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Jordan Babwah, Fitness Director

Jordan Babwah knew he wanted to be a physical therapist since sixth grade. He even charted an 11-year plan for his path to physical therapy school. But that all changed two weeks into his job supervising the Durham Academy’s new Upper School weight room.

“I started working here and I was like, I love this more than anything that I’ve ever done dealing with physical therapy. I really need to kind of change gears and figure out what I want to do. I’ve found a home here, I guess.”

The key was the kids, the Upper School students he worked with day after day in the weight room and the difference he was making in their lives, both in and out of the gym.

Babwah came to DA in January 2013 fresh out of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he majored in exercise and sport science and minored in Spanish for medical professionals. He had his undergraduate degree, had taken all the prerequisites for graduate school in physical therapy, and had logged all the volunteer hours he needed for the program.

“I thought I’d work a year or two, save up some money and go to graduate school. Those thoughts got washed away pretty fast. I had formed some pretty powerful relationships doing physical therapy with people. You really feel like you change people’s lives, but they come and go so quickly. What you do with someone in eight to 12 sessions is nothing like seeing the same kids every single day. Those [physical therapy] relationships you form are really, really special, but I think the feeling that I got was just magnified 10 times over with the work that I do with kids here. I like working with people, I like connecting with people, I like helping people and what better place to do that than at a school where kids want those things.

“At a school, I think the ability to make an impact is so much greater. If they stay — and most kids do — from freshman year to senior year, that can be four years that you are working with someone. I still have contact with kids I meet the first six months I worked here. One of them just texted me to tell me he got engaged.”

Babwah’s role with the Kirby Gym weight room began even before the new gym opened its doors in February 2013. The weight room equipment had already been ordered when he arrived at DA, but it was Babwah’s job to set up the equipment in the weight room and to get it up and running.

He wore a hard hat during his first weeks on the job and remembers working into the wee hours the night before the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new gym. Some of the new equipment had arrived late and the workmen were having a difficult time assembling the racks for free weights. “They finally got it done at 4 a.m., and then I was here the next morning being the face of the gym.”

While Babwah’s role began in the DA gym, it quickly evolved to encompass several areas of Upper School life. He initially worked with students on how to use the weight room and taught physical education classes, and now he also leads an Upper School advisory and is co-lead advisor for the Class of 2018. Babwah is also a member of the ASSIST team and has worked with the He for She Club. 

Babwah’s role at DA has also taken him overseas. He accompanied DA’s Nicaragua Club on a spring break trip and this past summer he and Upper School librarian Shannon Harris led a group of rising juniors and seniors on a 23-day service and backpacking trip to Ecuador. Babwah and Harris worked and trained with students for 18 months to prepare for the trip. His first international trip came in summer 2015, when Babwah and his wife, Hunter, who is a pediatric trauma nurse at UNC, went on a Hike for Humanity medical service trip to Panama.

Babwah grew up in Apex, but “my mom is from Jamaica, my dad is from St. Thomas, my dad’s father is from Trinidad, my dad’s father’s father is from India. There’s a lot of movement there, lot of diversity there. … I identify as Afro-Caribbean. I feel like the Caribbean culture, Jamaica and St. Thomas come into my household.”

Apex High School marked Babwah’s first foray into athletics and fitness. His older sister suggested he try out for the wrestling team. He wrestled all four years of high school, serving as team captain his junior and senior year.

“I think as a freshman I was 120 pounds, basically, and 6 feet tall. I haven’t really grown since then and I’ve gained about 100 pounds — muscle hopefully. As I tracked through high school, I was 125 my freshman year, 135 my sophomore year, 145 my junior year and senior year I stopped at 152, that was my weight class. I took a lot of weight training classes in high school. It was a matter of me trying to be as strong as possible, but also as light as possible. That strength to weight ratio was really important for my performance in the sport. 

“I talk about wrestling with my kids a lot. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I feel like it developed a lot of character. … The team dynamic in wrestling, you’re just so close with those guys. In practice, you’re basically fighting each other for a couple of hours and then at the end of the day you have to go to the locker room and put your clothes on and you’re best friends again.

“We actually had a blind wrestler on the team and that’s when I realized that it was really, really cool to see this sport where so many different people can participate. There were no handicaps for him. The only rule for blind wrestlers is you have to maintain contact with your opponent at all times. Other than that, it’s the same sport. We wrestled a kid from Riverside who didn’t have a leg. The rules were the exact same for him as for everybody else. I really like the egalitarian approach to wrestling and the opportunity it gave kids to compete no matter whatever their so-called limitations were.”

Babwah didn’t wrestle but played rugby for two years at UNC until an ankle injury landed him on crutches and unable to practice. That’s when he remembered a girl in his anthropology class who had encouraged him to join the UNC cheerleading squad.

“I think she saw me as a bigger guy and said you should come out for our team. We had become friends but I was like I’ll pass, I’m doing these other things. When my ankle was messed up, I was in this brace, I had crutches and said yeah, I’ll come out to a practice. … I figured I’d go see what this was all about. I stepped on the mat, the coach shook my hand and he put a girl in front of me. A flier is what they call them, the girls that get tossed in the air. He was like ‘all right, you’re going to toss her,’ and I did. I caught her right at my shoulders and it was a little unstable. It was really exhilarating to do that, my heart was racing.”

He went to cheerleader training camp the summer after his sophomore year. “I enjoyed the intense nature of it, being together with all these people, learning things. I’ve found with physical activity, the harder I work the better I feel. This was the right kind of environment for me.”

And work hard, he did … so hard that Babwah inadvertently gained fame for his astonishing performance on the sidelines when the UNC football team scored 60 points against Elon. The male senior cheerleaders perform push-ups — while balancing on a wooden board hoisted in the air and held by six teammates — for each point the team scores, and Babwah was the only senior on the squad. He did seven push-ups after the first touchdown, 14 push-ups after the second touchdown, 21 push-ups after the third touchdown … “I think I ended up doing 321 push-ups.”

A dynamic formed between Babwah and the crowd at Kenan Stadium, where they were watching and wondering if he was going to be able to keep going.

“At the time, I would do 100 push-ups before I went to bed every night. I think I got up to being able to do 93 in a row. I thought, as long as we are under this, I’m okay. We only got up to 60 points so I was totally fine. At one point, we scored and got an interception and scored again within two minutes.”

After the game, when Babwah was walking to his car, “people were honking at me and yelling ‘push-up guy, push-up guy.’ It was my little 15 seconds of fame. It’s a funny thing to be known for.”

Babwah is probably best known at DA for providing those same strong shoulders for students to lean on.

“When I first started here, I’d be working at my desk and a kid would be working out. Then they would go over there and sit on the floor next to my desk and engage with me, talk to me about their classes, what their work-out felt like for them, different events in their life, things they are stressed about or whatever. They would sit on the floor and talk to me.

“I noticed more and more kids started doing that and I thought I could probably get a few chairs. After a work-out, before a work-out, during lunch, those chairs, combined with this desk, are places to study — I quiz them on Spanish vocabulary because they know I speak Spanish — to help them, to talk through a speech or a paper. Randomly we get a lot of academic stuff done in here, we talk philosophy and debate. Discussion happens in those chairs.

“It’s kind of a mystery to me, but it’s really kind of a cool dynamic of the room to have kids come in during their lunch time and share their lives with me a little bit or talk to each other. It’s a really open space.”