any time on a dance floor can recognize Doss merely is making it look easy — every step and pause and twirl of his partner, in a hot-pink dress, deliberate and measured.

Dancing might not have the same reputation as rugby, track racing or pole vaulting, but it’s a demanding discipline all the same. Doss said the sport puts a premium on flexibility, and the top dancers spend plenty of time in the gym building their strength or doing cardio. Ballroom dancing often borrows from other disciplines, too, like ballet, tap and jazz, meaning Doss and his colleagues have to be extremely well-rounded to stay at the top of the field.

But Doss also is quick to point out dancing doesn’t require a high degree of expertise. You can enjoy it, he said, with just a little practice.

“The youngest client at the studio is 7 years old, and he’s getting ready for his first showcase. Our oldest client is 76,” he said. “So there’s no age restriction.”

That’s why Doss is so encouraging when potential students want to get involved with dancing — discovering, like him, that it’s never too late to pick up a new hobby.

“You can have an activity that you can carry with you for the rest of your life,” Doss said. “It’s something worth having, and it’s not something you need to be good at. You know, there’s people around who can help you learn — just like any new hobby that you do.”

This story can be found in the March/April 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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