Sam Dancer held his breath as he watched his athlete, James, wrap his thumbs around the 45-pound barbell, settling into a partial squat. The heaviest thing James had ever held above his head was a PVC pipe, and the snatch is no novice’s movement.
Looking straight ahead, James inhaled and pulled. The weight floated upward; he caught it overhead and sank into a deep squat. After he dropped the bar, he gave Dancer a bone-shattering high-five.
“He did an Oly lift, and it blew me away,” Dancer said. “I can’t teach some 20-year-olds who have been playing sports their entire lives to snatch like that.”
James, 27, is a CrossFit athlete of about four months. He loves to deadlift, bench-press and jump rope, and he also has Down syndrome. Once a week, he trains with Dancer — who took 10th at the Central Regional this year — at QTown CrossFit, Dancer’s affiliate in Quincy, Illinois.
“I like CrossFit because I’m good,” James said. “I also have lots of friends here. But mostly because I’m good.”
After Dancer helped team CrossFit Conjugate Black take second place in the Affiliate Cup at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games, he moved from Cincinnati back to his hometown to take the helm at QTown CrossFit. For Dancer, CrossFit is more calling than sport. He described CrossFit QTown’s mission as “to service Quincy, Illinois, with a health and wellness center, where people can come and get well, and then can feel good and they can perform at a higher level, whether that be from injured to normal or normal to better.”
With more than 200 members, QTown CrossFit is doing just that. But after attending Wodapalooza in Miami in January and hearing the crowd scream for the adaptive athlete division, Dancer’s vision got a whole lot bigger.
“You would think that Jason Khalipa and Rich Froning were going head-to-head in a fistfight,” he said.
QTown CrossFit had recently begun a partnership with the Area 11 Special Olympics program, and after speaking with a fellow affiliate owner whose daughter has Down syndrome, Dancer decided to reach out to others like her.
“It opened my mind and heart,” Dancer said. “I have no experience and I have no education; I didn’t go to school for this, but talking with them, they put my mind at ease. People with Down syndrome are no different. You don’t coach them any differently than anyone else.”
Today, Dancer trains two athletes with Down syndrome: James and Chris, also 27.
“James is kind of like a free spirit, he’s a goofball,” Dancer said. “And Chris, I call him ‘Coach.’ He’s always trying to coach me and tell me how to do things.”
Both have been diagnosed as low functioning, but Dancer disagrees.
“Society sees [Down syndrome] as a disability,” Dancer said. “But I haven’t seen it yet … they show up every time, with no complaints and no reservations. They listen, they’re attentive, they do their damn best to do what I say and we have a freaking blast … there’s nothing not able about it.”
Like most new CrossFit athletes, James and Chris were hesitant about training at first.
“At first, they kind of kept to themselves, and they were maybe a little nervous to express themselves through movement,” Dancer said. “But as soon as you cover one thing, they have it, to a degree. They have that routine set when they walk in the door tomorrow.”
Routine, Dancer said, is key to helping the pair learn and feel comfortable in the gym. They might pull a sled, row 1,500 meters and go for a heavy deadlift before learning one new skill at the end of each session.
“They know pretty well at this point what the days are gonna look like, which blows me away because I’ve had members here for three years who don’t do that,” Dancer said.
And just like the rest of the athletes at QTown CrossFit, Dancer expects James and Chris to demonstrate progress.
“They know that each week, they need to move better and perform better,” he said. “Maybe it’s that they have to row one-tenth of a second faster on a 100-meter sprint or lift 5 pounds more on a lift … I try to always set up their programming in a way that they’re always setting personal records.”
Around the same time that James got his first snatch, Chris pulled a 235-pound deadlift, a PR. But just as important as setting his athletes up for success, Dancer said, is giving accolades only when they are earned.
“I don’t tell them they did a good job on something if they didn’t do what I know they have the ability to do,” he said. “I’m setting them up for success, but I’m also not trying to entertain them by talking down to them.”
For as much as Dancer has taught James and Chris how to move, they’ve taught Dancer to improve as a coach, as he develops new cues and teaching methods that he carries into regular classes. But more striking still is how the duo has helped Dancer to be a better person, he said.
“I’ve been teaching them the fundamentals of movement, and they have taught me the fundamental principles of humanity,” he said. “How we should treat people, how we should work, how we should always give everything we have … and there’s never any excuse not to love someone or not to give someone a hug or a high-five … I’ve learned a hell of a lot from these guys.”
On July 11, James, Chris and 200 of their fellow athletes will participate in QTown CrossFit and Area 11 Special Olympics’ Row Raiser, a team and adaptive athlete full marathon row event organized to raise funds for the Special Olympics. And besides funds, Dancer hopes to raise awareness among athletes of all abilities that there’s a home for them in QTown CrossFit.
“It doesn’t matter where people are in life, whether they have Down syndrome, missing limbs, emotional issues, whether they are obese or terminally ill — I don’t care who they are, where they are, what they’re doing. I just want to be able to make sure that we have a place for them here,” Dancer said. “We can help them get healthier and stronger and learn more about themselves and their hearts and their minds, and what it means to be … on a team and achieve something greater than themselves.”