Over the last year, CrossFit Winter Garden has welcomed a group of Special Olympians looking to lift weights.
In the back of CrossFit Winter Garden, owners Lee and Alexis Lovette have their eyes glued to the phone screen in front of them.
The video they pull up shows Kenny Mais — a member of the gym — down to his third and final lift in a weightlifting competition. He has to lift and hold his position, or he loses.
And even though they know what happens, it still gives them goosebumps.
“I’m going to do my best not to cry,” Lee said. “This one gets me every time.”
Mais sticks the lift, and the phone explodes with a cacophony of sound, while a visibly excited Mais is seen celebrating.
“That’s my favorite video ever,” Alexis said with a laugh.
There’s more to the video than what’s on the surface. Mais, despite having severe autism, overcame all the odds and won gold with that third lift at the Special Olympics Florida State Summer Games at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports.
And Mais wasn’t the only Special Olympian out of CrossFit Winter Garden to bring home hardware. Thomas Bradford, Jay Feiner and Michelle Feiner each took gold, while John David Haywood snagged a silver medal back during May’s event.
Just about every Thursday over the last year, the “wolfpack” of Winter Garden has called the gym home, training with coaches to better their physical strength and endurance.
“It’s been great, because a lot of the Special Olympics stuff, they don’t train year round,” Lee said. “You have tennis part of the year, you have basketball or swimming and that’s it — we train year round, and that’s something that we do out of the kindness of our hearts. We say, ‘Hey, listen, every Thursday night we’ll meet up and work on something,’ just so they don’t lose their strength, but they still remember. Repetition is only going to make them better.”
Lee always has been a fitness nut, and he rightfully needed to be as a police officer down in Key West.
But his passion for training went deeper than just staying in shape for his profession — it was a drive to be better. With a background in powerlifting, Lee also taught CrossFit on the side, where he noticed a lack of weight training for Special Olympians.
“We had paddle boarding — we have all these things for Special Olympics down there … and I was like, ‘Why aren’t we powerlifting? We have so many special needs here in Key West, why aren’t we doing this?,’ Lee said. “So it was always on my mind.”
Fast forward to April of 2016, and Lee and Alexis had the perfect life going. They had bought their dream home in Key West, their son was born and everything was in its rightful place.
Then came the calling.
“In July I came to her and said, ‘Lex, you’re not going to believe this, but God wants us to go to Winter Garden to open a CrossFit gym,’” Lee said. “She was like, ‘Well when you talk to God, let him know that’s not happening,’ and I said, ‘Lex, this is weighing heavy on my heart and I don’t know why.’”
Once Lee’s mind was made up, that was it — the Lovettes moved to Winter Garden in August 2016, and a month later they opened up CrossFit Winter Garden.
SPECIAL OLYMPIANS FIND A HOME
Not long after the two opened up the gym, Lee was still looking to bring in Special Olympians. Luckily for him, it turned out that gym member Banks Adebanjo was actually the Central Florida director of Special Olympics at the time.
Several athletes from around the area flocked to Winter Garden, including Michelle Feiner.
Though she had done sports before, this was her first real go at lifting heavy weights.
“I didn’t even know what it was like, so I personally didn’t think I would like it,” Feiner said. “I was really nervous and I didn’t know what powerlifting was. I was struggling in the beginning — it was tricky and hard for me to get the hang of it.”
But as the early weeks went by, things got easier for Feiner and she noticed something about herself in the gym — she was actually enjoying it.
She started out deadlifting just the bar — which weighs 45 pounds — and by the time she knew it, she was lifting her current record of 175 pounds and winning gold medals.
“I’ve been really, really working hard to get to that point that I’m lifting now,” Feiner said. “And I’m the only girl that’s brave enough to come out and do this, because a lot of girls think they can’t do it — though anyone can do it if they put their mind to it.”
Over the span of a year, the athletes at CrossFit Winter Garden have grown as both athletes and people, and the reason for that goes beyond just lifting.
In the gym they’re equals and members of an extended family who love and support them, and that’s part of what keeps Special Olympians like Feiner coming back every Thursday night.
“It’s the positivity that they bring to what they do, and how much they take of their own time to help us learn to lift weights,” Feiner said. “I like the way they teach us. … I want to keep continuing to do it, because of them. I enjoy their company and their positivity.”