Walking Tall

Anne Foerster: Water instructor at Northeast YMCA finds her niche

By Carol Radin

I wanna see whitecaps!” Whitecaps in a blue-tiled, indoor chlorine-filled pool? Why not? Fifteen people in the pool stir and bubble the water as hard as they can, as the diminutive curly-haired woman on the deck yells genial orders over the din of the busy swimming pool complex.

That woman is Anne Foerster, their water instructor. As she does jumping jacks, deep knee lifts, and kicks in place, the men and women in the water imitate all of it, spurred on by Foerster’s exclamations: “You guys are working hard today! You’re doing great!”

This is Aqua Blast, one of 15 water exercise classes Foerster teaches per week at the Northeast YMCA, classes that vary by ability level and wellness needs.

On her busiest day, she teaches five classes, starting as early as 8:30 a.m. and ending as late as 6 p.m. In a day, she can switch gears from Aqua Blast to Deep Water to Golden Fit to the warm-water arthritis class, covering a spectrum of physical needs. They range from adults who want to maintain and enhance conditioning to those who want to overcome physical limitations and improve flexibility for their muscles and joints.

Though the number of participants can fluctuate from week to week, many people return to take the class that fits their skill level. “She makes it so much fun,” one of the regulars comments.

All are familiar with Foerster’s firmly planted knees-apart stance and the twinkle in her eye, the rousing “hellos,” and the rallying cries such as “How you all doin’?” “OK, start walking! Do wooden soldiers!  Straight arms, straight legs!”

Then more directions, polite but firm: “You may stop. Now, roll your shoulders.”

Everyone goes quiet, almost meditative, as Foerster rotates her shoulders along with them.

How Foerster manages her instruction for a range of abilities each day and what makes her sensitive to not only the needs of a particular class but the needs of each individual in a given class comes partially from her training, but mostly from who she is.

“I have a knack,” she says. “I’m always concerned about the ability. If one person can’t do something, I won’t point people out. I just tweak it,” she said.

So if only one person in a class struggles with an exercise, particularly in her Golden Fit and arthritis classes, Foerster will simply modify the motion in a way that everyone can still benefit while the individual she’s concerned about will not feel limited in comparison to others.

This is key for Foerster. While improving physical wellbeing, strength and mobility for everyone is the concrete goal, her ultimate aim is to build each individual’s self-esteem.

Indeed, Foerster’s own lifelong struggles with self-esteem most likely shaped her sensitivity to people who need to balance their physical well-being with their sense of who they are.

Foerster knows she is classified as a “dwarf”, technically a physical condition where short stature and disproportionate limbs are characteristic. Foerster is 4 feet 3 inches tall.

Ask her how she self-identifies outside that medical classification, and she just shrugs and says, “I just think of myself as a person who is the same as everyone else and as different as everyone else.”

Challenging upbringing

Everyone else did not see her that way, though, as she was growing up and as she entered into adulthood and the professional world. The daughter of a military officer, Foerster moved with her family every two years. That meant that every two years, she would deal with a whole new set of classmates whose first impressions were not always kind or tolerant.

Yet, she realizes, “If we hadn’t moved every two years, I wouldn’t be as strong as I am.”

She credits the constant love and support of her parents and sister for getting her through the many changes of childhood and adolescence. She is especially close to her sister.

Foerster experienced more challenges after college. She attended Hanckock Air Base, extension of Columbia College in Missouri, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business management with a minor in accounting. In spite of possessing marketable skills, she had a difficult time getting a job and advancing within a job.

She was certain that employers’ assessments of her were related to her appearance rather than her abilities.

Yet she didn’t let this stop her. In one instance, when Foerster wanted to work in a hospital, she volunteered in their medical records department until a temporary position opened up and she got it.

When a full-time position opened up, though, and someone else got the job, she took the initiative to have a candid discussion with the human resources department about evaluating her solely on her qualifications and credentials. She eventually obtained a full-time position, but she wonders in retrospect if she would have gotten that position had it not been for her self-advocacy.

How did Foerster do a reset from accountant to water fitness instructor?

Especially when, as she says, “I wasn’t even thinking of being a water instructor!”

It actually started in the water, when she herself was a participant in one of the arthritis classes.

“An instructor teaching the class asked if I’d ever considered teaching a class,” she said.

Erin Coelho, the instructor, was also the Y’s wellness coordinator at the time.

Reflecting back on it, Foerster says, “She planted a seed and she let it grow. She saw a lot in me.”

With Erin’s encouragement and mentorship, Foerster undertook training to become a certified water instructor by engaging in program certification classes, CPR, First Aid, automated external defibrillators, as well as an extensive Arthritis Association program, which provides strict exercise guidelines and a knowledge base for working with people with arthritic conditions.

While the certification process qualified her professionally, Foerster also brought her own set of personal goals to her new position.

Just as the instructor who saw a lot in her endowed Foerster with confidence, she now seizes the opportunity to endow others with that confidence.

Thinking back on the rewarding aspects of her instruction, she recalls examples.

“I had a woman in a walker who said she needed it because her balance was poor. In the last two weeks, she hasn’t used the walker! And she said to me, ‘Not only do I feel stronger, but I have balance!’”

Foerster also senses that some people who come to class do not see many people all day. Some are in pain or recovering from surgery. Some are elderly. They may feel limited both physically and socially.

“Some people begin down in the dumps. They’re not feeling good. Not talking to people. You can see the difference after a while. They start smiling. They can do more of the movements. You can see they’re feeling better about themselves,” she said.

Foerster creates that atmosphere where people thrive.  She approaches her instruction as a physical and emotional process for her exercisers — and for herself, for she too thrives in her role.

“Life wasn’t easy,” she said while reflecting on her past. Yet she pressed on and never let herself get discouraged.

That spirit led her to the YMCA pool. Foerster has found a place for herself and for others to achieve wellness and self-esteem.

Oh! And to make those whitecaps!