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September 13, 2012 09:50 PM

The Biking Nun

Watertown, SD

Police officers put in long hours and the job can be physically taxing. That's why the Watertown police department included a fitness room in its new building.

And while the idea of getting officers to be physically fit is conventional, the person in charge of this fitness program isn't.

She's nearly impossible to miss, wearing coolots and a habit under her helmet, Sister Janice Iverson leaves the Mother of God Monastery just South of Watertown on her bike, coasting down the big hill at about 30 miles an hour. 

"I try to burn a thousand calories per day.  That's at least five times a week.  Sunday I'll just go out and ride my bike 20 miles," Sister Janice Iverson said.

The police chief in Watertown heard about Sister Janice's healthy habits and says she had one of those "ah-ha" moments of divine inspiration. 

"So we're very, very familiar with some of the talents that rest hidden on the hill so to speak.  So I knew she had an extensive background in sports; that she had a couple of masters degrees that she had coached basketball; that she had done a lot of things,"  Watertown Police Chief Joanne Vitek said.

So the chief asked the 71-year-old nun to head up the police department's wellness program and whip the officers into shape. 

Angela: She's not your typical wellness coach.
Vitek: I don't think so. She looks a little funny. I say that tongue-and-cheek. I kid her a lot about things like rulers and things like that.

But Sister Janice knows people are a little taken aback by her athletic prowess. 

"The P.T. said you're a rare bird and I said what do you mean by that and he said I don't know anybody that is a nun and does what you do,” Sister Janice said.

Sister Janice says in the Catholic schools she grew up in and worked in, the nuns did everything, including athletics.  And as the youngest of ten, with a whole bunch of older brothers, she developed her sports skills early on. 

"My brother taught me all the finer points and we'd play games in the neighborhood and he'd always chose me second because he didn't want to be accused of choosing his sister who was better than the other boys," Sister Janice said.

She even coached softball for South Dakota State University in the 1980's.  But her latest gig at the police department is strictly volunteer work, even though she's here every day from 9 to 5, with just a break for Midday mass. 

"I tell her she took a vow of poverty and she's helping us out. She's doing a real good thing for the community because she helps us stay fit," Vitek said.

"Nuns don't really retire but does anybody doing good ever retire?" Sister Janice said.

And the police officers are eating healthier and exercising more.  Several officers have lost weight and 911 dispatcher Kathy Feltch dropped 18 pounds after meeting Sister Janice. 

"She kind of keeps me motivated now because she's still doing it. Maybe by the time I'm 70 I can at least be close to what she's doing," Fletch said.

And while Sister Janice doesn't boast about her own physical skills, she will tell you she can still keep up with the boys; just like when she was young.

"My exercise mode is in the trained area. Just for fun I asked a guy what he was doing and he was doing 11 point something.  I thought, hmm, I'm doing more than he is," Sister Janice said.

But ask her about the difference she's made at the police department, you really won't get a straight answer.

"Basically I'm a shy, reserved parson, Sister Janice said.

But once she's on her bike this shy reserved parson in transformed into a pedaling machine. 

Angela: How long are you going to keep biking?
Sister Janice: Until I can't walk.

And by the grace of God, that will be a very long time.

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