As a gymnast for more than a decade and coach for more than 17 years, Lauren Petrick is no stranger to the world of competitive sports. But it wasn’t until she became what she calls “accidentally” involved in special needs athletics that she saw the missing piece in that arena.
“I was working as a high-level gymnastics coach and began training one child with special needs,” she says. “Word got out and more people began to get involved.” From there, Petrick learned that the Special Olympics of Miami-Dade County gymnastics program had gone inactive, so she jumpstarted it… and found a new career. “I started the Special Olympics gymnastics program in Miami-Dade eight years ago and now we have more than 100 athletes,” she says. “I also decided that special needs was where I wanted to focus my time, so after returning to school for a Master’s degree in Psychology, I quit my job and started LEAP in 2012”
LEAP—or Learning Enriched Athletic Programs— works with gymnasts of all ages and any special need(s), offering a variety of structured athletic programs that focus on the athlete’s total development. “What makes LEAP unique is, in addition to the physical development, the emphasis placed on the cognitive, emotional, behavioral and social development components,” says Petrick from her Palmetto Bay gym. More than 75 athletes come through those LEAP doors each week (some as young as toddlers, others in their 40s), often training two-to-three times per week and many competing in the Special Olympics and USA Gymnastics circuits. “There is no maximum age,” she says. “Adults with special needs can compete in both USA Gymnastics by age group, it’s really beneficial in that sense.”
Though she is quick to compare her students to any other highly-trained athletes, Petrick says working in the special needs realm does come with its own set of challenges. “Many of our athletes are nonverbal so we will sign to them,” she says. “We will use a lot of mimicking. We’ll demonstrate the move and they will copy us.” Her methods are working. This year, in addition to being selected acting as the Head Coach for Florida gymnasts in the Special Olympics USA Games, Petrick will have four local athletes representing Florida in the games. “It’s an amazing, inspirational story,” she says of the event, which will be held in Seattle next year.
Aside from her competitive students, Petrick and her team lead classes in everything from rhythmic gymnastics to cheerleading, conditioning and track and field. They also organize trips and activities outside of the gym to continue to foster the family environment she works hard to create at LEAP. “The athletes have become friends outside the gym, this is a second home to them,” she says. “Family dynamics are so important, so I want to bring that same mentality.”
To that end, Petrick recruits her older athletes with special needs to work with the younger gymnasts in their off time and has created a nonprofit to provide community support to families of special needs individuals. One recent project saw the creation of a special needs all-star cheerleading team. “We had high school students kids come in to help train them, put routines together and travel to competitions,” she says. “I love to bring the community in to see that our programming is training. They’re doing the same things any other athlete does at their gym.”
Learn more at leapsouthfl.com