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Special Olympics Tennessee and Fitness Partners Across the State Set the Bar for Fitness

Author: D1 Training

group photo at D1

Wander into one of the many participating D1 Training facilities across Tennessee and you may find yourself lucky enough to observe and be inspired by a group of Train 4 Life athletes on the turf, working as hard, and possibly more joyously, than any other athlete that works out in-facility. Train 4 Life™ is a free fitness program created by Special Olympics Tennessee for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The fitness and wellness statistics for this community are staggering. Six out of ten people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are overweight or obese and at risk of chronic health conditions. Six out of ten have issues with flexibility, plus a lack of strength puts them at risk of injury. Lack of endurance can also negatively impact their overall quality of life.

“This, these numbers, were unacceptable to me,” said Founder of Train 4 Life™ and Health and Fitness Director of Special Olympics Tennessee, Natalee Kamau. As a pediatric physical and occupational therapist and volunteer fundraiser for other organizations in her field, Kamau saw an opportunity to close the fitness gap for individuals who need it.

But let’s back up a few years when Kamau could be found working out at D1 Training Cool Springs. As a member there, she met and was occasionally coached by Santiago Allaria, a D1 coach of more than seven years, now coaching at D1 Training Murfreesboro. Kamau began to see the big picture. Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities needed a coach to teach them, and a place where they could train. The idea of Train 4 Life™ began to take shape.

Train 4 Life™ is more (much more!) than a weekly workout. It’s a free 12-week Fitness, Wellness, and Nutrition program for athletes ages 13 and up. Registration runs through the Special Olympics Tennessee website. Each 12-week session is packed with value for athletes and their families and caregivers and includes pre- and post- program health and fitness screenings. Athletes’ blood pressure, BMI, waist circumference, and pulse ox levels are measured, and participants are tested for max squat, max push-up, single leg balance, and max sled push.

group photo

They work out with an army of volunteer coaches and staff once per week and receive online and in-person educational opportunities during the week about nutrition, making better food choices, and mental wellness.

To say that the program has been successful would be wildly understated. Not only are the athletes seeing huge improvements over time, but there are wins happening in real time on the turf.

Allaria says he sees the impact unfolding right before his eyes, and it’s his favorite thing about coaching. “In one class, you see the smile, the excitement, and energy these athletes bring and it’s contagious. I watch them pushing through barriers, being courageous, and then watch their joy erupt from accomplishing something they may not have accomplished without this program.”

Allaria was so taken with the program that in addition to his role at D1 Training, he is now the Health and Fitness Coordinator for Special Olympics Tennessee, working hand in hand with Kamau.

You don’t have to take the word of Allaria or Kamau to see the success of this program. At the onset of the program in 2022, there were 15 athletes meeting in one facility. This year, there are over 150 athletes meeting in 12 different facilities, in three scheduled 12-week sessions per facility.

Over a span of two years, the data collected is impressive.

  • 58% of athletes increased their endurance
  • 48% of athletes increased their strength
  • 69% of athletes increased their power
  • 64% of athletes sustained weight loss
  • 59% of athletes sustained decreased BMI

The statistics speak for themselves, and the athletes chime in with their approval as well.

After her second season of participation, athlete Lydia Firlotte had this to say about her Train 4 Life™ experience. “My favorite part is the Zoom calls that keep me amped up, and the workouts that get me stronger,” she said. “When I was on the scale, I saw that I lost almost 10 pounds, and I looked at my coach, Anna, like, ‘Are you serious?’ because I knew my mom would be so excited because of all the work I’ve done to get to where I am.”

group photo

Kyle Smith, another Train 4 Life™ athlete, likes meeting up with friends, learning about safe exercises, and has learned to make better choices with his nutrition. “I’ve learned to try different kinds of foods that I didn’t think I would like, but found I do like it, can tolerate. She [nutrition volunteer] helped me learn about foods that are good and some alternatives I can try instead of bad foods that I was eating.”

These athletes aren’t alone, and Kamau and Allaria are working hard to close the fitness gap for more athletes. So far, Special Olympics Tennessee is the only state chapter of Special Olympics with the Train 4 Life™ program. A project is in the works, however, for a Special Olympics Fitness Conference, the first of its kind, to be held on July 26-27 in Nashville.

The conference will allow fitness leaders and Special Olympic teams from other states to come and see the work that is being done in Tennessee. The hope is that by adopting a plan of action to take the program to other states, many more athletes will benefit from the services offered in the program.

“These athletes are typically not held to a higher standard,” Kamau said. “This kind of program gives them the tools they need to live the lives they deserve. They are capable. They want accountability.”

She is quick to remind that Train 4 Life™ is for any age individual with intellectual disabilities. “We have an athlete who is 56, who previously participated in competition, but had ongoing health concerns. He has since been a part of Train 4 Life™ and has improved in all aspects of his health and wellbeing. This last year he returned to the turf at State Flag Football!”

Train 4 Life™ and Special Olympics Tennessee are happy to welcome new volunteers for coaching, staff, and facilities. Interested parties can register on the fitness page of their website.

“The reward is immediate and impactful,” Allaria said. “It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.”

Photo Credits: Special Olympics Tennessee