Friday, May 22, 2015

And Fitness for All

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A new, specially-equipped gym in Phoenix caters to disabled people with accessible pools, a rock-climbing wall – even a wheelchair rugby league.

When Mike Benge works out, he really goes after it. We’re not just talking your basic weights and cardio – the buff 35-year-old is also a rugby player, likes to fence and unwinds with a little yoga. “I even salsa danced yesterday,” he admits with a smile. 

What makes Benge unique is that he maintains this level of activity despite losing the use of his legs in a car accident at age 19. His wheelchair never deterred him from hitting the gym, but it was something of an impediment. The crossbar on the lat machine? Unreachable. The stack-it-yourself bench press? Impractical.

Not anymore. In October of last year, the Virginia G. Piper Sports & Fitness Center for Persons with Disabilities (SpoFit) opened in Phoenix – only the second gym of its kind in the U.S. Designed specifically for people with disabilities, the 45,000-square-foot facility is outfitted with the latest in everything, from a jogging track wide enough to fit several wheelchairs to a weight room where every piece of equipment is accessible from a wheelchair. There are group fitness classes and team sports competitions, including a popular wheelchair rugby league. The gym features a lap pool where scuba training will be offered, and even a 35-foot indoor rock wall. Benge was the first person in a wheelchair to summit the wall. “[The gym] gets people to come out of their shell,” he says. “It’s clear they want people to feel comfortable right away.” 

SpoFit – which boasts upwards of 250 members – is open to those with any sort of disability, as well as their family members. Loren Worthington, communications and marketing manager for Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), the organization that spearheaded the gym’s development, says it was ABIL’s president, Phil Pangrazio, a wheelchair rugby player, who pushed for the $12.3 million needed to build the gym. The funds were a mixture of donations and a $5.3 million bond from the City of Phoenix.  

“Numerous people with backgrounds in adaptive sports and physical conditioning weighed in on all of the architecture and equipment,” Worthington says. “The hope is that the gym’s design is duplicated in other cities.” 

For their $35 monthly fee, members get access to a wholly unique product. Every feature of the gym was rigorously conceived to meet the needs of the physically-challenged, including the expertise of the trainers. “The fitness staff at SpoFit are specialized to work with people with disabilities, knowing the unique accommodations needed for each disability as well as any potential warning signs indicating a medical emergency,” says Amber Blanchard, SpoFit’s manager. In turn, SpoFit regulars can embrace their inner gym-rats with confidence. “I’ve had a lot of people say they haven’t worked out in years since their accident and now they’re in here doing bench presses,” Blanchard says.

Accessible Architecture
Architect ilan baldinger of Tempe’s Baldinger Architectural Studio, Inc. incorporated several special features at SpoFit:  

• Different textures on the floors help those with a vision disability sense where the restrooms are.
• Every shower and bathroom stall is handicapped accessible.
• Extra wide doorways and hallways make everyone’s travel easier.
• Controls for lights, elevators and emergency exits were lowered to be accessible for those in wheelchairs.
• Both the lap and therapy pools include elevator lifts that allow disabled users to enter the water safely.
• The two indoor courts include extra room around the edges to accommodate wheelchair spectators.

5031 E. Washington St., Phoenix, on the Disability Empowerment Center campus. For more information, visit