David Nguyen pumped his legs up and down on a stationary bike outside of UW-Madison's Natatorium, keeping up both a steady cadence and banter with the other students in the triathlon training class.
The 23-year-old said he feels lucky to be taking the class. The course is slated to be eliminated after this spring.
"It seems like there are other classes that could be cut before this one," Nguyen said.
"Yeah, like calculus," joked another student.
That exchange illustrates the university's dilemma. Faced with historic budget cuts, officials say they decided to cut 29 physical education classes viewed as non-essential, including triathlon training, in order to preserve core classes needed for graduation. Others on the chopping block are mainly 1-credit elective classes, including fencing, windsurfing, fly fishing, badminton, ice skating, tennis and bowling.
But students who take the popular triathlon class, which perpetually has a first-day waiting list of 30 students or more, say the class may not be required to graduate, but can be life-changing, nonetheless.
Difficult cuts to make
Because of losses in state funding, the kinesiology department, where the programs are housed, needed to cut about 10 percent of its budget, said Dorothy Farrar-Edwards, kinesiology chairwoman.
The state cut $250 million from UW System campuses over the two years. Then, last fall, the university system learned it would need to cut another $46 million to fill a budget hole.
UW-Madison provost Paul DeLuca said each school and college in the university is administering cuts differently. He didn't have any examples of other university departments eliminating a swath of classes in the same way as kinesiology. He said the message across campus is to protect the "core mission" of educating students.
Farrar-Edwards said her department "tried to make sure we maintained courses that students needed to complete a degree. We wanted to make sure we had enough space to take more majors. We were turning students away."
She said part of the justification for eliminating the courses is that the university's Division of Recreational Sports offers many similar programs, albeit not for credit. Students pay for Rec Sports through mandatory student fees, called segregated fees. At one time the university required students to take physical education classes but it no longer does, she said.
The department sent out layoff notices to 12 part-time instructors who teach the gym classes.
Seeking ways to keep class running
Triathlon instructor Tim Gattenby, who also teaches adaptive fitness and personal training, is now exploring options to keep the class alive, including private fundraising or offering it as a fee-based class.
"The triathlon class is a little different in that there's such a great bonding experience between so many of those students," he said. "Either through the pain and suffering I put them through, or the way I teach the class."
Students meet three times a week at 7:45 a.m. for a grueling workout and training advice from Gattenby. The course culminates in an Olympic-distance triathlon that Gattenby runs specifically for the class.
Gattenby has been teaching the class every spring for about 20 years. It quickly became so popular that students took it year after year.
Eventually, Gattenby had to cap the number of times students could take it, but he helped create the university's triathlon club so that students could have a mechanism to train together.
Students say the class is more than just a sweat-fest three times a week — that it creates lasting friendships and prepares them for a lifetime of healthy habits.
Kayla Moses, 25, said she was very self-conscious and insecure at the beginning of the class when she took it in spring 2011.
But she said she gained confidence in herself as the course went on and is now a teaching assistant for the class. She said she was so saddened by the class' impending elimination that she decided to write a testimonial about her experience.
"Not only do we leave the class sweaty, but we leave with new friendships, self-confidence, and insight about ourselves," she wrote.