Where They Are Now

From trucker to fitness guru

An All-Ivy athlete’s mission to help “the working sick.”

Siphiwe Baleka ’96

Siphiwe Baleka ’96

When swimmer Siphiwe Baleka ’96 became a trucker, he found out just how hard it is to stay fit when you’re sitting all day. Now he coaches truckers on getting healthy. View full image

When the Yale College Class of 1993 graduated, Tony Blake, a philosophy major and the first African American to win All-Ivy status in swimming, was not in the procession. The almost-Olympian—he’d missed qualifying by eight-tenths of a second—had decided to leave college. He spent years roaming the world; it was during a trip to South Africa that he acquired his new name, Siphiwe Baleka. In 2008, back at home, he became a long-haul trucker, and that job gave him a new mission: bringing good health to “America’s unhealthiest profession.” Baleka is the founder of Fitness Trucking and the health and fitness coach for drivers at Prime, a trucking company. He’s the author, with L. Jon Wertheim ’93, of the book 4-Minute Fit and has been featured in the Atlantic and Sports Illustrated.

Y: What drew you to 18-wheelers?

B: I came back from Africa in 2007, and by the next year I had no money, no place to live, and, because I had this missing 15-year period on my résumé, I didn’t see much chance for an opportunity in corporate America. A friend thought long-haul trucking would be a good fit, and I was soon living a good life on the road.

Y: Maybe too good a life?

B: Two months into my career, I’d gained 15 pounds, which was a ten percent increase in my body weight. I’d always been lean, and I didn’t like what I was seeing in the mirror.

Y: For an athlete, it must have been a shock.

B: I’d been a swimmer, starting as a kid growing up in a suburb of Chicago and spending every summer day in the pool at the local civic center. I thought the bathing suit—red with white stripes—that the lifeguards and swim team members wore were cool, so I went to practice. I hated cold water and I didn’t like getting up early in the morning, but I liked winning. By the time I was 12, I was the best swimmer in the region.

Y: But why Yale? In the ’90s, it was no longer a swimming powerhouse.

B: In fact, it was the worst team in the Ivy League, but Coach Frank Keefe had coached the US Olympic swim team and he had a reputation for getting underdogs ready. But I didn’t get into the major I wanted—ethics, politics, and economics—and I was bitter, wondering whether racism played a role. I chose philosophy almost as a default, but had my multimedia senior essay proposal rejected. Then I just missed qualifying for the Olympic team, and I was done. I did finish my degree in 1996, but I spent many years working on five continents to fight for justice and to be found worthy.

Y: And now the Atlantic has called you “the fitness guru of the trucking industry.”

B: Truckers as a group have the highest rate of obesity and the lowest life expectancy—it’s 10 to 15 years below that of the average US male. These are the working sick. But after a lot of experimenting with various exercise routines, I came up with a high-intensity workout that anyone could do on the road. And, like the title of my book says, 4-Minute Fit can be done quickly—and by anyone.

Y: It’s not just diet and exercise, right?

B: It’s more like baking a cake: you have to have all the right ingredients but you have to use them in the right order. And we’ve shown it succeeds. The drivers who finish the course—60 percent of them do—lose an average of 19 pounds and reduce their risk of cardiac disease, cancer, and metabolic syndrome.

Y: Any plans to bring it to Yale?

B: My 25th reunion is coming up, and I just might be returning to lead the Class of ’93 through a 4-Minute Fit workout on Old Campus.

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