Steppin' It Up offers benefits for those with challenges
It’s 10 a.m. on a June Wednesday at Mesa Fitness, and trainer Stacy Antonucci coaches one of her clients on a weight machine.
“One! Two! Three!” Antonucci chants. “Push! Seven! Awesome, Lindsay — go as high as you can! Eleven! Twelve!” At the end of the set, the two share big smiles and earned high-fives, and trainee Lindsay Hamilton rests up to go one more.
While this may seem like an average scene for a fitness center, it’s actually extraordinary. Antonucci’s clients aren’t your standard gym rats. They’re people facing various mental and physical challenges, and they’re taking part in a nonprofit fitness program called Steppin’ It Up.
Antonucci, 47, began Steppin’ It Up six years ago to help people with special needs receive all the benefits of health and fitness, which aren’t merely weight control and strength. Fitness has intangible benefits, too, such as increased confidence and self-regard.
“Self-esteem is the biggest piece I see integrating into their lives,” Antonucci said. She’s witnessed lightning-fast changes in program members once they join. They walk taller, pulling their shoulders back and occasionally checking out their reflections in the gym mirrors.
“It’s almost instantaneous that they start feeling better about themselves,” Antonucci said.
This confidence is obvious during Steppin’ It Up’s group workout sessions at Mesa Fitness. Her clients, dressed in typical bright and stretchy exercise garb, are chatty and enthusiastic as they move about the gym, warming up first on treadmills and cross-training machines, then heading to the weights before playing a round of basketball.
One longtime gym member, Tony Prinster, smiles at Antonucci as the group spreads out on the treadmills in front of him.
“She’s extremely good with the kids,” Prinster said. “It’s a pleasure to watch what she can do.”
Antonucci and her assistant David Chitwood, a Colorado Mesa University student who is working with Steppin’ It Up as part of his studies in health and fitness promotion, move energetically about the group, coaching, encouraging and laughing.
“I love Stacy,” said program participant April Sinner as she pumps through a few minutes on an elliptical machine. “She’s a good trainer and a good friend.”
Sinner was looking forward to playing basketball in the Special Olympics Colorado Summer Games that began Friday and continue through today at Stocker Stadium and various locations on Colorado Mesa University’s campus. She planned to play basketball in the games.
Sinner trains with Antonucci three days a week and has lost dozens of pounds since starting the program around three years ago.
Antonucci said training people with special needs is mostly like training anyone else. Some days one of her clients might come in with an attitude, she said, but she’ll talk straight to him and push him harder through their workout.
“People with special needs tend to get lumped into one category, but they should be treated as individuals,” Antonucci said. If you focus on a single thing about someone, “you’re going to miss out on that person.”
Antonucci hasn’t always worked with people with disabilities, though she is experienced in fitness. Her father, Colorado state legislator Dan Thurlow, owned the now-closed Grand Junction Athletic Club. Antonucci spent a lot of time there while growing up, and she began teaching fitness classes part time at various locales when she was 23.
She primarily worked, though, as a stay-at-home mom before spending 10 years in the building industry as an interior designer. But seven years ago, her business — she felt she’d burnt out on it anyway — went bankrupt as a result of the housing market crash, and she searched for how to reinvent herself.
She called a friend who had connections in the medical industry to see if he had any job leads in that field, and he in turn asked her if she would consider helping out with his daughter, Suzi Northup, who has Down syndrome.
At first, Antonucci declined. She hadn’t worked with anyone with special needs before, and she worried she wouldn’t know what to do or how to best support Northup. But Antonucci had a change of heart after meeting Northup for the first time.
“I absolutely fell in love with her,” Antonucci said. “We just hit it off.”
Antonucci took Northup to various activities around Grand Junction, where she discovered a supportive special-needs community she’d never known within the Grand Valley community she thought knew so well.
Yet, she felt the care Northup received could be “stepped up.” Antonucci sensed that people with disabilities are often thought of as limited, told what they can’t do rather than what they can do. She began to work with Northup on her fitness and saw impressive results.
“The transformation that she went through after only two weeks of getting into a regular routine was huge,” Antonucci said of Northup. “I was dumbfounded by it.”
Northup was at first diffident and deferential, always following Antonucci around the gym from behind. But then she began to look people in the eyes and shake the hands of others. She began to walk beside Antonucci or even lead the way.
The positive changes she saw in Northup drove Antonucci to create Steppin’ It Up from scratch, despite the challenges of entering new nonprofit territory with few models and little information. Antonucci was dauntless.
“It’s so rewarding,” she said of her work. “I think everyone wants a job that they feel happy to go to, and I just love my job.”
The 25 current participants in Steppin’ It Up have a mix of abilities and needs, but Antonucci said it is much more important to carefully listen to each person she works with than to do a bunch of research on his or her disability.
“I’ve seen so many people come through my program who have never been given the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “Then they walk away saying, ‘Jeez, I can do this!’”
Aside from fitness training, Antonucci sets up field trips for her clients throughout the summer months, such as taking part in the local 5K obstacle course race called The Gauntlet. Next month, they’ll hike in Colorado National Monument.
She’s also organizes a Girls Only Group that meets once a month to discuss issues particular to women, and she wants to arrange a similar boys’ group soon.
Antonucci also would like Steppin’ It Up to hold all-day programs in the winter as well as the summer and to find a means of visiting gyms in different communities in order to share the model of her successful organization.
But these achievements require financial growth. Antonucci’s clients pay for their fitness sessions and for field trip attendance, and she also garners donations from Mesa Fitness members, letter-writing campaigns and fundraisers such as an event the CMU Alumni Association will host at Graff Dairy on Wednesday.
Back at Mesa Fitness, Steppin’ It Up participant Charlie Nagy shoots hoops with his fitness group. His mother, Leslie Nagy-Hartlauer, who worked in the special education program at Grand Junction High School for 17 years, watches him and reminisces about how he used to shoot underhand when he was little. But he’ll be shooting overhand like the pros at the Special Olympics’ Colorado games, his 19th year in a row.
Nagy, who has been diagnosed with a variety of disabilities from autism to hearing loss, loves his training sessions. His mother said he is staying active and making better eating choices at home. He also managed to drop more than 40 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes last summer.
“Stacy really encourages him,” she said. “She doesn’t let him get away with anything.”
The gym erupts with cheers and whoops as the workout group finishes a sprint race from one side of the basketball court to the other. Mothers and grandmothers who have arrived to collect their kids gather off to the side and watch.
“Stacy can get her to do things she would never do for us,” said Kelli Hamilton of her daughter Lindsay, appreciatively.
Tracy Garner, mother of participant Brandon Garner, agreed.
“The vision she has for them is so much higher than anything else even, sometimes, my own,” Garner said of Antonucci. “She encourages me to be better, too.”