Adapted fitness: Elite athletes, at any ability

March 2, 2011 By Susannah Brooks

adaptive fitness class

Participants in the Adapted Fitness and Personal Training program work out at the Natatorium during a training session. The class, which is part of the kinesiology department’s Physical Education and Personal Training program, pairs student helpers and clients with disabilities accomplish their training goals and is overseen by Tim Gattenby, faculty associate in the Department of Kinesiology. Pictured are student helpers Michelle Usset (right) and Kara Mathys (center), as they assist client Shantel Brown (left).

Photo: Bryce Richter

The two gyms sit side by side in the Natatorium. On any given day, both are full of hard-training athletes such as an intramural soccer player or an elite racer. Both facilities hold the latest in cardio machines and cabled range-of-motion weights; both hold patrons determined to push their bodies to the limit.

One, however, features subtle modifications. Pulldown bars have Velcro cuffs attached to the hand grips; a cadre of student helpers aid clients as they transfer from a wheelchair or grab out-of-reach handles.

Tim Gattenby, trim in camouflage fleece, manages this scene with a keen eye. To him, the two gyms aren’t that different. Whether potential clients approach him on foot or in a motorized wheelchair, communicate with words or by drawing on a whiteboard, the approach is the same: Respect individual needs and make it count in real life.

“Everyone’s an athlete,” says Gattenby. “The building blocks of how we progress, how we need to optimize our gains, and how we recover — all the things that go into fitness are the same.”

An avid outdoorsman, Gattenby breaks down even his most routine movements — walking through snow, clearing a path for his daughter — into a series of challenges that address his own strengths and weaknesses. An angled step on the way out increases his work on the way back, building strength as his ankles flex.

This nuanced approach seems tailor-made for an underserved, ever-changing population. Some clients have lived with a disability since birth; others have progressive conditions or suffered sudden injuries — temporary or permanent.

Gattenby came to UW–Madison in 1986, charged with building the Adapted Fitness and Personal Training classes in the kinesiology department’s Physical Education Activity Program. Today, he oversees three cohorts of twice-weekly clients, in addition to a Friday swim lab and open gym. In the summer and fall, he takes his clients off campus for outdoor pursuits including sailing, skiing and even rock climbing.

“We’ve got people trying to improve their daily living skills, and survival,” Gattenby says. “We’ve got elite athletes training for major events like the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race. The only difference is that it probably takes a little more planning, a little more logistics.”

Scott Bachmeier knows this firsthand. A research meteorologist for UW–Madison’s Space Science and Engineering Center, he was an avid cross-country skier before the effects of a 2002 brain aneurysm caused his balance and mobility to deteriorate. Despite a “miraculous” recovery, he required two extensive operations to address complications — the second of which, in 2009, left him a paraplegic.

For Bachmeier, the last several years have been a rollercoaster ride of changing abilities and emotions. So when he heard about the sit-ski developed by Gattenby, his students and members of the UW-CREATe program in engineering, he jumped at the chance to return to an activity he loved.

Like many pieces of equipment in the gym, the sit-ski is designed for ease of use and production. The universality of the design allows a wide range of people to use it — including Bachmeier’s able-bodied wife and daughter, who have hopped onto sit-skis to ski as a family.

“Being able to enjoy winter weather with my family is huge,” Bachmeier says. “I don’t ski as fast as they do, but I can go out spontaneously. If we have enough snow and there’s good grooming, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s go.’”

Just three months after losing the use of his legs, Bachmeier found himself skiing the Birkebeiner course next to race director Ned Zuelsdorff. As he pushed himself up Main Street in Hayward, the noise swelled.

“The roar from the crowds lining the streets was amazing,” says Bachmeier. “You’d think that [Norwegian Olympic champion]Bjørn Dæhlie was finishing the race behind me!”

Once Bachmeier became hooked on the sit-ski, he joined Gattenby’s twice-weekly class. Never one for “contraptions,” he quickly settled in, thanks to the expert guidance of the student helpers. Though they assist him with reaching and transferring, they also provide invaluable help with more traditional personal training including developing a workout plan to fits his needs and demonstrating the correct form.

“I thought, ‘They’re students, so they probably won’t be able to help a lot,’” Bachmeier says. “A lot of them have great ideas that I hadn’t pondered. You get some extra things that you can try at home. It’s been amazingly positive.”

Just as every client gets the respect of being an elite athlete, each of the 140 student helpers joins a new generation of professionals who can advocate, integrate and learn from their differently abled peers.

Now in her third semester with the program, senior Sarah Kohls serves as Gattenby’s assistant.

“Most people don’t have experience working directly with people with disabilities,” Kohls says. “It’s one of those things where you come in the first semester and say either, ‘I love it!’ or ‘It’s not for me.’ You transfer people, and not everybody enjoys getting in each other’s face.”

The rewards come in many different forms. Linking practical application, real-world impact and physiological theory, the students tailor their own experience to their needs as well. Some develop communication skills; others learn to slow down and appreciate a different kind of effort.

“People with disabilities aren’t delicate,” says Gattenby. “They’re tough! Living in Wisconsin, they’re tougher than they would be anywhere else in the world.”

As Bachmeier works out, he transfers his ski skills — pushing and pulling with his poles — to the needs of his everyday life. Breaking down his needs helps him address specific muscle groups and actions. He learns to maneuvering his wheelchair up and down Madison’s hilly terrain, popping a mini-wheelie over a train track or sidewalk crack.

Given his history, Bachmeier fears the possibility of new problems in the coming years. But he knows that the class will help him adapt and improve, no matter what comes his way.

“These kinds of options help me maintain a positive attitude,” Bachmeier says. “That’s huge. It’s helped me to just try and get out there and hold on to a few of the passions that I had in the old days.”

This is the crux of the program — “connecting the dots” between people, programs and providers; between actions and activities; and between people with disabilities and people who are temporarily able-bodied.

As veterans return from overseas and the baby boomer population ages, more and more people experience the ways in which disability impacts everyday lives, both for the individuals and those close to them. New technologies can shatter the limits of human capacity or simply make life easier.

Either way, Gattenby’s technique remains the same: Respect individual needs; make it count in real life.

“There’s a whole spectrum between fear and awe,” Gattenby says. “We’re afraid we might hurt some people, or that we’re not knowledgeable about their disability. There are people who are superhuman; we’re in awe of their performance capacity. Then there’s everyone in between.”

He leans across his desk, asking, “So … what do you do to work out?”