Most Americans who pay attention to the United States Armed Forces has heard of West Point. The four-year educational institution was founded in 1802 and is where many future members of the Armed Forces go to begin their journeys in service. West Point’s mission is “to educate, train, 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 prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the nation as an officer in the U. S. Army.”
One of the people that plays an important role in that mission is Dr. Col. Nicholas Gist, who works as the Head of the Physical Education Department at West Point. One title he holds with honor is “Master of the Sword.” He may not have predicted what he was going to be doing in the future when he was growing up in Alpine, CA, but he does credit how he was raised as a big reason why he is where he is today.
“I think a lot of the journey I’ve been on, if not all of it, was a product of how I grew up,” Gist said. “From my earliest memories, my parents were always people that enjoyed being outdoors.”
His father was a farrier, and he 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 came from a farming family as well. Combine those two backgrounds, and you have a child that was accustomed to being outside early and often.
“I grew up playing outside and I mean that in the greatest sense of ‘go outside, explore your environment, play games, throw rocks, sword fight with sticks, and that definitely involved into playing sports.’”
Gist played baseball, soccer, and got into amateur wrestling as his sports of choice. Those would become the primary focus of his childhood. His younger brother, Eric, grew up the same way. He credited coaches such as Bruce Wiseman were the fathers of other kids on his teams, and he considered them extended family.
“In the Army, we call them our tribes. Those were our tribes.”
Fast forward to high school graduation and Gist found himself at West Point as a cadet himself. As soon as he stepped foot on campus, he could tell that more would be expected of him, but he felt confident that he could live up to the lofty standards.
“West Point had very high expectations in terms of developing leaders of character,” he explained. He also saw that becoming that leader was as much a physical requirement as it is a mental one.
“You realize very early on the importance of being physically fit, the physicality of the profession you’re in as a future soldier.”
One look at Gist’s accomplishments in the Army, and you can tell he developed into such a leader. After graduating in 1994, he traveled the world to lead and serve among fellow members of the military in Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was involved with missions such as Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn, and Enduring Freedom. He completed his most recent mission in May 2017.
Among the honors he received in his career are 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 the Army Aviation Association of America Order of Saint Michael (Bronze).
On April 17, 2015, Gist assumed the position he holds now, and he’s played an important role in developing the cadets he worked with into the soldiers and leaders that our country needs. West Point’s overall goal is to educate their students through the three pillars – Academic, Military, and Physical. The fact that he has become a reason why the people that walk the halls of West Point feel the way that he did when he was a student isn’t lost on him.
“It’s a tremendous privilege to serve here. We have a tremendously important mission, and its importance can’t ever be overstated.”
Gist described the Department of Physical Education at West Point as a diverse and effective combination of military experience and civilian disciplinary expertise. The team is made up of military members, non-military faculty, and support staff. As with any sports team or major business, all the components must complement each other and work together to complete the objective.
“All of these people come from a variety of backgrounds of education, kinesiology, and of course their military experience,” he shared. “We’re committed to the mission, and ultimately, we’re very successful in developing leaders of character.”
As is the case with other United States Military Academy institutions, you have to be comfortable getting uncomfortable if you’re going to succeed at a place like West Point. Gist shared that they very intentionally take them outside their comfort zone early and often, but Gist explains that it is necessary to achieve greatness, whether it’s in the military or with fitness.
“That’s where adaptation occurs. Just like if were to look at skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscle adapts when we apply progressive overload,” he explained. “If we’re willing to challenge ourselves and others, adaptation occurs, and people grow.”
Gist hasn’t just seen this process play out in his 29-year career. He witnessed it as a parent. His daughter, Maddie, is about to complete flight school as an Apache pilot at West Point. His son, Graham, is a junior at West Point as well. He suggested that many other young people will make the choice to join the military and achieve high levels of success for their country and themselves.
Gist said, “I would advocate as I have with my own kids to serve because I think it’s important to the current and future state of our nation. It really is about citizenship.” He also hopes that people who remain civilians can find ways to support those that do wear the uniform.
“Whether anyone serves or not, support to our servicemen and women is incredibly important.”
For more information about West Point, go to westpoint.edu. You can follow the United States Military Academy on Instagram @westpoint_usma and the USMA Department of Physical Education @westpoint_dpe.