“I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro” isn’t how students typically respond when asked how they spent their summer vacation. But 17-year-old Samantha Cohen, who summited the 19,000-plus-foot peak this July, is no typical high school senior. Though she might be young, the straight-A student is already living the perfect embodiment of the SHAPE lifestyle.
Her passion for physical activity began at age 7, when she enrolled in figure-skating lessons and began competing locally. Four years later, Samantha discovered dance—specifically jazz and ballet—and she was soon taking up to 12 classes each week. She even enrolled in a preprofessional dance program. However, when Samantha developed knee problems a year and a half ago and underwent physical therapy, she took it as a sign to take a step back.
“I really enjoyed dancing but realized it’s not all I want out of life,” she says. “I wanted time to travel and explore different activities.” So she hung up her dance shoes and turned to yoga, group cycling, and the occasional Zumba class for her fitness fix.
Always on the lookout for new ways to keep her body lean and limber, Samantha saw the chance to take a big step outside her exercise comfort zone this past spring. Back in March, she heard that a friend had signed up to climb Mount Kilimanjaro over the summer with a group of fellow high schoolers.
Even with all her previous athletic pursuits, Samantha understood the task looming above her was a whole new beast. Located in Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro rises 19,340 feet—making it not only the continent’s highest peak but also the tallest freestanding mountain in the world.
Although the physical challenges were great—for starters, the air gets so thin along the ascent that altitude sickness plagues many of the 15,000 hikers who attempt the climb annually—Samantha was not deterred. “I guess I could have chosen to hike a smaller mountain, say in Colorado,” says Samantha, who despite doubts from some friends and family members always believed she’d make it to the top of the mountain. “But this was really all about pushing myself to do something out of the ordinary.”
While training for her climb, Samantha, an avid volunteer, learned about St. Jude Children's Hospital's Heroes campaign, for which runners and other athletes pledge to raise money while training for a race or event. After signing up and creating a page on the hospital’s website to collect funds, she raised nearly $22,000 for the foundation.
With this accomplishment under her belt, Samantha hopes to continue her charity work with St. Jude’s while she finishes high school and applies to college. Regardless of where her future journeys take her, Samantha’s confident in her ability to finish any task she takes on. “I’m not the fittest person, but if you want something, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to achieve it,” she says. “People are much more physically capable than they realize. And my drive is strong enough to help me accomplish anything.”
To learn more or to donate to Samantha's ongoing efforts to help St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, check out her fundraising page. For more on Samantha's inspirational journey to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, be sure to pick up a copy of the September issue of SHAPE, on newsstands Monday, August 19th.