Ryan Armitage finds his clients ‘all have the fire’
It’s been eight years since Tim Fauquier rolled his wheelchair up to trainer Ryan Armitage in a hallway outside the Soloway Jewish Community Centre’s gym, tapped him lightly on his side, and asked if he could help him develop some grip strength.
Armitage was taken by surprise. He looked down at the diminutive Fauquier, then 65. His fragile body was curled up in a wheelchair. He had been struck by Guillain-Barre syndrome several years earlier. He weighed just 80 pounds and was weak and emaciated. He had been told he’d never walk again.
Armitage, just 25 at the time, wasn’t sure what to do. Until then, he had worked only with healthy gym-goers. But he bent over, gently lifted Fauquier out of his wheelchair and put him on a rowing machine in the centre’s weight room, where he was just able to hold onto the handles of the rower and pull a bit.
It’s an understatement to say that encounter changed Fauquier’s life. Eight years later, he still works out with Armitage three times a week. At 73, he can walk again and he drives his own car.
But that encounter changed Armitage’s life and the scope of work done at the SJCC as well. Ottawa Jewish Bulletin caught up with him in a rare moment between classes and clients:
Your work with Tim Fauquier, double-leg amputee John Woodhouse and others has been featured on the front page of The Ottawa Citizen and on Global National TV. How has that changed things for you?
I don’t personally need to be in the newspaper, but it’s been so positive for so many people. I sent the articles to the Ontario minister for long-term care and now John (Woodhouse) has a new wheelchair. Donations have been made to Stride Ottawa (a group that provides equipment for the disabled) in John’s name. One trainer messaged me from Toronto and said, “I do 35 sessions a week, but I’m going to add an extra hour to do this kind of work.” I’ve been contacted by people from all over the country saying, “I didn’t think I could do it, but I’m going to go to the gym now.” It’s cool. It’s been quite the ride.
Has your clientele changed as a result of the publicity?
There’s definitely been an influx of people coming in. I still teach 11 classes a week, but in terms of personal training, it’s almost all I do now. I have upwards of 15 clients with different challenges. A lot of people with disabilities never thought there was a place for them in the city, but once they saw the articles, they knew this was a very welcoming place.
How old are your clients?
The oldest, Tom Mimee, is 99. He’s been coming three times a week. He took some time off over the winter, but he’s coming back. He’ll turn 100 this summer and he’s sharp as a tack. A lot of my clientele base is over 70. I have about 10 who are over 80.
Is this the way you thought your career would unfold?
Not at all. I was in the first class Fitness and Health Promotion program at Algonquin College. I thought I’d be training elite athletes.
How do you feel about how this
turn of events?
I find it a lot more rewarding to be able to help people be able to be independent, to be able to cook, or walk, or drive, and to be able to take care of themselves. Especially those people who slip through the cracks. I’ve never met anyone with a work ethic like Tim Fauquier. This person’s not supposed to be able to stand up, and they’re breaking into a full body sweat. The people I’m working with all have the fire.
You work with people with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s, Down syndrome … how do you know what to do in each case?
I do a lot of research. I find the best thing to do is to learn about the affliction itself, then go from there. Along with Julie Nott, another trainer here, I’m working on an Inclusive Fitness Trainer program through the American College of Sports Medicine. But one thing I’ve learned is that you need to customize, based on exactly what’s going on with that person. It’s trial-and-error and a lot of listening.
Could this have happened anywhere else?
The JCC is an absolutely amazing place. A lot of things for people with challenges can be a struggle; you take up more space sometimes. But this place has given us the full range to work with people with all sorts of difficulties. The members themselves have been so welcoming. We joke that the JCC is like (the TV show) “Cheers” where everybody knows your name. It’s like a big family.
What advice do you have for people with disabilities?
Don’t give up on yourself. Don’t assume there’s nothing you can do. You might not get back to 100 per cent, but even one per cent is upwards. I tell people, “You have two alternatives. Either you come here and you try and you get a bit better, or you don’t.” Even mentally, it’s a big positive. I had one woman say that just smelling the gym makes her happy because she’s back doing what she used to do. It’s like the stock market: you might have setbacks, but overall it will go up. I’ve seen miracles after miracles.
What advice do you have for average folks?
Same advice. Don’t get complacent. Keep trying to better yourself. What I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be afraid to push people. Exercise can be the cure for a lot of things, physically and mentally. You can always feel better.