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Chagrin Falls CrossFit Class for Athletes with Developmental Disabilities Provides “Emotional Lift”

February 16, 2022 by
Photo Credit: Chagrin Falls CrossFit
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It broke Lori Weber’s heart to watch her 22-year-old autistic daughter Kira go from being an athletic teenager, who actively participated in track and field, cross-country and swimming, to losing her connections to sports and fitness when she finished high school.

“I do a lot of work with people who have different development disorders, and one thing I noticed is a lack of interest in that community to help (people with developmental disabilities) continue to do things that encourage fitness,” Lori explained. 

Then one year ago, Lori’s 24-year-old son Barrett Weber—a part-time coach at Chagrin Falls CrossFit, which is located in a suburb of Cleveland, OH, who was first introduced to CrossFit through his oldest sister Gabrielle—convinced his mother to try CrossFit.

Lori saw quick gains, and was also inspired by how fit her other daughter Maya—Kira’s twin sister—had become training there. All this planted a seed in Lori’s brain that CrossFit might be the perfect solution for the people with development disorders, like her daughter Kira. 

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to provide something to inspire these folks to keep up their fitness?’” explained Lori, who quickly took action, found a small grant to get the program going, and pitched the idea to Chagrin Falls CrossFit owner Jenn Pishko and coach Liz Kentner.

Pishko and Kentner embraced the idea and launched a pilot project: a CrossFit class for those with various developmental disabilities.

What Happened Next

Close to three months ago, Kentner, the head coach of the program, and six or seven volunteers, ran their first class for those with developmental disorders. Twelve people showed up.

Since then, the class has grown consistently, with the most recent class servicing more than 20 people with disabilities ranging from autism and cerebral palsy to Down syndrome.

Watching the participants’ enthusiasm for CrossFit grow has been heartwarming, Lori explained. 

“These people come every week. They email me in between. They can’t wait to come back to CrossFit,” Lori said. 

Nothing could be more rewarding for a coach, explained Kentner, who discovered during the very first class that this was something special they were creating.

“The very first class was one where I walked away and cried tears of joy in my car when it was all over. I was a stranger to these adults (and) I could tell walls were up, specifically with one young woman. She is non-verbal and relies heavily on an electronic device to communicate. Her cues were telling me she was very nervous,” Kentner explained. “By the end of the class, you could physically see the stress lift from her. She even put down her electronic device and had smiles, thumbs up and sounds of joy.”

Every class since, there have been moments that remind Kentner of why she loves coaching.

“This is the only group I know that hasn’t complained about burpees being programmed…I have not only seen the group grow in actual numbers, but I have seen this group grow in confidence and thirst for CrossFit….Each and every one of them has a powerful moment each time I see them,” Kentner added.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Chagrin Falls CrossFIt

The Ripple Effect

One of the most powerful parts of the experience has been watching how the family members react, Lori said. 

Last week she watched a woman in a wheelchair hop on the Ski Erg for the first time, while her cousin teared up watching.

Some of these reactions have come from long-time members of the gym, who have been bringing their siblings and other family members with developmental disabilities to the gym.

“I didn’t even know they had siblings, and these siblings have disabilities, and they’re showing up to this class for the first time. It has been bringing in more people into the gym…and the gym has really embraced it,” Lori said. 

She added: “A lot of parents will stay and watch their adult kids do things that they haven’t done in years, or maybe have never attempted, and the expression on their faces, like…the emotional lift that entire families are getting out of this is priceless.”

Moving Forward

Last week, with the pilot project coming to a close, Lori was worried whether they would be able to find the funds to continue the program. But earlier this week, Pishko, who did a presentation at the Hope For Kids Board of Geauga County, discovered they were granted $10,000 to put toward expanding their developmental disability program. 

“The full force of the community is behind our efforts to bring CrossFit to everyone,” especially to a population who has all too often been overlooked, Pishko said.

Lori added: “There are so many young adults who graduate (high school)…and all of a sudden when that support system ends, it’s like there’s nothing for them. There is no more coach cheering them on, or pushing them, so CrossFit just fills a need for this community.” 

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