Lindsay Hilton and Crossfit Onside: Functional Fitness for the Adaptive Athlete

I first met Lindsay Hilton at the Crossfit Kinetics Fall Classic competition in Halifax, Nova Scotia in October of 2016. She was like all the other athletes at the event. She was giving 100% of her effort, pressing, pulling, jumping and agonizing over the work she put into it. Yet there was one thing separating Lindsay from the other athletes. Lindsay is a quadruple amputee and was competing without the use of hands or feet.

I watched her compete and I was in awe of the determination, strength, resilience and stamina Lindsay demonstrated. For those without significant physical differences, competing in such events takes courage, discipline and a little bit of craziness. Athletes often fail to hit a lift, get called for “no rep” by judges, come in last in some events and in general just put themselves out there in front of a group of people. To put herself out there in this competition and this ‘sport’ spoke volumes about who she is.

I knew from the time I saw Lindsay that I needed to sit down and have a coffee with her to pick her brain a bit. As someone who is involved in Crossfit, I hear all kinds of excuses, including “once I get into shape, I am going to start”, “I want to, I just don’t have time”, “I don’t think it is for people like me” and the list goes on. With Lindsay, there are no excuses when there could be a long list of excuses available. There is no adapted equipment readily available. She can’t reach the rings without support. The prescribed movements are simply too challenging. The list goes on for potential excuses but none of these seem to stick with Lindsay.

Lindsay and I met for coffee and I told her about my background/education in Therapeutic Recreation, my love of sport and Crossfit, and my job in the mobility equipment business. We talked about how the adapted nature of the sport has not caught on yet and that she doesn’t have a lot of competition locally. I thought of all the reasons why this would be so beneficial for someone who has physical challenges or differences. Individuals with spinal cord injuries, amputations and other physical challenges live a life of trying to figure out how to navigate our world which has not become fully inclusive. The ability to transfer, mobilize, complete activities of daily living, etc., depends on the strength, coordination, balance, agility, power and endurance that training in Crossfit helps to develop, not to mention the social and emotional benefits of working in a group and completing goals.

From my meeting with Lindsay, we agreed there was opportunity to promote what she is doing with the intention of getting more potential adaptive athletes/participants involved. The goal was not so much to develop new competitive athletes but to raise awareness and get more people participating who may not have been exposed to the activity before.

Crossfit Onside       

I went to meet with Lindsay and her coach and owner of Crossfit Onside, Jenny Lynn Jeffrey. Jenny explained the steps she is taking with Parasport Nova Scotia to find ways to bring this opportunity to people in similar situations to Lindsay. Recently Onside offered their second Adaptive Athlete seminar and there are plans to continue to offer similar opportunities. We also discussed all of the challenges Jenny faces and she described this experience as one that forces a coach outside their comfort zone which leads to growth as a coach. Jenny went on to explain how challenging it is to find the right equipment which is not always “one size fits all” due to the physical differences of those who come into train.

Crossfit is just one more area in our society that needs to be viewed through a lens of inclusivity. Box owners should review their accessibility of the site, support available to assist those with mobility challenges, identify training that would be beneficial for coaches and research adaptive equipment.

Jenny and Lindsay have found some resources as a starting point. Websites such as I Am Adaptive, Wheelwod and Working Wounded have some information that is useful for incorporating adaptive routines into Crossfit. Jenny and Lindsay have been scanning these resources and the athletes’ Facebook pages to see various equipment adaptations that people are coming up with. Other than that progress has been made by trial and error.

For Jenny and Nathan (co-owner Crossfit Onside/husband) their goal is to create awareness and get more people involved and trying out Crossfit. Her message is that there are so many more people who have varying levels of abilities that can try and have success if they just give it a shot.

Next steps

There is a lot of work to do and I see some clear next steps to making Crossfit more inclusive for all:

Ensuring Crossfit Boxes are accessible- whether opening a new club or reviewing an existing, owners should consider gaps in accessibility and come up with a plan to bring it to full accessibility. Owners should do their best to ensure layouts meet universal design standards. This comes with costs and may take some time to get up to full standard given the financial position new or existing owners may be in developing their business.

Obtaining expertise in adaptive sport- this isn’t taught in the Level 1 certification and is something that is going to take some work. That being said, all other sports now currently enjoyed by adaptive athletes have been adapted over time. I believe there may be a partnership with Occupational Therapists/students, Recreation Therapists/students, Bioengineers, Physiotherapists/students, etc., to lend some support to box owners to provide recommendations on safely adapting various movements.

Training of coaches- once a program is offered, it needs to be led by someone who has spent time learning (through groups mentioned above) and has more experience in running adaptive programs. I would also suggest the ratio of coach to athlete should be increased to ensure safety. Coaches are accustomed to training ‘able-bodied’ athletes and transferring their coaching skills to adaptive athletes is not an automatic process. Safety of athletes and coaches is imperative.

Engaging provincial sport organizations- Parasport NS and other provincial bodies would have experiences and resources to support initiative such as this one. There may be grants or in-kind resources available to box owners if it furthers the development of the sport.

Cooperation among boxes- there has been an anecdotal increase in cooperation between separate and distinct Crossfit boxes. If the adaptive nature of Crossfit is to flourish, owners will need to come together to share training ideas, run coaching clinics and put on events as a group. The benefits are not limited to the athlete and societal benefits, there are also the financial benefits to the box owners as this will open up a new demographic and new revenue opportunity.

The Challenge

There are a lot of individuals who would benefit from giving Crossfit a try. If we are to get individuals with disabilities or physical differences participating, we need the first impression to be a good one. We need to prepare ourselves to be great coaches, have accessible and welcoming boxes, and we need to challenge new athletes to push themselves to get stronger and fitter in a safe environment. I had a blast working out alongside (getting my butt kicked) with Lindsay and I think there is a considerable opportunity to make this the new norm.

Great work Lindsay and Jenny, a very inspiring story!





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