Where Champs Are Made
BILLERICA -- Nicholas Poulin peeked through the windows of the training studio at Bfitt60 Thursday evening as the previous session finished up, eager to get in there and start his own workout.
The Chelmsford 13-year-old was excited to get on the bikes, use the battle ropes, the suspension trainers or whatever else it was that Director of Group Training Rob Wood had cooked up that week for the special class designed for Special Olympics athletes and their families.
“It’s really good,” Nicholas, who will compete in swimming and cycling, said of the class.
Participating in it has made him stronger, he said as he held up right arm and flexed his bicep.
Since the class began in late February, his mother, Claire Poulin, said he talks about it all the time.
“He asks me all week long, ‘When is exercise class?’” she said. “He’s always excited to check out the equipment, get into the room, and see what new activities we’ll be doing.”
“It’s really like a big kids playground, so I can see why he enjoys it,” said Meghan O’Neil, 22, of Westford, who came up with the idea for the class.
She works as fundraising and events coordinator for Special Olympics Massachusetts, which runs the games for people with intellectual disabilities. But it’s not just her job -- her brother, Chris O’Neil, 29, is an accomplished Special Olympian who has been participating in the games for more than 20 years.
“One of the things Meghan had said to me is, a lot of times athletes who compete in the (Special) Olympics aren’t necessarily doing anything other than when the Olympics is coming up, so it’s a great way to just get them active leading up to the games, and help with their overall performance,” Wood said.
“It also helps athletes build up on their strength when they’re not necessarily competing in Special Olympics sports,” Meghan O’Neil said.
Each week, the trainers at the Best Fitness-run studio have been organizing workouts for the athletes and their families, leading them in strength movements, basic movement mechanics, coordination, core work, mobility work and balance, Wood said.
The class has been drawing three to seven families each week, and runs up until the Summer Games are held in early June.
The athletes and families alike have been enjoying a chance to exercise together.
“It definitely made me stronger, and I feel a little faster,” said Chris O’Neil, who will compete in the track and field portion of the upcoming games.
His sister and his mother, Andrea O’Neil, said it has also improved his balance and motor planning.
DJ Russell, 33, of Groton, another longtime Special Olympian, said he also likes that the class makes him stronger. He’ll compete in cycling, but his favorite is skiing.
“This has been a wonderful experience, and we’re so grateful for them to allow us to do this,” said his mother, Judy Russell.
She and her husband, Bob, are the head coaches of the Nashoba Shooting Stars Special Olympics alpine skiing team, which DJ Russell, Chris O’Neil and Nicholas all ski with.
All three are accomplished Special Olympics athletes.
Two years ago, Chris O’Neil earned a bronze award for his performance in the super giant slalom (super G) in the alpine skiing portion of the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria -- an experience he still gushes about.
In the most recent winter games in Massachusetts, he earned three gold medals, in slalom, giant slalom and super G.
At the same games, Nicholas earned gold medals in slalom and giant slalom, and took home the silver in the super G. DJ Russell earned one silver and two bronze awards in alpine skiing, and last summer took home two gold medals and one silver in cycling.
Wood said the class has drawn trainers from other Best Fitness locations to come and be a part of the program and support it. Many gym members, like Joanne Iozzo, of Billerica, will also come or stay after their own workout sessions to help out. Iozzo said she enjoys it so much, she will volunteer at the Summer Games in the weightlifting division.
“I’m going to be the best cheerleader there,” she said.
Andrea O’Neil said it’s wonderful outreach for people who have never been exposed to the Special Olympics to get to know the athletes and what the games are all about.
“So many times in their life, they’ve been told, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ and they want to show the world, ‘Yes, I can,’” she said, tears forming in her eyes.
The opening ceremony of the Summer Games is June 7, with the games being held at Harvard and Boston universities June 8 and 9.
The athletes can stay at the dorms the whole weekend, and this will be Nicholas’ first time staying, Poulin said.
At the mention, Nicholas raised his eyebrows and a mischievous look flashed over his face, causing everyone to break out into laughter.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be supervising,” Poulin said.
Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.