This is definitely not your mother’s PE class. Students at Cartoogechaye Elementary School in rural Macon County aren’t limited to the typical physical education fare of dodge ball and jumping jacks. On any particular day, they might find themselves taking part in activities such as fishing, cycling, hiking, juggling, rock climbing, gymnastics, dance and yoga. Sarah Lowell ’84 MAEd ’89, the force behind Cartoogechaye Elementary’s nationally recognized PE curriculum, calls them “lifetime activities.” “We geared the program toward helping students find something they enjoy, in the hope that they will be active their whole lives,” Lowell said.
It would be hard to find anyone as active as Lowell, who, in addition to receiving national acclaim as a physical education teacher, has garnered something close to legendary status as an ultra runner. The Florida native started running her junior year of high school, and four months later she finished a marathon. Now, she runs races longer than four marathons combined to inspire her students and raise money for organizations such as Special Olympics. She holds the women’s world record for an arctic 100-mile race, and she also has battled the 120-degree temperatures of the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in California.
Visiting WCU in the fall to accept the Alumni Association’s Professional Achievement Award, Lowell said she considers her first years in Cullowhee her “wonder years” because her mindset then was, “I wonder what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.” After getting her undergraduate education degree, Lowell got the job at Cartoogechaye. “Now that I know what I know, teaching physical education was certainly what I was meant to do,” she said.
When she arrived at the school, Lowell learned she was leading a program with no equipment or funding, so she recruited the janitors to make hula hoops out of PVC pipe, and jump ropes were just rope from a local hardware store. “It was truly teamwork to get the program started,” she said. Lowell has taught for 26 years at Cartoogechaye, which is listed by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction as a physical education “demonstration school” in recognition of its outstanding program, and she hosts hundreds of visiting education students and teachers each year. Lowell has twice been named Macon County Teacher of the Year and North Carolina Physical Education Teacher of the Year, and she was a top five finalist for National Physical Education Teacher of the Year in 2007. Also, the Cartoogechaye program has been named a STARS School of Excellence by the National Association for Sports and Physical Education three years in a row.
“Sarah Lowell’s accomplishments in the field of physical education are phenomenal,” said Alumni Association President Betty Allen ’68 as she presented the award. “The impact of her work has not only helped the children of the school where she teaches, but also our Western Carolina physical education students, as well as physical education programs throughout the state. She shows us what great things can be accomplished by one person who has the willingness to work hard and the desire to make a difference.”