Caryn Sullivan: Going for the gold

A young man from a small Minnesota town hopes to break the world record for deadlifting at the Special Olympics USA Games to be held in Orlando this June. 

Caryn Sullivan

When you have a child with special needs, it can feel as if the world is smaller, opportunities are fewer, and challenges are greater than they are for other kids. So, when a door opens and someone with the right heart walks through it, you feel as if you’ve struck gold.

When I met Harmony Clark earlier this month, I knew we have that shared experience of striking gold.

A single mother of three, Harmony lives in Springfield, Minn., 30 miles west of New Ulm, with her two school-aged daughters and her 26-year-old son, Austin Ewing.

We met to talk about Austin and how he is going for the gold.

Last summer, Austin was selected to be one of four to represent Special Olympics Team Minnesota in powerlifting. For months, he’s been training to compete in the Special Olympics USA Games to be held in Orlando this June.

The young man from a small town will compete with thousands of athletes representing the 50 states and the Caribbean.

Austin plans to do more than compete, though. His goal is to break the world record for deadlifting — 716 pounds.

And he aspires to represent the United States in the Special Olympics World Games to be held in Germany next year.

Austin began lifting weights in high school. In his first competition, he deadlifted 495 pounds for a win. When we met this month, he was deadlifting 675.

He is a self-described gym rat, spending four to five hours a day, several times per week, lifting at Extreme Fitness in Springfield, where he also works as a cleaner.

But he hopes to do more than lift weights and clean the gym.

He’d like to become a personal trainer.

When he earned a position on the Minnesota team, Austin was assigned a coach who made him believe all his dreams could come true.

Andrew Cameron is the owner of Lion’s United Fitness Center, a nonprofit gym that welcomes all athletes but caters to individuals with special needs.

During the week, the two communicate by text and Zoom.

On Sundays, Harmony, Austin, and the girls drive more than two hours each way so Austin can spend a few hours at Lion’s United working with Andrew and other athletes. This Sunday, the gym will be closed to all but Austin as athlete and coach prepare for the big lift.

Workouts with Andrew are worth every minute and every mile they log to make it happen, Harmony says, because Andrew has made a huge impact on her son.

Nestled in an office park in Mendota Heights, Lion’s United is a place where athletes aren’t defined by their physical or intellectual challenges. It’s a place where they’re treated with dignity and respect and encouraged to reach their potential. It’s a place where they’re called lions and encouraged to roar.

The embodiment of inclusiveness, Andrew welcomed Austin to Lion’s United by saying, “My gym is your gym.”

To Andrew, Austin is an athlete, not an athlete with autism and intellectual disability diagnoses.

To Austin, Andrew is a coach, friend, mentor, even a father figure.

Andrew, 36, brings more than empathy to his work. He has multiple fitness and nutrition certifications and years of experience with Special Olympics.

And, I’d argue, his calling is in his DNA.

Andrew’s father, Keane Cameron, spent years working with special needs athletes in the Mendota Heights area. My son was one of them years before he became one of Andrew’s clients.

If a child wanted to learn to swim, run, or ride a bike, Keane was their guy. At a time when parents like me had few such options, Keane offered a unique and treasured opportunity.

Through his own commitment and example, Andrew is passing it on.

And it’s contagious.

Austin hopes to be a role model for other kids with special needs who may harbor dreams but lack confidence. “I want them to think higher,” he says.

He also wants others to experience the unique environment that has helped him so much.

“I think everybody should test out this gym and see how Andy is an awesome coach,” he says.

When Austin lifts for the gold, it will be not just for himself, but also for his coach.

“I want to do really good nationally and take him to worlds,” he says about Andrew. “I want to put his gym on the map, too.”