Good morning Fringe Fam. This is Peter from Fringe Sport and I am talking today with Brendan Aylward from Unified Health and Performance. Brendan runs a gym and one of the interesting things that we're going to be getting into in a moment is that they are the only gym in Massachusetts that specializes in strength and conditioning for athletes with disabilities. Brendan, how are you doing this morning?

Brendan Aylward: I'm good. How about yourself?

I'm a little cold; got a little stuffiness. But other than that, I am fantastic. Brendan, tell us a little bit about your background.

Brendan Aylward: Yeah. I am 24 years old and I graduated from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts a couple years ago. I guess the journey started 9 or 10 years ago in high school when I volunteered with Special Olympics in my local district and really enjoyed it. And before that, I really had no exposure to working with people with disabilities. But for some reason I was really drawn to it when I was there, just the social aspect of it, the fact that I could be in a role where I was helping people, ended up being a big part of my life. So I kind of ballooned from there. I studied special education in college, actually, so wasn't in exercise science, wasn't in business. But through the network, I developed.

I've done a lot with Special Olympics. I've had the chance to coach at nationals for Team Massachusetts and they've been a big support along the last 17 months that the gym's been open. It opened in July of 2016. They've been a big help. I raced for Team Hoyt New England, which is wheelchair racing. I push a wheelchair in 5K, half marathons, marathons. The Hoyts, if you're familiar with them, they've been a huge support as well. Essentially, I've just over the last 10 years have developed a great network within the special ed world, within the athletics world, and that kind of allowed me to jumpstart my business and my gym.

I kind of came from a place where I already had a lot of interest. It wasn't like I opened a gym because I wanted to open a gym. I opened a gym because I had all these adaptive athletes, not the best term, but that's how I'll differentiate the athletes with disabilities. I had a bunch of adaptive athletes that could benefit from this service, so instead of teaching, which I was loving, I decided to take this route and I opened Unified Health and Performance about a year and a half ago.

Wow. That's really interesting. One question that comes to my mind is: Is this a for profit gym or is this some sort of 5013c non profit?

Brendan Aylward: Yeah, so I kind of battled back and forth when I was putting together the business plan whether it was going to be a for profit or non profit. The non profit world was all I knew from Special Olympics and I thought it was great. I go to these huge fundraising events that could be great for when I'm trying to purchase equipment and everything, but then once I got the idea that it wasn't going to be a non profit out of my head, I was able to take an approach to how I could make it a functioning business without that reliance on fundraising. I knew I would have the support if I went that way, but I guess that initial ... There were things about the non profit sector that it wasn't going to work perfectly with, like I could fundraise initially to open up this gym. But then it's not really truly putting the money towards what the mission would be, so there were just too many nuances with the non profit that weren't lining up perfectly. So once I got that out of my head, I kind of took a step back and spent more time figuring out how to make it a for profit.

Like I said, I didn't come from a business background, so it was kind of all new to me. But it is a for profit. Sometimes I'll collaborate with Special Olympics on a project and maybe that will open us up to a grant opportunity, so we have been able to work with Special Olympics and a couple other foundations on different programs that I run. We collaborate with some non profits, but as a business, I am a for profit.

Got you. Thanks for clarifying that. One other interesting thing, you had mentioned being in a few wheelchair races with Hoyt. Do you have any disabilities?

Brendan Aylward: No. I have a kid that lives with me on the weekends, and he is a 13 year old with down syndrome and autism and just as a way for us to have something to do on the weekends, we started doing some races together. I was pushing him in a chair. Him and I have done about 60 races together, half marathons, marathons, 5K. I'm pushing him, so I'm the runner and he's the rider.

Wow. That is really amazing, so good on you for that. Let's get back to the gym a little bit. You talked a little bit about your experience with Special Olympics and then getting your special ed degree. You mentioned the gym opening a year and a half ago. How long ago did you really get it in your mind that you should open a gym to help this population?

Brendan Aylward: I think the last two years of college is when it really became a focus for me and that's when I started trying to structure my college schedule. I took a few business classes, took a biology, some anatomies. Started just kind of accumulating some certifications and such. Got my NASM personal training, got a strength and conditioning cert. I started working with some clients on an individual basis, and then I also started working with the high school basketball team, just the typical athlete basketball team. And I was doing strength and conditioning for them. I was, these couple years, volunteer work or whatever, just trying to build up a clientele base that I knew would transition to the gym when I was to open a facility.

Those last two years of college, I commuted to school. I worked full time in special ed and also did some volunteer strength and conditioning work to just kind of get my feet wet. I think learning in person will always trump the certifications. Yeah. I started getting experience in that route and then a lot of those kids came over to the gym when I opened the brick and mortar facility.

I love it. That's really fantastic. Let me dig in on another thing that you had mentioned that was interesting to me. You had used the term adaptive athlete earlier, and you had said that it wasn't the best term. I've heard this. I did a little work with Rush Club, which is based out of Arizona and they do have a category for what they call adaptive athletes. But I've never heard any, let's say nuance or disagreement around that term. Talk me through what you were meaning when you said that it wasn't your preferred term.

Brendan Aylward: Well, I don't think it's a bad term, per se, but the way we approach things at the gym, I have about 70 athletes with disabilities, and then a couple hundred without. I think the thing that's unique about the gym ... And I'll circle back to the adaptive athlete discussion. Everyone's kind of treated the same way, so if I have an athlete in a wheelchair that hasn't been able to exercise before because they don't have the right environment to do so, the fact that they are in a wheelchair isn't really that important for how we're going to work them out. Once you get the idea that they can't walk off the table, then you figure out ways that you can put together a program that works towards whatever goal they want, whether that's losing weight, whether that's getting stronger. The fact that they're in a wheelchair, there's still hundreds of exercises that can be performed in a wheelchair.

We take that. I guess you could call it a quiet, centered approach, and it kind of gets rid of the disability in turn. And I take that same approach with my college football athletes. Maybe they can't squat to parallel because their hip mobility is not good, so we take a step back. We figure out how to get them to that goal and then work from there. I think adaptive athlete isn't a bad term, but we, or at least I like to think that every athlete is similar in how they can be trained and I think that thought process can be applied to all gyms and hopefully can be made to kind of encourage the inclusive fitness movement. But adaptive athlete's not a bad term. I've never seen anyone offended by it, and I think it is necessary to kind of differentiate categories, maybe. But I just like to say that all of our athletes are athletes, and the fact that they have a disability doesn't make them any different, if that makes sense.

Yeah. It definitely does. This question I think might pair nicely with that previous question. You did mention that you work both with athletes with disabilities and then athletes without disabilities. Are there any broad lessons or differences that you can bring from that? How do you approach that differently? How do approach those athletes differently when they have disabilities versus those that don't?

Brendan Aylward: As a coach, you mean?

Sure. Yeah.

Brendan Aylward: Yeah. I don't know because with my background being in special ed, I think just being around so many different types of disabilities and non verbal athletes versus verbal athletes, behavioral disabilities versus physical and intellectual disabilities, you just meet such a broad variety of people that communicate in different ways, move in different ways. I think that has been so beneficial to working with all athletes. You can know all the exercise science in the world, but if you can't communicate with a client and make them excited to work out, express why you're doing something and how they can benefit from it, kind of understanding non verbal cues.

I think you can recognize when an athlete's not really into something or when maybe they're not feeling great as they move, but they don't want to say that. If you can pick up on all these things, I think having my background in special ed and ten years of Special Olympics, I kind of learned how to read people and that made a huge difference in just how I interact with all of my athletes. I think I can easily switch between encouraging someone with a disability that may not want to work to kind of motivating or being a little harder on one of my college athletes that kind of needs a little bit of a kick. So I think just that experience of working with a variety of different types of people has benefited my coaching as a whole.

I love it. Well, thank you for giving us that clarity. Believe it or not, we're at time. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our audience?

Brendan Aylward: No. I think as my business progresses, I'm looking for ways to coach people in being more inclusive in their fitness centers. I guess if there's people that are interested in talking about how to include athletes with disabilities, or if they have an athlete and they're not sure how to work with them, I would love to help out in any way.

That sounds fantastic. I found you online at unifiedhp.com and on Facebook at Facebook.com/unifiedhp. Are those the best ways for people to find you or are there some better ways?

Brendan Aylward: Yeah. Those two are great. There's a contact form on the website, and then I'm pretty active on Instagram as well. That's just unifiedhp as well.

Awesome. Well, I'll definitely give it a follow and we'll link it up here in the shot notes. Brendan, this has been awesome, really a surprising and very cool interview. I love what you're doing and thank you very much. Keep rocking and rolling, brother.

Brendan Aylward: All right.

And to everybody else out there in the Fringe community, drop Brendan a line if he's doing something that you want to talk to him about. Rock and roll. Go lift something heavy today. Cheers, Brendan.

Brendan Aylward: Thanks so much.


Peter Keller
Peter Keller

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