Chris McWatters is a camp director at Camp Eagle outside of San Antonio Texas. This faith-based camp offers kids the opportunity to be involved in outdoor adventures and extreme sports. We caught up with Chris to learn a little more about his background and passion for helping kids. Chris was a collegiate athlete at Oklahoma State University and as you can see from the pictures, he’s an extreme-sports junky! OWG: I understand that you’ve been involved in sports for a long time. Tell us a little about your background.
Chris: I grew up loving all team sports. I was blessed to get to travel as a youth with indoor and outdoor soccer teams. When I got to Junior High, my P.E. teacher talked me into running in a track meet. I agreed to do a one-time race. I found out years later that the P.E. teacher had bet a rival P.E. teacher that he had a kid faster than any of his. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just knew that I would die on that black oval before I let someone beat me. Apparently, me and my indoor soccer shoes beat the recent National Champion that day. His trainers invited me to run with their club but I told them, “No thanks, I’m a soccer player.” A year later they called me to join a special team of 4 guys from all over Oklahoma. We trained together, played together, and became a family. Then we went to Baton Rouge, LA and broke the U.S. Record in our age group. I went on to run competitively from that day forward. It allowed me to travel all over the world and do things that my family could not have afforded. Long after that, I got into mountain biking, trail running, kayaking, climbing, backpacking, fast packing, mountaineering, caving, spelunking, long distance triathlons, adventure racing, and ultra distance racing. Now I race anything from 30-600 mile races that go from 1/2 day to 10 days non-stop. I still compete to win but now face more factors (like sleep deprivation, mountains, deserts, numb body parts, body parts failing, etc). I guess I like these endurance sports so much because there is no one else to blame if the race doesn’t go well – it’s just me, my will power and the elements. It’s a true test every time.
OWG: You now work at a summer camp for kids that gives them an opportunity to engage in adventure sports. What are some of the things you teach kids to do at the camp?
Chris: At Camp Eagle, campers get to try things they might never get to do otherwise. It’s such a unique environment to get placed into. Everything is guided by our 100 plus person summer staff and there’s a level appropriate and safe for every skill level in every sport. We have a couple of huge, beautiful limestone cliffs that campers can try to free climb, top rope climb and rappel. We also let them try out multiple wheeled sports. Mountain biking is huge here. With over 16 miles of single track trails, it can get pretty technical but we also have some great trails for beginners. They can also try mountain boards and mountain scooters. We’re currently improving our Northshore-style course (wooden ladders, bridges, and ramps attached to trees and boulders in the woods) as well as our Super-D course. Then, our spring-fed river allows them to learn the basics of kayaking. A program called Eagle Quest allows kids to learn backpacking, orienteering, survival skills, backcountry cooking, caving, spelunking and other advanced outdoor skills.
OWG: We know that physical activity gives kids much more than just the exercise they need each day. As they accomplish things that seemed impossible they grow in confidence as well. How do you see this happen?
Chris: Oh my goodness! I love this part of my job! In conjunction with the previous question, the activites we do out here are definitely in the “adventure” category and promote physical well-being and exercise. However, the biggest thing students walk away with is an empowering feeling of accomplishment … doing something they didn’t think they could do. It doesn’t matter if the camper makes it to the top of the lip (limestone climbing wall), if they set a goal on the ground and do that, it’s a win. Team sports are tough – there’s a winner and a loser, but with individual sports and activities there’s always somewhere you’ve been and somewhere you’re going to get to.
It’s amazing to see the students entirely changed from the inside out after a week or two out here. Also, the things that happen inside the body when you “detox” through sweating, breathing fresh air, and laughing a lot is seeming endless. Directly due to that exertion, campers become more cheerful, less worried, more loving and energetic and better rested. I see them think more clearly, become better problem solvers and work better with others. They leave with a sense of accomplishment and self worth.
OWG: You seem to see sports as a positive metaphor for life? How do you pass this message on to the kids?
Chris: The main message I try to pass on to my campers is that we are able to do way more than we think we can. God’s blessed me with some talents and a bull-headed attitude. Because I’m willing to put my pride on the line and challenge myself, I’ve tried things that I would have never dreamed of years ago. As soon as I hear of another challenge that seems tough, I don’t think about it long. I quickly ask myself “Am I willing to do whatever it takes to pull this off?” If the answer is “Yes”, I adjust my training accordingly, formulate a plan for nutrition and diet, get people to support me and then hit it full-force. Once the challenge is underway, I don’t allow myself to consider quitting. The more you do something that seems impossible, the more you realize what you are capable of!
So for my campers, if I can get them to understand this, then they just might grasp the confidence in themselves that they’re missing. And with that, they might just grasp that they are truly capable of changing this world for the better. They can start allowing themselves to think bigger than the box they’ve been living in. They can start understanding that they have what it takes to make things that seem like dreams or crazy thoughts come to fruition. And then, just maybe the communities around them will be changed because of them walking up with fire under their feet, taking action instead of hitting the snooze button with no excitement in their eyes. I hope these are the things instilled in them to the very core after being at Camp Eagle for a few days.
OWG: So if you work out for fun, what’s your activity of choice?
Chris: Well that’s the great part of living at a camp. I usually have more than one goal at a time that I’m training for. Many times I have to follow a certain training routine but if I don’t feel like running, I’ll go on a bike ride or go paddling. On the other end, I’ll save certain things that I need to do for my job for days when I need a hard workout. Like one time, I had to move 12 fire bowls (60 pound awkwardly-shaped, rusted metal bowls on tripod legs) up this steep hill. One morning I was trying to convince myself to get a workout in when I remembered that I needed to move those bowls. That day I needed a workout that built climbing strength and endurance so I did 12 laps up and down the hardest part of the climb carrying those bowls. I ended up with scratches and bruises all over my body from lugging those rusty metal things up and down the rocks on that hill but I was stronger and tougher after that. I also have a 2-3 foot deep section of the river with a slick bottom that I’ll load up some weight in a backpack and run intervals in. It’s hilarious! I get a good workout while slipping and sliding everywhere. It improves my coordination and keeps me from taking myself too seriously.