Most Americans who pay attention to the United States Armed Forces have heard of West Point. Founded in 1802, the four-year educational institution is the jumping-off point for many future service members to begin their journey into service. West Point's mission is to "educate, educate, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of duty, honor, country, and poised for a career of professional excellence and service to the community." Nation prepared is a U.S. Army officer.”
One of the people playing an important role in this mission is Dr. Col. Nicholas Gist, who works as chief of physical education at West Point. A title he holds with honor is Master of the Sword. Growing up in Alpine, California, he may not have predicted what he would do in the future, but he credits his upbringing as a big reason he is where he is today.
"I think a lot, if not all, of the journey I was on was a product of my childhood," Gist said. "From my earliest memories, my parents were always people who enjoyed being outside."
His father was a blacksmith and served in the United States Navy for seven years, but Gist didn't see much of that part of his father's life. His mother also came from a farming family. Combine these two backgrounds and you have a child who was used to being outside early and often.
"I grew up playing outdoors, and I mean it in the best sense of 'Get outside, explore, play games, throw rocks, fight with sticks, it's definitely part of the sport.'"
Gist played baseball, soccer and took up amateur wrestling as his sport of choice. These would become the main focus of his childhood. His younger brother Eric grew up the same way. He credited coaches like Bruce Wiseman with the fathers of other children on his teams, and he viewed them as extended family.
“In the army we call them our tribes. Those were our tribes.”
Fast forward to high school and Gist found himself a cadet at West Point. As soon as he stepped onto campus, he knew more was expected of him, but was confident that he would live up to the high standards.
"West Point had very high expectations for leadership development," he said. He also recognized that becoming that leader was both a physical and mental requirement.
"You realize very early on how important it is to be physically fit, the physicality of the job you are in as a future soldier."
A look at Gist's accomplishments in the army shows that he has grown into such a leader. After graduating in 1994, he traveled the world leading and serving fellow military officers in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been involved in missions such as Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn and Enduring Freedom. He completed his last mission in May 2017.
Awards he has received in his career include the Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters), Army Commendation Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster), Army Achievement Medal (with Oak Leaf Cluster), NATO Medal (ISAF Clasp) and Order of Saint Michael of the Army Aviation Association of America (Bronze).
On April 17, 2015, Gist assumed the position he now holds and he has played an important role in developing the cadets he worked with into the soldiers and leaders our country needs. West Point's overall goal is to educate its students through the three pillars - academic, military and physical. The fact that he's become a reason why people walking the halls of West Point feel the way he did when he was a student hasn't escaped his notice.
“It is an enormous privilege to serve here. We have a tremendously important mission and its importance can never be overstated.”
Gist described West Point's physical education department as a diverse and effective combination of military experience and civilian disciplinary expertise. The team consists of military personnel, non-military faculty and auxiliaries. As with any sports team or large corporation, all components must complement each other and work together to achieve the goal.
"All of these people have different backgrounds in terms of education, kinesiology and of course their military experience," he shared. "We are committed to the mission and ultimately have been very successful in developing leaders with character."
As with other United States Military Academy institutions, if you're going to succeed at a place like West Point, you have to be comfortable when you're uncomfortable. Gist shared that they purposely push her out of her comfort zone early and often, but Gist explains that achieving greatness is necessary, whether it's in the military or with fitness.
“There is adaptation. Just like when you look at skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscle adapts when we apply progressive overload," he explained. "When we are willing to challenge ourselves and others, adaptation occurs and people grow."
Gist has not only experienced this process in his 29-year career. He witnessed it as a parent. His daughter Maddie is about to graduate from flight school as an Apache pilot at West Point. His son Graham is also a junior at West Point. He suggested that many other young people would make the choice to join the military and achieve a high level of success for their country and themselves.
Gist said, "I would stand up for it, as I have with my own children, to serve because I think it's important to the current and future state of our nation. It's really about citizenship.” He also hopes that people who remain civilians can find ways to support those who wear the uniform.
"Whether someone serves or not, the support of our soldiers is incredibly important."
For more information about West Point, see westpoint.edu. Follow the United States Military Academy on Instagram @westpoint_usma and the USMA Department of Physical Education @westpoint_dpe.