When Kam Matthews found out the NCAA ended the spring athletic season because of the coronavirus, she couldn’t believe that playing competitively was really over. This was her last of four years on the Hillsdale College women’s tennis team, and one that was off to a dominant start that earned her the G‑MAC Player of the Week award in February.
Once the shock wore off, Matthews started a fitness account on Instagram @kammathews_ that has helped cure her transition away from sports and into the socially distanced reality of this new normal.
“Given all I have learned about fitness and training over my years as a college athlete and as an exercise science major, I hope I can use my love for fitness to help others with their own,” she said in her March 16 post. “Transitioning out of college sports wasn’t something I was quite ready for, but I am so excited to jump into a new adventure.”
Since then, her adventure has created a sense of community and brought many the chance to keep up with their fitness in quarantine. She has posted videos demonstrating at-home workouts just about every day and has been featured on Kappa Kappa Gamma’s Instagram Live.
“Working out is something that makes me happy,” Matthews said. “I wanted to share that joy with other people and give them the tools they need to find joy even in these hard times we are facing.”
Before spring break, the Chargers were riding a wave of dominant matches in February and gearing up for the start of conference play at the end of the March. They travelled to Florida for a pair of matches against some of the top competition in NCAA Division II tennis for spring break.
After the tournament ended in Florida, the Chargers could sense that the season wouldn’t go according to plan. But all at once the team found out for sure the season was cancelled.
“We had kinda heard we weren’t going to be starting back for a while and then I got an email from coach saying it was done,” Matthews said.
Head coach Nikki Walbright had the difficult task of passing on the message virtually, after the team began to go their separate ways toward the end of spring break. Passing it on through Matthews, co-captain with senior Katie Bell, made the news that much more difficult.
“Honestly there is no other way to describe it other than devastating,” Walbright said. “We both realized that her last match had just been played and she was crushed. It was a stressful week and suddenly it was just over.”
That second Florida match against No. 5 Nova Southeastern ended in a loss, and maybe the hardest part of the season being cancelled for the Chargers was knowing this would be their last. There was so much left to play for.
“We’re a super young team and we had a lot of really young talent and won conference two years in a row,” Matthews said. “It was definitely really hard for me stepping away from it. Especially with that February season we were all on a high.”
The Chargers were not just disappointed that another strong start to the season wouldn’t see its conclusion. There was a lot they wanted to prove.
“Our team as a whole had so much left to accomplish this year,” Walbright said. “We were on track to defend our two GMAC titles and wanted to prove our new team could continue what we have built over the last few years.”
This cancellation was an especially big misfortune to Matthews and Walbright, the pair that worked closely together for four years to much success. Matthews holds the team record for most career wins and highest winning percentage and was in Walbright’s eyes “one of the most dependable players” on the team.
Matthews’ 30 – 40 minute workouts strengthen the whole body without any equipment, making them tailored to the restrictions of quarantine. In each post, she walks through how to do each exercise before setting the viewer off to get a sweat in, as she likes to say.
“The number one thing I look for in a workout is what gets my heart pumping and gets me sweating,” she said.
The exercises she chooses are variations on burpees, push-ups, planks, and many other common movements. She says the variety helps her to stay focused and engaged.
“We’re all already bored at home and the last thing we need is to be bored doing our workouts,” she said.
So far, the formula has worked. Each post gets praises from friends and followers who have enjoyed the opportunity to be active at home. One friend, Marie Theisen’s, comment on one post encapsulates this feeling: “Seriously thank you for doing these! It’s hard to go outside in a city and this has kept me sane 😅.”
Though the account is new, Matthews’ experience leading her friends through workouts is not. She had been leading spin classes at Hillsdale after getting a spin instruction certification in 2018. This spring, she began leading workouts of a different sort to a small class that she describes as “more of a group fitness boot camp-type class.”
Her classes were very popular, frequented by athletes, friends, other students, faculty, and even members of the community. The spin classes were even so popular that people had to show up a half hour early to get a bike, she said.
Matthews is used to motivating others to reach their fitness goals. All along, she has been careful to lead her classes by doing them along with her class.
“I want them to feel like we’re all doing it together,” she said. “Even when I was teaching spin I’d do the entire workout with my class.”
Though the quarantine has separated her from her classes, the posts, and more recently Instagram Live workouts, have helped bridge that distance.
“Doing Instagram Live allowed me to get back to that and I think that’s something that’s super important and something I wanted to do when I started. It may hurt and it may burn but I’m right there with them.”
Her lead-by-example approach, so distinctive of her workouts, was formed on the tennis courts. That attitude, Walbright said, was apparent at the beginning of Matthews’ career.
“One thing became clear early on, she had a natural ability to lead,” Walbright said. “I remember as a Sophomore she was eager to take on more responsibility and wanted to contribute as much as possible.”
Her contributions would become the foundation for her leadership, with service always at the center. She was the type to be in the middle of the circle leading team warmups and organizing team activities, Walbright said. The team is a major source that helped her learn these qualities, especially given the unique way college tennis teams compete.
“Learning how to lead people while working with them as an equal, tennis really allowed me to apply that,” she said, reflecting. “In a sport like tennis it can get individualized so quickly. You may get a personal win but that’s a win for the team.”
Even in the middle of a workout, Matthews has that ability to stand out as a leader. Former teammate Madeline Bissett ‘19, asked in one post, “How do you look like that holding a sideplank?”
She didn’t offer any clues in the comments, so I had to ask.
“I just have fun with it,” she revealed. “I think the biggest thing is anyone can make anything look great as long as you’re having fun with it. Smiles are contagious.”
Matthews’ account has met a growing need in the lives of many stuck at home during the quarantine. People who may not have prioritized working out before now circle their neighborhood on walks or runs in evenings. All around, public parks seem to be more trafficked than ever. Everywhere, it seems, people are paying more attention to their health.
So it makes sense that Matthews’ fitness page has blown up during the crisis. In just over a month with the account, she has gained more than 575 followers, which she said is mind-blowing. Even more surprising to her is the broad reach her platform has gained.
“So many people have sent me dm’s saying thanks so much for the workouts,” she said. “I never expected that. It has been so cool to see that I’m able to help people I don’t even know.”
While at first Matthews had to cope with missing out on pursuing many milestones that seemed like the culmination of a successful career like the 100th win, a third conference title, and one final run at the NCAA tournament, her reaction showed what’s really important to her.
“I know this all weighed heavily on Kam but I am proud of her for keeping her head up,” Walbright said. “She kept supporting her team and jumped straight into a new venture that directly helps the community around her.”
With the promise of what could have been now lost, Matthews shows by example how to put personal setbacks aside and help those around her reach their potential.
But then, her four years as a Charger showed that all along.