I’ve Found a Place I Belong at Unique Fitness

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by Matt Lafleur |

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“You ready to get crazy?”

Damon Vincent, both the founder of this gym and my personal trainer, greeted me the same way he normally does before my workouts. Sometimes he uses both cheesy statements and bad puns to motivate his clients, like when he says “Let’s grow!” instead of “Let’s go!” I smile at this. 

These silly quips are one way he encourages his clients to push beyond their perceived physical limits. Another is his sense of humor, which I’ve written about before. That is especially important since this gym was established for those with disabilities.

Unique Fitness isn’t a typical gym. It not only accommodates individuals with developmental and social disabilities but exists to serve them. Instead of struggling to fit into a world designed for the able-bodied, this gym is a special sort of haven where we are not judged by or ashamed of our disabilities. Instead, we can feel that we belong here.

Feeling that I belong anywhere has never been easy for me as a patient with Friedreich’s ataxia. I’m lucky to have friends and family who do all they can to accommodate me, but the condition’s slow degeneration saps abilities that I once took for granted, such as walking, cutting my steak, handwriting, and sitting with poise and balance. Since I regularly need others’ help to get by, I often feel like an inconvenience, a burden on those around me.

But at Unique Fitness, accommodations are the norm, not a special request. No one there has to, for example, request an adaptive piece of exercise equipment, because every piece there is adaptive.

Thus, people with special needs can feel that they belong when they are at this gym. And belonging is essential for human development, beginning in childhood.

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On this particular day, as I was heading to meet Vincent, ready to “get crazy,” I passed a couple of people in wheelchairs and a few others who’d either had health problems since birth or developed them as the result of an accident. 

Unique Fitness became its own facility after Vincent, who was working at another gym, starting leading a group exercise class for individuals with developmental needs, which he named “Unique Fitness.” The class became very popular and soon outgrew that room, so Unique Fitness moved to its own building and became an independent gym. It began by focusing on those with developmental needs in group classes but expanded to train anyone with any types of special needs.

I knew he had to have some connection into this “unique” world, so I asked Vincent if he had any direct relationship to the world of rare disease or disability. He told me that as a toddler, he was diagnosed with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). He has been taking medicines and treatments all his life due to his malfunctioning adrenal glands and their poor hormone production. He is currently on an experimental version of a new CAH treatment from the National Institutes of Health.

Vincent knows firsthand the ostracism that comes with living with a rare disease. This propelled him to create this atmosphere of belonging at Unique Fitness.

During my training session, Vincent helped transfer me onto the matted floor to do exercises outside of the wheelchair. As he lifted me, I noticed the tattoo on his wrist — his medical alert information. He is required to wear a bracelet detailing his medical information as a CAH patient so that EMTs wouldn’t unknowingly give him an injection of hormones that would be harmful to him. But he grew tired of wearing the same type of bracelet every day. Damon has fought in the MMA, and his sponsor knew he hated wearing it, so he promised to pay for a tattoo if Vincent won his next fight. Now, his medical alert badge is indelible. 

Vincent has been forever changed by his rare disease experience, and he uses this to help others. His experience is tattooed not only on his wrist, but on the entire gym.

He helped me onto the mat and a glimpse of the tattoo reminded me that I am in good hands.

My hope is that you, reader, find your own version of Unique Fitness, a place where you belong and can constantly push yourself to your physical limits without feeling like a burden.

As I settled on the floor, I prepared to exercise away from the usual support of my wheelchair. It’s unfamiliar to me, but I’m in a place I belong.

As a wise man says, “Let’s grow!”

Matt, left, getting crazy and growing with Coach Damon Vincent. (Courtesy of Matt Lafleur)

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Friedreich’s Ataxia News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Friedreich’s Ataxia News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Friedreich’s ataxia.

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