‘There’s got to be joy’: Mother-daughter pair find strength in weightlifting, each other
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, you can find Maggie Cull pumping iron on a circuit in the South Yuba Club.
The 88-year-old retired nurse participates in F.I.T. Jam, a choreographed weight training class designed and taught by her daughter, Teresa Cull Lamat.
Cull started taking her daughter’s class in 2004 after moving to Nevada City full time, but a commitment to wellness has always strengthened the pair’s relationship.
Cull began her fitness journey when women were generally not welcome in athletics.
“When I was in high school in the ’40s, I just started jogging around the track when I was waiting for the instructors,” Cull said. “I got in trouble because girls were not allowed.”
Cull said she ran because she enjoyed it, but received criticism from her peers and authority figures.
“When I ran track in high school the guys actually seemed to like it, but I was called ’queer,’” Cull said,
The label was used derisively by her female classmates, Cull added.
Turns out, Cull ran fast. A faculty member put her in touch with Dean Cromwell, a track coach for the University of Southern California and later, the Olympics.
Cull competed with many people to participate in a relay against Olympic athletes at an international track meet at the USC Coliseum in 1950.
Thousands watched when her team took third in a race against the world record holders.
“Our team broke the American record,” Cull said.
By then, Cull was a student at University of California Los Angeles, driving in the passenger’s seat of her mom’s car to Elvin “Duckie” Drake’s track practice.
“They wanted me to throw a javelin, so the Helms Foundation gave me one,” Cull said. “My mom would drive me to practice in our ’41 Ford while I held the javelin out the window.”
Cull said her own mother gave her the support she needed to ignore naysayers of women’s athletics.
Cull said she faced consequences for disturbing people’s gender expectations even into her adult life.
“I got asked to leave the social club I was in because I embarrassed them by running,” Cull explained, “but that’s where I met Sterling, Teresa’s father.”
Sterling Pryer was in the United States Navy when he and Cull had their first child, now a popular fitness instructor at the South Yuba Club.
As Pryer studied and taught geology, Cull pivoted from being a fitness instructor at a Santa Monica gymnasium to being a nurse at UCLA. Teresa Cull Lamat grew up amid the growing body building scene in Santa Monica.
Lamat recalled her mother going to the gym on the weekend while she waited for the family’s clothes at the local laundromat. Lamat said Cull brought along her four children and combated odd looks for her weekly strength training.
Cull and Lamat’s muscles will not necessarily pop dress-shirt buttons, but are well-defined in similar black tank tops under the South Yuba Club’s fluorescent lights.
Pronounced biceps are a familiar sight to Lamat, whose childhood memories include lifting weights with her siblings and parents in their garage’s makeshift gym.
That garage was blocks away from Santa Monica’s “Muscle Beach,” a hub for body builders just gaining notoriety in the 1960s, Lamat said.
Lamat said growing up in a context that celebrated strength helped her develop not only appreciation for the relationship between soul and body, but provided a stable sense of community.
After studying at California State University of Northridge, Lamat moved away from the beach to the mountains of Mammoth.
There, Lamat started her own gym, designed fitness classes and explored the lower Eastern Sierra.
Lamat joined her father, who taught geology, physics, astronomy and earth sciences at Sierra College, in Nevada County in 1979. Cull followed her in 2004.
Lamat said a lifelong focus on wellness helped inspire the inclusive choreography she uses in her F.I.T. Jam class, which is attended by seniors, pregnant women and ultra-marathoners.
“I wanted an aerobic exercise that implemented more functional movement,” Lamat said. “I try to get every movement, angle and position that our daily lives call on.”
Lamat said she uses modifications in her aerobics course to ensure that participants exercise sustainably and prioritize form.
Lamat said she specifically focuses on dorsal flexion movement because of observable tensions in people’s gait as they age.
“When they start getting into their 40s, 50s and 60s, people lose their agility, their balance and sense of coordination,” Lamat said.
Besides designing the South Yuba Club from the ground up, Lamat co-owned the gym for a number of years.
Lamat once also taught all the strength training classes at Sierra College.
“I used to tell my college students, ’you have one body for life, you can’t go buy a new one,’” Lamat said.
Cull said a lifetime dedicated to fitness likely helped fortify her health when she was infected with COVID-19 in late November.
Cull said she takes the virus seriously, so when she started exhibiting real symptoms in early December — a heavy chest, loss of taste and smell — she was in disbelief.
So were her doctors. When Cull went to her cardiologist for a regular appointment, an EKG revealed clear lungs and healthy O2 sacs.
“Maybe you don’t have COVID,” Cull said the specialist posited. “Someone your age would experience more symptoms.”
Cull said she didn’t get tested until Dec. 18, more than a week after experiencing acute symptoms.
When the test came back positive, she received calls from the health department and her doctors, who expressed shock.
Cull said her daughter, and the South Yuba Club, have fortified other aspects of her health besides physical.
“There’s a collective energy that happens when you’re in there for your own fitness, focusing on yourself,” Cull said.
Cull said classmates might change over time, but fitness enthusiasts who show up can look to the person next to them for inspiration and camaraderie.
“People take care of each other,” Cull said.
Lamat said guiding her South Yuba Club class through the lactic acid burn has proven valuable and worthwhile.
“People that have said this class over the year has gotten them through divorces, the death of a child or addiction issues with their children,” Lamat said. “It’s real life, it goes beyond fitness.”
Cull said the pandemic only reinforces her holistic understand of the body as it relates to the soul.
“There’s got to be joy,” Cull said, “otherwise, it’s impossible.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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