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Ask any athlete at QTown CrossFit who James is, and they’ll know. Sam Dancer and James Foster are best friends. When Sam spoke about his travel schedule preparing for the 2016 CrossFit Games, he cried when he thought of leaving James behind.
“I haven’t seen him in a while. I miss him,” Dancer said. “Down Syndrome is the most radical thing. They don’t screw anything up. They just love. They don’t know anything else. They’re my best friends.”
It’s this same passion for relationships that brought Sam to James in the first place.
When Jennifer and Sam Dancer planned their first Row Raiser, it was 2014, and they raised only a few hundred dollars. They were living in Cincinnati and had a friend, Heather Davis, who worked for the Special Olympics. Davis brought some athletes over to spend some time in the gym.
“It started as just a little thing, like ‘hey can we bring some athletes over and just spend an hour with them, getting them to move a little bit?’” Jennifer said.
Together, the Dancers and Davis hosted a fun WOD on a Saturday morning with their community at Conjugate CrossFit and raised some money to donate to their regional Special Olympics branch.
Anybody else would have just mailed that one check and called it a day.
But not the Dancers.
If there’s someone that’s overweight in your gym or someone that doesn’t have the mobility, what do you do with that athlete? You literally treat these adaptive athletes the same way that you do them; you scale and modify and assess their weaknesses – start simple, there’s no script on how to do that, you just need to fall in love with them, and have a passion for them, and if you do that then everything else is super easy, because they just want to be a part of the gym and learn like everyone else. — Jenn Dancer
By the next year, Sam and Jenn had moved to Quincytown, just a few minutes away from the Mississippi River. It was there, settled in as the new owners of Qtown CrossFit that Sam had an idea.
“Let’s start here,” he told his wife, “with our community and let’s have a row raiser! Anyone can row!”
So the Dancers invited adaptive athletes over a second time. Together they taught these athletes, some of which had never been in a gym before, how to row. Bonds were quickly formed between these athletes, the members of Qtown, and the Dancers. Sam announced The Row Raiser in their gym, and then on social media, to be officially hosted on July 8, 2015.
Jennifer remembers that first event, “We had about ten or twelve Special Olympic athletes on one rower, and then we had a few other athletes on a second rower to just kind of help them along, to be able to help them accumulate some meters. That’s how that started.”
The Dancers worked the room cheering the athletes on, checking on the Special Olympic athletes, and helping them row. Once a rower has about 250 meters to go, the Dancers put an adaptive athlete on that rower to finish up those last 250 meters.
“The excitement and love and joy that they feel on those 250 meters? Man, it’s just amazing.” Jennifer said.
Everyone stuck around for the after party. “We just make it a little party, and we hang out with the athletes. We have live DJs, and food trucks, we just spend the afternoon with these athletes and just pour into them,” Jenn said.
Together, they danced and ate and talked with all the athletes about fitness and everyday life, getting to know them.
The Dancers realized they had raised ten thousand dollars in just one weekend with these Special Olympic athletes that had worked so hard to come in and row a marathon. “Sam fell in love with the passion of being able to teach these athletes not only health and fitness but also life goals, having this idea, and having them come out,” Jennifer said.
Some of the athletes stayed on for personal training with the Dancers, leading to the friendship that began with Sam and James three years ago. Now, Sam does more than just CrossFit things with James, he also takes him into the gym conference room to do life stuff, “We’ll ask him like all right man what are some of your goals, what do you want to do?”
One of James’s goals is to be a speaker for Special Olympics, so Sam and Jenn started to help him practice how to better enunciate certain words, and how to slow down when he’s speaking, and how to think about his response before he answers people.
“The Row Raisers just became so much bigger once we developed that bond with James,” Jennifer remembers. “People were reaching out to us, like how can we get involved. And we were like, holy crap! Let’s make this a thing.”
The Rowing Continues
It has become a thing indeed. The first official year was one box, just Qtown CrossFit, that earned ten thousand dollars. The following year, 2016, seven events across the state of Illinois raised fifty thousand dollars after in-kind donations. This year the Dancers coordinated 21 total locations and are on track to raise more than one hundred thousand dollars by year’s end. And these are only the ones that Jenn and Sam host and coordinate personally. Annually, there are at least 20-30 Row Raisers outside of Illinois, including internationally.
The Row Raiser has been so successful that the Dancers have decided to turn it into a 501c3. “We’re hoping to have it by next July,” Jennifer said. All money will be given to Special Olympics, but Sam and Jenn will still run and manage it.
James’s public speaking lessons with Sam have paid off too. James now participates in the opening ceremonies of each Row Raiser and has even helped film a video with Sam to send to the other Row Raiser events. Most Row Raisers are held on the same day, July 7th or 8th depending on the day of the week, at the exact same time and are live-streamed from Qtown CrossFit. “This is Sam’s passion and a lot of them want to be a part of that, of his passion, and his life, so having that video they really feel like they’re a part of this.”
The impact that The Row Raisers have has sometimes been overwhelming to the Dancers.
“We get emails every single day asking us, how do we get involved in Special Olympics? How do we get involved with an adaptive athlete in our gym?” Jennifer said. “I’ll send them an email simply stating, Hey, if there’s someone that’s overweight in your gym or someone that doesn’t have the mobility, what do you do with that athlete? You literally treat these adaptive athletes the same way that you do them; you scale and modify and assess their weaknesses – start simple, there’s no script on how to do that, you just need to fall in love with them, and have a passion for them, and if you do that then everything else is super easy, because they just want to be a part of the gym and learn like everyone else.”
But James and the Dancers are not done. The goal of The Row Raisers is simple; make money, build more involvement, spread awareness. But as Sam sees it, there is a bigger goal to be imagined.
Sam shares what his big picture goal looks like, when he closes his eyes, “I want to connect the dots across the world so at one single moment in time every single person is going to be affected by the vibrations coming from this event. They’re going to be exposed on a grand scale to the type of love that these special needs athletes so naturally and intrinsically display on a regular basis to people that are so undeserving. They are the epitome of grace, and I truly believe the big goal of everyone participating at the same time, this grace, this love, the entire world is going to finally just be beating together. It’s going to be so awesome.”