Special Olympians gain confidence
03:09 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The Team USA floor hockey team needed more endurance, agility for Winter Games

Team members exercised five to six days a week and gave up soda, sugary snacks

Team's captain lost more than 50 pounds before traveling to South Korea

As coach Keith Nelson studied the opposing team, he realized his players were at a big disadvantage. Their future opponents moved quickly around the court, passing the puck with strength and agility.

His floor hockey team was out of shape. While in their hearts they were champions, their bodies weren’t quite ready for the challenge ahead.

If Team USA was going to win at the Special Olympics World Winter Games, Nelson thought, they had some conditioning to do.

Nelson has been a Special Olympics coach in Riverside, California, for 11 years. His oldest son, Ryan, 29, has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. When Ryan Nelson outgrew youth soccer, he joined the Special Olympics program. Since then, he has added basketball, floor hockey and track and field events to his athletic resume.

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Nelson decided his son would set an example for the floor hockey team. Father and son gave up soda and switched to water. They replaced sugary snacks with fruits and vegetables, focusing on eating an overall healthier diet.

Over the next few months, the younger Nelson lost 25 pounds.

Nelson took his plan to the rest of the team, recruiting his other son, Tyler, to design a training program. “He put the challenge out there and I accepted it,” said Teddy Leonard, captain of Team USA.

The players began working out five to six days a week. They started slow, doing low-impact exercises and lots of stretches to prevent injury. Since they didn’t have a lot of equipment, they used their bodies to strength train; push-ups, sit-ups and burpees became second nature.

“It was very hard at first,” goalie Lisa Salim said. “I thought to myself, ‘Am I going to do this?’”

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The teammates held each other accountable for healthy eating as well. If one person was caught drinking soda or chowing down on chocolate, the whole team did extra exercises at the next practice.

“The whole team suffered because one person stepped out of line,” Leonard said. “It helps you learn. … ‘I don’t want to do (any) more burpees so I’m going to stop this.’ “

Their efforts paid off. The team blew by its goal of losing a combined 300 pounds before the Winter Games. Fourteen players dropped a total of 400 pounds in preparation for their trip to PyeongChang, South Korea. Henry Young, a Type II diabetic, got to significantly cut back on his insulin injections. Salim now shops for dresses that are six sizes smaller. Leonard, one of the team’s biggest losers, dropped more than 50 pounds.

“I’m so proud of them, and I’m proud of myself,” Leonard said. “I feel great now. I feel good. I feel like now everything that I’ve been wanting is coming.”

Salim used to have trouble making it through more than three minutes of a floor hockey game. “I couldn’t move as fast … because I was always getting tired,” she said. But working out consistently and eating healthier has upped her game.

“I’m able to be on a run all the time,” Salim said. “I hope I never come back to being the way I used to be.”

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The weight loss has affected more than his team’s physical abilities, Nelson said. They’ve become more confident, working harder on and off the court.

“We have a saying in our team that we’re champions, but we’re champions in everything we do,” Nelson said. “We’re champions in how we work, how we walk around and how we want to live our lives. I think the exercise and nutrition program is just part of that.”

Leonard has even learned to control his anger issues, whether that’s an effect of the weight loss or his team’s continuous support is unclear. He plans to continue losing weight after the team returns home; he wants to drop from 350 to 280 pounds.

“This is forever,” he said. “I’m not going to stop doing it. No matter what happens, I’m not going to quit.”

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