Former Florida Affiliate Owner Finds Calling Working with Special Olympics

June 6, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Kimberly DeFalco
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Until 2018, CrossFit was Mark Oliver’s life. 

That year, the former Florida affiliate owner and CrossFit athlete, had his “life turned upside down”: he started training Andrew Whitehead, an athlete with Down syndrome. 

  • “Long story short,” Oliver said, “He became my best friend, I got involved with the Special Olympics… and [I knew ] this is what I’m supposed to do.” 

Within one year, Oliver went from training one individual, Whitehead, to training 400, and running the largest Special Olympics program in Hillsborough County, FL. Over the next five years, he continued to grow this programming, naming it the Specially Fit Foundation. 

The details: Specially Fit, recently rebranded to the Specially Fit Academy (SFA), is a nonprofit organization that provides a variety of services to those with disabilities: Special Olympics training, hosts free weekly workout classes, offers health care, job opportunities, housing, and more. 

Oliver’s recent rebrand to SFA will take the foundation to a new level: a high school serving students of all abilities, with a focus on fitness and athletics.

  • “I feel as though the Academy is just another branch of the Specially Fit Foundation that will continue to enrich our community,” Oliver explained.

Focusing on fitness:  Fitness has been a foundation of Specially Fit since the beginning, starting with Whitehead. “We’re known for our fitness program,” Oliver explained. “We offer free Special Olympics classes every week… our athletes get a free gym membership. Fitness is our backbone. It’s everything we do.” 

By keeping this foundation, Oliver says they’ve seen major improvements in the health and more of Specially Fit athletes. 

  • “There’s a story that came out about one of our athletes, Everald Nelson. He was in the hospital for 288 days, diagnosed with a developmental disability and he was on insulin and dialysis,” Oliver said.
  • After working with Specially Fit, Nelson is off all of that, Oliver continues. “He just made it to the state Special Olympics competition for track and field.”

Another Specially Fit athlete, Christian Wright, lost almost 40 pounds in four months after starting the program. Even at the beginning, when Oliver first started training Whitehead, he saw his motor skills, along with his health, improve at a rapid rate. 

Nelson, Wright, and Whitehead are just some of Specially Fit’s many success stories; working alongside area hospitals, Oliver has been able to track how the organization’s fitness focus can help individuals in their programming lower blood pressure, lose weight, and keep them out of the hospital.

Oliver says CrossFit has given him the foundation to create a comprehensive program like Specially Fit. He still hosts CrossFit and powerlifting competitions for the athletes he works with, saying the CrossFit mentality is always with him: 

  • “I brought the CrossFit energy into the [Specially Fit] training. We have chants… we shout family. It’s that family mentality that I learned in the CrossFit gym. I bring that to the Special Olympics side.”

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