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‘It’s for everybody’: Davenport CrossFit gym offers workouts for people with Down syndrome

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The parking lot is packed on a recent weeknight at CrossFit OC3 in Davenport, which looks like a typical warehouse gym from the outside.

On this night, however, there’s a 90-minute class being offered at 3510 Vine Court unlike any other in the Quad-Cities.

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Friends, Fun and Fitness participant Christian Malli, 13, lifts a weight over his head as gym owner Jessie Cartee encourages him at Crossfit OC3 in Davenport on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018.

A small group of teens, 20- and 30-somethings with Down syndrome is clapping and cheering for each other as they jump on boxes, toss medicine balls and walk on their hands and feet, also known here as a bear crawl.

Gym owners Jessie and Colin Cartee, who partner with GiGi’s Playhouse Quad-Cities to offer this monthly workout, are co-teaching.

“They’re miracle workers because they can get them to do things that their parents can’t get them to do,” said Jenn Parsons, program manager at the Down syndrome achievement center in Moline.

The couple knows how to keep them engaged.

“The biggest thing is just treating them like normal,” said Jessie, 29, a full-time physical therapist. “They know what’s going on; they’re smart.”

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Gym owner Colin Cartee gives a pointer to Christian Malli, 13, as he and Luke Frutiger, 17, left, work on jerk and clean lifts at Crossfit OC3 in Davenport on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018.

CrossFit is a fitness regimen that mixes bodyweight exercises, weightlifting and cardiovascular and high-intensity interval training. Since the sport's inception in 2000, more than 13,000 CrossFit gyms have popped up across the nation, according to crossfit.com.

While they modify exercises for participants with Down syndrome, who usually have low muscle tone and decreased strength, the Cartees still set high expectations. If someone is struggling during a certain activity, for example, they won’t be asked to just sit out that part, said Becky Takemoto, who accompanied her 35-year-old daughter, Lisa, to the class. Instead, that person will get a different challenge, “and they’re better for it,” Takemoto said.

Plus, they learn by doing, Parsons said, so it helps to keep them moving.

Colin, 27, was scared before launching the program because he didn’t know what to expect, but his fear since has disappeared. He now finds the experience very rewarding.

“One of our missions is to change the way the world views Down syndrome,” Parsons said. “People are always very impressed by what they can do.”

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Friends, Fun and Fitness participant Christian Malli, 13, lifts up a kettlebell weight during a warmup workout at Crossfit OC3 in Davenport on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018.

Similar to how he runs any other CrossFit class, Colin keeps the sessions lighthearted.

“I want to show it’s for everybody,” he said.

During a break in the action last class, Colin transitioned to nutrition and asked each attendee what they ate for breakfast that day. Between meetings, they’re supposed to keep track of meals, water consumption, exercise and general feelings in a journal.

Chris Morley, whose 27-year-old son Michael, attends the classes, said the exercise gives him and his friends “something else to talk about.”

“It makes him feel like he’s part of something,” she said, noting the limited amount of organized activities for adults with Down syndrome.

Drenched in sweat after completing his fair share of squats, burpees and clean and jerks, a pumped Luke Frutiger, 17, of Moline, exchanged high-fives and hugs with anyone in sight.

“I made it!” he said to his mom, Julie. “It was hard.”

Currently, about eight people from GiGi’s are signed up for CrossFit, but Parsons expects that number to grow. The local chapter of the global organization, which serves about 200 families in the area, received a grant to cover the costs of workout gear. Everything else, including the space and hands-on instruction, is free.

“There’s no way we could afford to do CrossFit classes,” Parsons said. “This truly is an amazing community we’ve been let into.”

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