“I Want To Flip Tires”: How CrossFit Changed Nevin Smith’s Life

December 6, 2020 by
Credit: Laurie Smith
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When Laurie Smith and her son, Nevin, started taking CrossFit classes at CrossFit the Challenge in 2016, Laurie wasn’t sure what to expect. Nevin has Down syndrome, and struggles receiving information audibly. 

But four years later, Laurie says the changes in Nevin’s cognitive ability — in and out of the box — are incredible. 

Other than just muscles and being strong,” she says, “His ability to listen and follow directions, learn to accept a challenge, not take criticism personally, and be willing to try again — all those things were just incredible.”

Before they started CrossFit, Nevin was sitting at home, “doing absolutely nothing,” she says, because Laurie was caretaking for her parents and her husband was working. 

  • I came home and said, ‘We’ve got to get busy. We’ve got to do some stuff.’”

Laurie, who had gone through a transformation of her own, losing 80 pounds, took Nevin to the gym she frequented before CrossFit, where she says it was “mostly ellipticals.”

  • “He came and he was like ‘Ehh, nevermind,” she says, “And finally I asked him ‘What do you want to do?’” 
  • “He said, ‘I want to be able to do push-ups, chin ups, and I want to flip tires.”

After a bit of research and when she learned about the scalability of CrossFit, Laurie was pointed to Andreas Janzen, owner of CrossFit the Challenge. 

  • “Andy believes Nevin can do anything,” Laurie says, explaining that this was Janzen’s first experience working with a special needs athlete.
  • “It was a lesson for me,” she continues. “Andy would give Nevin lots of directions and I would think ‘Oh he’s not getting that, we need to just go with a few words’ and to my surprise, he was learning to listen.”

Janzen’s work with Nevin started with the CrossFit basics in a separate room, where Nevin could watch himself in a mirror. Then, they moved to one-on-one coaching, side-by-side to an active class, and gradually, Nevin started shadowing and pacing with another athlete in the class.

  • “Even in the past couple years that I’ve been with Nevin,” says Coco Janzen, a coach at CrossFit the Challenge, “It’s even changed. Before, it was like standing in front of him the whole workout and him just kind of mimicking me. I would do the movements with a PVC pipe or whatever and he would just do exactly what I was doing.” 
  • “Now, he’s able to know what I’m talking about verbally, you know, I can say ‘We’re doing the hang squat clean,’ and it registers,” she continues. “I might do one of them to remind him, just like I would do with any other athlete. He doesn’t require nearly the assistance that he did at first. It’s unbelievable to see that.” 
Credit: Laurie Smith

Laurie says that getting the verbal cues for movement has been one of the tougher challenges for Nevin; language learning has always been difficult for him. Only recently has he started connecting the name of a movement to its action. 

  • “If you give him a visual, he knows. Before, he would get pull-ups and push-ups mixed up, or he’d get on the bar and think we wanted him to do toes-to-bar when we wanted push-ups,” Laurie says. “Now, I can say pull-ups and he knows what it is, but it’s still something we’re working on.” 

Coco says that visual cuing is still huge —  as long as she can show Nevin something, he’s able to correct it. 

But, learning visually presents it’s own difficulties: 

  • “The most wonderful thing is that CrossFit is so scalable,” Laurie says. “But for a visual learner, when you’re scaling it for him, and three people are doing it three different ways, that’s a challenge. I think that that interfered with learning the names, because, we would call it one thing, because that’s what everyone was doing — or a version of it.”
  • “That made it hard for him to understand scoring workouts,” Coco adds. “For an AMRAP, people are going at their own pace, and then they move onto a different movement before he had been through his rep schemes.”

These challenges haven’t stopped Nevin from setting goals — learning how to climb a rope, toes-to-bar, and now, muscle-ups and pulling a truck — and competing. Nevin has competed in five Festivus Games, his first in 2017 and winning the spirit award in 2019, and The Open. 

  • “Those were hard,” Laurie explains. “That’s a hard concept because we work out at the gym and you know, anything’s acceptable and then suddenly, you go to the gym and standards are super important.”

Counting is already difficult for Nevin, but it presented a different challenge with competitions. 

  • “Nevin did so much shadowing in the beginning,” Laurie explains, “And we weren’t really counting in the beginning, we were letting him be independent. And then suddenly, The Open had standards and you weren’t allowed to transition with other people.”

Now, working out at home in their combination gym and sewing room, Laurie has come up with a way to visually guide Nevin through workouts: a map. For each workout, Laurie draws a map of the rep scheme, so Nevin can check off and count his way through the WOD. 

  • “I always kind of thought that it was the accolades that kept Nevin going at the gym, all of the attention,” Laurie says, “But he works really hard at home. It’s more intrinsic than just the accolades.”
Credi: Coco Janzen

Outside of the obvious physical changes in Nevin; “his strict pull-ups are enviable,” Coco says. It’s the cognitive development that most surprised Laurie. 

  • “We’ve had people who have known Nevin for years and years and have said they see a difference in his ability to communicate, and they’re just amazed by the changes,” she says. 
  • They’re speaking about more than just the physical change, because there is a physical change — he’s stronger, leaner,” she continues. “They’re speaking to his communication ability, understanding of directions, the ability to tell him what you’re gonna do and him understand it. That has changed dramatically.”

And even more surprising to Laurie, who came into CrossFit knowing little about the community or sport, was the inclusion.

  • “Nevin was totally at home, instantly, when he walked in the door. He was high-fiving people he didn’t know and was totally impressed with everyone,” Laurie says. 
  • “After years and years of school, working so hard to have inclusion, this is true inclusion,” she continues. “He’s accepted for who he is and where he’s at and what he can do.”

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