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Soul Story: Kate Kunstel and Ronni Shalem

Rockstar RONNI SHALEM has relied on clipping in with the pack to keep her mind and body strong throughout a grueling physician assistant program at Pace University. After discovering that her professor KATE KUNSTEL also loves tapping it back, the two soon got the entire PA class of 80 students hooked on Soul. They share their story... 

What is a PA, for those of us who don’t know.  
RONNI: The role of a PA [physician assistant] in the medical field is a patient centered, thoughtful and compassionate provider of care. We are taught in the medical paradigm, just like physicians. Our scope of practice includes taking a medical history, conducting physical exams, diagnosing and treating illnesses, ordering and interpreting tests, writing prescriptions and developing treatment plans. 

KATE: We are health care professionals educated at the graduate level to assess, diagnose, and treat patients in a team with physicians and other healthcare professionals. PA's work in all areas of healthcare. Personally, I have spent the past six years working in Oncology and caring for patients with leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, as well as solid tumors. I absolutely love being a PA. I feel so lucky that I am able to be both an educator and a clinician.

So how did each of you discover SoulCycle? 
RONNI: SoulCycle came into my life when I landed my front desk job at SoulCycle Roslyn. As enthusiastic as I was about working at Soul, I didn’t expect to take too many classes because of my busy schedule. I was volunteering as an EMT by night, shadowing PAs on days that I was off from work and training for my third half marathon. So I didn’t think I would come to my place of employment in my minuscule free time. And yet there I found myself, at first once a week, until I was so hooked that I was riding 4 or 5 times a week.

KATE: Believe it or not, I started riding at the West 72nd Street studio [now West 77th Street] in 2007! At the time, I was training for a 100-mile bike ride, fundraising with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program. SoulCycle offered free rides to us to help us with our training. That's where it all started for me.

Tell us about your first rides. 
RONNI: I remember being so terrified my first ride. I am not very coordinated, so having a dance party on a bike sounded like way too much going on at once. On top of that, this was where I was working, so I felt like I needed to be a cycling rockstar. When I got on the bike I was really surprised by how much skill this class took. Not only are you riding to the beat of the music with your legs, but you also have to isolate your upper body to do things like push-ups on the bike. I couldn’t figure out how to time a tap it back with the rhythm of my riding. But I also realized this would be such a wonderful thing to get better at. I wanted to be like the front row riders who actually looked sexy forming sexy corners, unlike me. 

KATE: I can tell you that after moving around the East coast a lot since 2007 and finally returning to NYC (and Soul) in 2013, my first ride in a long time was something else!  I rode with Akin and remember thinking to myself, Was it always this hard? But it took no time for me to start clipping in and tapping it back on the regular once again.

What kept you coming back?
RONNI: As I kept coming back, I only got better and better. Seeing that improvement was so rewarding. I was totally hooked. I couldn’t go to a PA school interview without tapping it back. I needed to release my anxiety of waiting to hear back from schools on the SoulCycle bike. I became so(ul) obsessed that I couldn’t imagine how I would withstand PA school without my place of mental decompression. 

KATE: I am an avid long distance runner and I love running, but to me, Soul offers a different level of intensity and community than my usual long runs. I find my rides at Soul to be highly motivating, therapeutic and inspiring. I believe in the energy of the pack. I leave a puddle of sweat under my bike and give it my all every single ride. It’s always challenging and always rewarding.

Tell us about PA school. What is the schedule like for the grad school students? 
RONNI: Every PA school is a little different. Pace has a 14-month didactic component followed by 12 months of rotations. Over the summer we studied Physiology, Ethics, and Psychosocial behavior. In the fall of our didactic year (where I am now) we take six classes including Pathophysiology, Anatomy, Basic Lab and Sciences, Clinical Application, Clinical Medicine, and Pharmacology. 

KATE: This is a very intense graduate level program. It's a full time commitment for the students on a very accelerated learning track. They spend the first 14 months of the program in intense didactic education and the second 12 months of the program on clinical rotations in hospitals and clinics putting into practice what they learned during the first year of the program. There is not much time for anything else outside of their studies.

Ronni, tell us about your move into the city and how you started tapping it back between classes. 
RONNI: When I started PA school in the summer, I was comforted by the fact that SoulCycle FIDI would be right around the corner from my new apartment. Having SoulCycle nearby was like having a place I could call home, even in a new neighborhood. I missed my Roslyn crew so much, but walking into FIDI and seeing all of those friendly smiling faces in yellow and gray SoulCycle staff shirts was a huge comfort. 

How important is it for the students to find a fitness outlet in PA school?
RONNI: Keeping physically and mentally fit is highly important in PA school. We are put under so much stress, and you absolutely need a healthy outlet to relieve that stress. For me, exercise has always been a great way to do that. And when you are on a constant time crunch with studying, you need to fit it in quick and the workout needs to be maximally effective: that’s SoulCycle. What makes it even more fantastic is that you aren’t just getting an incredibly challenging workout in those 45 minutes, you are also getting in a little therapy session as well.

KATE: As their professor, this is extremely important to me. I graduated from Yale’s PA program in 2009, and during my two years there, I ran the New York City marathon twice. On one hand, in hindsight, that seems crazy to me given the demands of my PA program and also the demands of marathon training. On the other hand, I believe exercise was a crucial outlet for the stress I felt as a PA student. 

Staying physically, emotionally, and mentally fit is something I prioritize, and exercise was key in maintaining a healthy balance. The friendships I made in PA school came about when a few of us started running together, and those friendships have remained to this day. It is my hope that my students also find this kind of balance and this kind of community during PA school.

I also feel strongly that as health professionals or future health professionals, we need to commit to our own health and fitness so we can best care for our patients. This holds true for my relationship with my students, too. I know many of them have felt inspired by my commitment to fitness and wellness, and that means a great deal to me.

Tell us how you got your PA class into SoulCycle as well. 
RONNI: On my first day of orientation, when I mentioned to my advisor that I had worked at SoulCyle leading up to PA school, a cascade of events ensued. Little did I know, there was a professor in my program that was a huge SoulCycle fanatic, and Professor Kunstel and I quickly bonded over Soul. Soon the whole class was in on this bond as well.  

Kate, how did it feel to see the class bond over SoulCycle?
KATE: It's something I never anticipated. I mention SoulCycle often when I lecture to the students because I am often coming from or heading to a ride. Something I said must have struck a chord with them because before I knew it, students were asking Ronni and I about rides — how to sign up, which studio to go to, which instructors we like, etc. All of a sudden, a large portion of our class of 80 students was riding at Soul. One of my students emailed me to say, “Officially booked an Ellie Goulding class and I couldn't be more excited!” He then sent me a photo afterwards to let me know they had survived their first ride. It’s been incredible!

How have you helped your students continue clipping in at Soul? 
KATE: I let the students know about any of the promotions Soul is offering. Since they are graduate students, many do not have the resources to ride on a regular basis. When SoulCycle offered free rides to students and teachers, I emailed the class to let them know. When Soul offered free rides to new riders at select locations and times, I emailed the class to let them know. Many students took advantage of these promotions and then started signing up for more classes on their own.    
Do you all ride together often? 
RONNI: Yes! We ride together all the time, intentionally and unintentionally. Professor Kunstel is a total rockstar; she walks into Soul already drenched in sweat because she runs to the studio from Brooklyn. My favorite memory is when I tried Christina’s class for the first time at FIDI and Professor Kunstel was riding in the front row for her first time. I already was in awe of her since she taught us Psychosocial Medicine and I knew she was not only brilliant, but I could tell what a compassionate provider she was to her cancer patients too. I want to care for my patients just like her. Being a PA is a lot of hard work, so seeing Professor able to juggle everything and have a healthy and balanced lifestyle is really inspiring. 

KATE: We are so lucky to have SoulCycle FIDI just a few blocks away from our school, so that makes it very easy to do a ride before classes or after classes. On several occasions, I have been getting into my shoes, getting ready for class, and I hear, “Hi Professor!” It warms my heart every single time, and means a lot to me to ride with my students. Knowing that they are using what little free time they have to fit in a ride and do something good for their health makes me very proud.

How has SoulCycle impacted you personally?  
KATE: You know, life is full of ups and downs and various stressors. I can say I always leave a SoulCycle ride feeling better than I did when I walked in. Sometimes it’s due to the challenge of the ride itself, sometimes it’s due to something my instructor says. Sometimes a particular song really resonates with me. Sometimes it is simply a much-needed 45-minute break from my phone and email. Sometimes I’m riding next to someone I love and I feel really grateful for that. So many good things come from a ride at Soul! 

Overall, SoulCycle has made me stronger and more confident. Several of my friends and colleagues have started to ride with me, and it’s just such a positive and healthy thing for all of us to share together.

Do you have any favorite rides or anecdotes at SOUL?
KATE: One year ago, I went to ride with Christina P. for the first time, and she has become my go-to instructor. In addition to offering an incredibly challenging ride, she has some great phrases she likes to use in class. Many stand out in my mind such as, “Beyonce wasn’t built in a day.” This past summer, I was studying for my PA re-certification boards and during one of her Survivor classes, she said, “You are a force.” I carried that with me through my studying and the day I took my boards; those four words gave me the last push of motivation I needed to succeed.  

Is there anything else you’d like to add? 
RONNI: Through some of the most stressful times in my life, Soul has been a healthy outlet for me. And because of those tap it backs, push-ups and sexy corners, I came out of those experiences stronger both mentally and physically. I have gained so many incredible bonds and friendships from Soul, and I feel so lucky that no matter where I go I can always feel a sense of community that Soul provides. 

KATE: Thanks to our relationship with SoulCycle FIDI, our students will have the opportunity to ride at that studio in January at select classes free of charge.  The excitement over this opportunity is palpable among the students! I have to give a lot of credit to Ronni. This was her idea, and she has been an integral part of the Pace University PA Program’s SOUL story! It has been so great to collaborate with her and to ride with her. It’s a bond that we will always share.

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