Accessing Athleticism

By Anna Woods

In Special Populations

February 06, 2013

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Trainer Anna Woods reports great success adapting the CrossFit program to clients with disabilities, whose PRs are measured not in seconds or pounds but improved daily function.

When I tell people I am a CrossFit trainer, the first assumption is that I work with skilled athletes. And I usually respond that I work with a different kind of athlete. I train athletes with more determination, fearlessness, ability and competitiveness than most any other trainer I know.

The athletes I train have developmental disabilities—disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism and Asperger syndrome—while others are bound to a wheelchair. What’s so unique about training this population is that their fitness routine is truly a lifeline to their ability to function in life. Their days outside the gym are often filled with little variance, low intensity and varying levels of function. Conversely, CrossFit is the prescription that counteracts the routine of their day-to-day lives.

There’s a saying that it doesn’t matter what level you’re at because the feeling of accomplishment is the same. This couldn’t be more true than when it comes to the group of people I work with. Progress may not be highly recognized by common standards in the fitness world, but for my clients, their progress is something we celebrate.

Waking up with less pain, having the newfound ability to comb your own hair, regaining the ability to transfer yourself from the wheelchair to the bed, losing enough weight to fit into a new wheelchair or climbing an entire flight of stairs without assistance are the kinds of achievements we celebrate every day.

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19 Comments on “Accessing Athleticism”


wrote …

This is a great and much-needed article. Thank you for writing it. As an athletics specialist in the disability sports world, I would like to mention one thing. When referring to individuals who utilize wheelchairs, we strive to first focus on their humanity and then mention that they use wheelchairs. To say someone is "bound to a wheelchair" insinuates that they live in it around the clock, that it's kind of like another appendage instead of a mode of transportation. I know this may just seem like a figure of speech, but we believe it's essential to lead in the disability world through our language.

Thank you again for your article. I wish you all the best! ~Mitch


wrote …

I get where you are coming from and I appreciate your commentary. I did not intend to insinuate anything of that sort and clearly do not want to misrepresent anyone, so I apologize for that. Thank you!


wrote …

Thank you, great article! My 21 month-old has Down syndrome, so its neat to see your ideas for training and motivation. Keep it up!



wrote …

Thanks Tim!
My 3-year old son has Down Syndrome as well, so he definitely motivates me in this field, for his future as well!


wrote …

Wonderful article. Every human being is entitled to pursue fitness. Thank you for your efforts to serve your neighbors in such a powerful and profound way.



wrote …

I found this article to be an incredible boost for me, and an encouragement as far as scaling, rehabilitation, and passion goes. Thanks for the great story.


wrote …

So wonderful. Great work, Anna.


wrote …


Thank you for this wonderful article.
My older bother is blind and mentally disabled and I recently experienced the awesomeness of teaching/coaching him!
Unfortunately, he is in Florida and I live in Brooklyn NY.

I would like to reach out and coach clients with disabilities.
Do you have any suggestions on how to get started in my community.

Have success!!



Lawson Auden wrote …

Hi Anna, what an inspirational article. Thank you.

I found this fascinating because I'm a CF-L1 but also have a day job as Comms Officer for Thistle Foundation in Edinburgh, Scotland, which supports people with disabilities and health conditions. One of the services we offer is a gym - but we don't offer CrossFit there! I'll be passing your article along to them though!

Great stuff.

Thanks again Anna.



wrote …

Hi Anna,

Good for you! Your work is truly appreciated and certainly inspiring to us all. Years ago, I volunteered to coach handicapped children in basketball and baseball. I found it challenging and rewarding.

Thanks again,


wrote …


I sincerely thank you for sharing your inspirational experiences with the special population you coach. Just like CrossFit Kids, CrossFit Moms, and Wounded Warrior coaching help us understand scalability outside of our usual concepts; your work is very important to reaching our goal of infinite scalability. Keep up the good work and take good notes.
Inspirational stuff!



replied to comment from Juan Blanco

I started in this field through exposure to this population. SO I would recommend volunteering at Special Olympic sporting events, checking in at day-service providers in your community--set up a proposal of your ideas/services, talk with special education providers in your local schools--do demo's in classes, get to know parents/support groups of people with special needs...
Those are just a few ideas.
Hope that helps!


wrote …

Wonderful article Anna!! I have a sister that has Prader Willi Syndrome, she struggles with her weight. I am a CF-L1 trainer and have thought about having her come to my box to see if it would help her, this article makes me believe that we can help her and so many others in our community! Thank you for sharing your story! Keep up the great work!

Thanks again!



wrote …

Excellent and inspiring stories Anna. You have a great heart and so do all your athletes! Keep it up-


wrote …

Great article Anna. I want to commend you on your fantastic imagination for adapting wods for those with special needs. There is such a vast difference in this populations degrees of function that it is impressive you are able to make it work. Kudos. I am a L-1 and my son has multiple handicapps and I have put thought into teaching movement patterns to him but couldn't imagine trying to get it into a wod format for a group.


wrote …


My three year old has Down Syndrome as well. He is my true inspiration. Being someone who has preached the effectiveness of CrossFit since early 07 I always knew I would teach my boy CrossFit to help him have the most "normal" life he can. A life with as few boundaries as possible. I am at a pivotal point in my carrier as well. I have been an LEO for 7 years now and am looking at going back to school to become a therapist to work with people with developmental issues. Thank you for showing that it can be done and keeping me motivated to turn a new chapter in my life. Keep up the great work.


wrote …


What a great article! Congrats to you! Hope the opening of your box is going well! Keep up the great work!



wrote …

As a veteran Adapted Physical Education Specialist and newfound crossfitter, I have been greatly inspired by your article. I have always been in the cutting edge of different exercise modalities, and have felt that crossfit would be my next step in improving the life of children with special needs. I work with exceptional students from all ability levels. They range from students with mild learning disabilities to students with severe cognative impairments. I have implemented several of CF functional movements into my students' exercise schedules and have seen a great improvement not only in their fitness levels but also in their behavior. We have a weekly WOD (or WOW) that progresses through out the week. my next step is to become Level 1 and Crossfit Kids certified. Thank you so much for your article, it has really been a motivational tool. It has lit fire under my seat to become certified.



wrote …

Hi Anna,
I am about to begin a program like this in our box and would love to email you to get a better idea of how to go about things! Let me know if you would be interested! Thanks a ton!


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