Asheville’s adaptive athletes program

This piece is part of our AVLtoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.

Julie Hansell is the head coach of an Asheville-based adaptive athletes program that provides a space for individuals with physical or neurological disorders, amputees, and other injured persons to take part in functional movement. For the past two years, she has worked with Underground Fitness co-owner Stephanie Richie to provide a safe and welcoming environment for adaptive athletes to gather and grow with one another.

Tell us about this program and how it got started.

In 2018, my friend Karla Furnari, who [co-coordinates] the Buncombe County Special Olympics took a course to become certified adaptive CrossFit coaches and started offering the classes at South Slope CrossFit. When South Slope closed in September 2020, we moved the program to Underground Fitness, an interval training gym that’s downtown. Stephanie really helped us save the program.

Tell us about your athletes.

We started with just a handful in 2018, and through word-of-mouth, we’ve grown to 20+. We have athletes with a variety of adaptations and the ages range from 13 to 50+. Athletes that have been with us for a few years have completely shifted and grown — the physical transformations are amazing, but it’s the mental and emotional transformations [that are] the best part.

How does the program benefit the athletes?

One benefit of it is that they become stronger and they’re able to perform activities of daily life better. The movements we do help them build coordination, balance, and core strength.

The other benefits come in the form of strengthening their mental and emotional health. In class, we aim to build their confidence and communication skills. They get to interact with other athletes, caretakers, and volunteers at classes, so it’s a social time for them as well.

Who are 2-3 local leaders that you’re inspired by? Why?

Stephanie Richie because she helped me get the adaptive program back on its feet after COVID and Karla Furnari, who has done so much work to help bring more awareness to Buncombe County Special Olympics.

What do you think Asheville will be known for in 10 years?

Asheville will be known as a community that provides opportunities for adaptive individuals to gain independence, education, and opportunities for self-expression.

If Asheville was an exercise or type of workout, what would it be?

[Asheville] would be an AMRAP — an “as many reps as possible” workout that helps build strength and endurance but can be completed at your own speed — because you can go at your own pace here.

How would you like to see the program grow over the next few years?

Right now, we just meet once a week + I’d really like to eventually see it meet more than that. I also really want to see [adaptive] events here — either CrossFit competitions or fitness events that the adaptive athletes can take part in. We have done some exhibitions in the past; the adaptive athletes received metals and they loved it.

Also, overall I would love for more people to know about the program. When people know about it, they want to do whatever they can to help and [subsequently] more opportunities arise for [the athletes] to showcase what they do.

How can the greater Asheville community support the adaptive athletes program?

Help us create awareness about the program — whether it’s by volunteering or sharing the word. The great part about it is, [when athletes or their families hear about it] all they have to do is show up — it’s always free for athletes to attend class.

Also, donate to Buncombe County Special Olympics. We aren’t technically affiliated with the organization, but a lot of our athletes are part of it and donations help that program grow, which in turn creates awareness for us.

How can adaptive athletes join?

We hold a free class every Wednesday at Underground Fitness (144 Biltmore Ave.) at 3:30 p.m. and no registration is required. If you’re interested but want more information before coming, please contact me.

Show your support for the program + the Buncombe County Special Olympics by making a donation or becoming a volunteer. For more information about Underground Fitness and the other exercise programs the business offers, click here or send an email.

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