Why You Should be Open to Adaptive Athletes


When I was told I was going to be working with an adaptive athlete from the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), I got excited. Being a veteran myself and really appreciating the men and women who sacrifice their lives everyday for our freedom, instantly I wanted to help.

Physical fitness is more then just getting your workout in; it is training for life outside the Box. The men and women that have made the sacrifice and have been injured or sick while doing so are now faced with very tough challenges.  These challenges include the vey thing aforementioned, not just working out but training for a new way of life.

I would like to introduce you to Brian (aka The Traveling Tubie). It was late in 2003 when Brian was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. It was diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, stage 2, in and around his left tonsil. Really, if you’re going to get lymphoma, this is what you want. They caught it early; it was fast-growing (this is a good thing), but there is a standard treatment that guarantees around 75 percent survival. The 25 percent who don’t survive have other health problems or are elderly or caught the cancer too late. He was just 28, healthy and athletic. Honestly, there was no way this cancer would beat him, but this was just the start. Read more about Brian and his story here.

As a CrossFit Box we wanted to have Brian join regular classes for several reasons, but primarily because we believe that community is the major component to an effective fitness program. To prepare him and our Coaches for this, we scheduled one-on-one sessions with him to determine his capabilities and limitations.

I asked Coach Rick Daniels-Mulholland to join me during these one-on-one sessions, knowing that he may be attending some of Rick’s classes. The one-on-one sessions gave both Rick and I the opportunity to explore options in scaling as well as made Brian and his wife Elizabeth feel more comfortable in our training methods.

The first sessions addressed assessing movement patterns, mobility concerns and creating scaling options.

Does this look familiar? It should. This is what we do with each and every athlete that comes through the door.

Following the order of importance doesn’t change when dealing with an adaptive athlete.

  1. Posture/technique/range of motion
  2. Intensity
  3. Adding weight

Brian had a few limitations such as paralysis in his left arm and partial paralysis in his left leg. After only two one-on-one sessions, we realized that he could make adaptions to most of the movements we do in our workouts. He is able to squat with a kettlebell or dumbbell, do one arm ring rows, sub kickbacks on a Box for burpees, and do single arm Clean and Jerks with a kettlebell and dumbbell. The creativity to the movements has been unlimited and he has gained strength, balance and coordination.

As a Box you shouldn’t be worried or concerned about adding adaptive athletes to your program. There are also ways to reach out to organizations that will lead athletes in your direction. The WWP was one of the groups that offered to support athletes like Brian and Elizabeth when they first wanted to try CrossFit. Here is an example of the email Brian and Elizabeth received.

The wonderful thing about the WWP was they made it possible for both Brian and Elizabeth to come and try CrossFit Knoxville together. Elizabeth herself was diagnosed with osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis. She was advised to lift weights to strengthen her bones to avoid serious problems in the future. They have both been coming since March and their daughter Grace has even started training with us.

How to get started with WPP:

  • Reach out to your local Wounded Warrior Project office and speak with them about your program.
  • Check for other programs in your area that give adaptive athletes the opportunity to do things outside the Box. For example, in Knoxville there is a rock wall climbing center that offers climbing for those athletes on the first Saturday of every month.

Photos by Ashley Peery

Steve Owens is the co-founder and vice president of Crossfit Knoxville which opened its doors in 2008 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Prior to Crossfit Knoxville, Steve worked in law enforcement/security for 18 years, the last 10 as a special response team supervisor at the Department of Energy Y-12 National Security Complex. Steve can be reached at steve@crossfitknoxville.com.