Coach’s Quest to Bring CrossFit to the Special Olympics Community

April 14, 2022 by
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Sharon Palermo
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After her first session coaching CrossFit Special Olympics athletes in 2017, Sharon Palermo knew this was what she wanted to do.

“I don’t ever not want to do this,” said Palermo, a former affiliate owner, of how she felt after that first day training. “They’re just so inspiring.”

Five years later, not only is Palermo still coaching Special Olympics athletes, including two powerlifters who are headed to the Special Olympic Games (which go June 6-11 in Orlando, FL), but she’s also in the process of working with the Special Olympics New Hampshire organization to build a statewide functional fitness program in as many affiliates as possible.

The details: Palermo’s Special Olympics program started at CrossFit TUFF in Nashua, NH, but when that gym closed permanently, she moved it to CrossFit Earned in Merrimack, NH, where it continues to operate today.

  • Through the years, more than 50 Special Olympics athletes with various intellectual or developmental disabilities, or cognitive delay have been through the program. 
  • Today, as many as 20 people show up to a CrossFit class on any given day at CrossFit Earned, and neighboring gym, EverProven CrossFit in Dover, NH has just committed to offering the program, as well. 
  • So far, coaching the program has all been volunteer-based, but if Palermo can prove to the Special Olympics New Hampshire organization that the program is measurable and scalable, then she should be able to qualify for funding, which would be especially useful, as oftentimes this demographic needs equipment or adaptations of equipment that most gyms don’t currently have, Palermo explained. 
  • “Right now we’re beta testing. It needs to be streamline across the board, so we’re in the process of building a cohesive program that can be transferred to other gyms. So we’re trying to provide coaches with a structure and understanding of the needs of Special Olympic athletes, as well as how to interact with them,” Palermo said. “Our hope is to be able to provide coaches with the training on how to work with these athletes.” 

The big picture: Regardless of whether or not the program ever qualifies for funding via the Special Olympics, Palermo will keep coaching these athletes, because she can’t imagine life without it. 

  • “Just the feeling you get when you work with these athletes, it’s just so inspiring…They have taught me that nothing is impossible,” Palermo said.
  • She added: “And the results have been amazing. Just the confidence they get. I have had people afraid of doing burpees, and now they can do burpees and sit-ups. Watching them be able to do things they couldn’t do before without pain or discomfort, or maybe just because they couldn’t move that way, is so exciting. But it’s more than that. Their mood and mindset changes. It’s an entire life improvement.”

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