It’s easy to picture Angela Sweeney starring in one of those Hollywood action movies about a mild-mannered suburban mom who works as an executive assistant by day but turns into a fast-kicking, hard-punching ninja warrior at night. Because that is, essentially, her real life.
From nine to five, Sweeney works in College Hall as executive assistant to Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, making sure he’s on time, on task and on to the next thing when he’s supposed to be. At the office she is all business, dressed in smartly tailored suits with her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun.
But when the clock strikes five, the suit comes off, the hair comes down and Sweeney dons a pair of black shorts, boxing hand wraps and a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of a skull-and-crossbones. It’s time for either BodyPump or BodyCombat, the killer exercise classes she leads at the Pottruck Center.
In BodyCombat, Sweeney pushes her students through escalating levels of karate kicks, prize-fighter punches, squats, lunges, crunches, push-ups and, finally, a cool-down. The BodyPump class finds Sweeney teaching strength training through a combination of weight lifting and choreography. She also leads group circuit training classes at the new Fox Fitness Center at the Weiss Pavilion.
The Current recently attempted to keep pace with Sweeney, catching her between the office and the gym to ask about her 20-year career as a professional executive assistant, how she used to spend her lunch hours lunge-walking across the Ben Franklin Bridge and her unquenchable thirst for ever-more challenging exercise.
Q. I understand you’ve been an executive assistant for most of your professional career?
A. For about 20 years now. I consider myself a professional assistant. I’ve worked for very high-level CEOs all over the City of Philadelphia. I was [the late President of Drexel University Constantine] Papadakis’ assistant for three years before coming here. I consider my job to make my boss shine, taking care of his schedule and his travel and other things to assist him.
Q. What attracted you to Penn?
A. I used to walk through Penn’s campus on my lunch hour and I’d think it’s so beautiful I would love to work here.
Q. Can you talk about the range of responsibility you have as an executive assistant?
A. I take care of all of the dean’s scheduling, and it can be very complex. It requires a lot of time and attention to detail. I also work closely with other departments at the University: the President’s Office, the Secretary’s Office, the Development Office. I feel like I am a representative of him and of Penn.
Q. What do you love about this type of work?
A. I just think I’m good in a supportive role. I’m good at anticipating needs. I’m pretty organized and I’m good at organizing other people. That’s just the type of person I am. I triple-check things. I think a lot of people think, ‘Oh, you are just an assistant,’ but I think a lot of executives would tell you how much they depend on their assistants.
Q. After work, a big part of your life is teaching exercise classes at Pottruck. Can you talk about that?
A. Now we’re getting to my passion. I’ve always done some form of nutrition and exercise my whole life. But I got more into the exercise aspect of it in the late 1990s when I worked for a company that had a small gym. One of my co-workers and I would use the gym at lunchtime. Then we branched out and would go over the Ben Franklin Bridge doing walking lunges.
Q. Across the Ben Franklin Bridge?
A. Yes. I still think of that every time I go over the bridge. Then, when I came to Penn I started using the Pottruck Center and one day the director of group exercise approached me and said, ‘When are you going to get certified to teach?’ And that’s all it took, because I was actually dying to teach but I wasn’t sure how to get started. So, I got my certification from the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.
Q. And then you started teaching at the Pottruck Center?
A. Yes, I taught mostly the lunch crowd. Then the gym got the Les Mills program called BodyPump. The gym has to be licensed for Les Mills programs, and the training to teach these programs is very intense... your technique has to be right, your form has to be right, your cues have to be right or you won’t pass. They are very critical. I’m proud that I got the very rare outcome of ‘distinction.’ I am really proud of that because I worked really hard for it. I have a full-time job. I have an hour commute and I have a 13-year-old daughter and all of her activities.
Q. You also teach something called BodyCombat, right?
A. It was around 2007 when I did the BodyPump training and then about a year later I did the BodyCombat training. And Combat is definitely my No. 1 love out of everything I do. My classes start at 5:15 p.m. so I’ll run out of here and get set up, I’ll teach my class and then I’ll catch the train home and run to my daughter’s game or event. We usually don’t get home until about 10:30 at night, especially when she has swim practice.
Q. You clearly love this. What does it do for you?
A. Well, I believe you only have one body and your body is a precious gift. I’ll stand at the convenience store and look at the sugary icing-filled doughnuts that people will take and eat for breakfast. Your body needs nutrition and fuel and energy, and it amazes me that people will eat that for breakfast and drink a sugary soda when the body wants water. I want to look and feel my best and preserve my body as long as I can. I want to share that passion and help other people do that as well.
Q. Can you describe your teaching philosophy?
A. I try to let my nature show through, which is nurturing, while still making sure people get a good workout. If you really want to see results you are going to have to push yourself a little. It’s one of those things that you might hate while you’re doing it, but when you see the results you usually get hooked.
Originally published on October 14, 2010