Written by: Mike Candelaria
Coach Silvia Haas’ soccer team gets in shape using the Special Olympics’ Fit 5 program.
Silvia Haas had doubts about her soccer team’s fitness.
Last summer, Haas challenged her group, made up of players with autism, to finish a 5K run by Thanksgiving.
“One of my big coaching philosophies is, ‘We’re going to wear out the other team,” Haas said. “We’re going to be the best conditioned team out there.”
The start of training wasn’t promising.
“They couldn’t even run a quarter-mile the first time I took them out,” said Haas, an Orlando Special Olympics coach who in 2009 founded a nonprofit facility to serve special needs called OCA (Opportunity, Community, Ability). Providing mostly after-school and summer programming, OCA has grown from serving 19 families to 400.
Haas’ 10 players — six from Orange County, three from Seminole and one from Lake — met their challenge. Their growth has been “amazing,” she said. Not coincidentally, in July the team returned home with gold from the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, Wash.
Haas, like other coaches of players with special needs, has embraced Special Olympics Fit 5, a program introduced earlier this year centered on three simple goals: exercising five days a week, eating five fruits and vegetables a day, and drinking five bottles of water daily. Although effective for anyone, the program is tailored to people with low muscle tone, like Haas’ autistic athletes, who are susceptible to quickly adding pounds through inactivity and poor diet.
A former physical education teacher, Haas had been working with some of them for 15 years and noted that “teaching the simple concept of standing in a straight line and waiting was extremely difficult.” In addition, some had started out having trouble making eye contact and expressing needs and wants.
“There was a lot of educating going on. Being fit is about educating,” Haas said. “There’s tremendous growth going on. Fitness has now become a part of their daily life.”
On training days, the players now run a 5K before doing anything else. At home, they go on two-mile walks, do push-ups and sit-ups — and, perhaps most importantly, they eat the right foods. Or, as Haas joked, they at least think about eating the right foods.
For Josue Hernandez, “vegetables that are very green like spinach, real meat like steak and chicken” are the go-tos for his gluten-free diet. These days, he tries “every machine at the gym” along with lifting weights, running on the treadmill and “core workouts.”
Has his new regimen paid off? “Absolutely,” said Hernandez, 25. “I have more endurance and actually gained more energy. I got stronger and quicker and I am able to focus more.”
How’s this for good nutrition? Make half of your plate fruits or vegetables, with the other half consisting of whole grains, dairy and protein. Also: Watch the amounts of food you put on your plate, and save junk food such as desserts and chips for special occasions.
Soccer team member Cesar Aponte, 18, loads up on bananas, apples and a “little bit of salad” while also lifting weights and running for conditioning. As a result, Aponte has “gained more energy; I am stronger and faster,” he said.
Teammate Julian Loht, 18, thinks about “drinking a lot of water and about different foods that I’m going to eat. I am avoiding chocolate and soda.” Loht added that his favorite form of exercise is running.
Similarly, Kristian Phifer, 18, tries to “make healthier choices,” with salad and apples as staples. “I have more oxygen, and I feel a lot better. I don’t have cramps like I use to get,” Phifer said.
Indeed, to people with special needs, fitness is a big deal, said Haas, who gave a big assist to Fit 5.
“People might not know this, but they are eager to work,” Haas said. “They want to know how to take care of themselves. They see body types, and they want to be fit.”