This Runner Didn’t Think There Were Enough Athletic Opportunities For The Special Needs Community — So She Created An Adaptive And Inclusive Running Program

This Runner Didn’t Think There Were Enough Athletic Opportunities For The Special Needs Community — So She Created An Adaptive And Inclusive Running Program

In the spring of 2017, Suzie Clinchy took a small group of runners to a track meet for developing children. Clinchy had been working with this group for the past several months through an adaptive physical education program at their school.

All of the runners had autism and some had never run before. Yet when they lined up at the start, they knew exactly what to do. Every single runner completed a 400 meter race and received a standing ovation from a crowd of over 4,000 people.

It was at that moment that Clinchy knew she was onto something.

Clinchy created Fast Feet NYC to provide adaptive and inclusive running programs for people who have special needs.

A little over a year after that first track meet, Clinchy launched Fast Feet NYC, an organization that provides adaptive and inclusive running programs for kids and adults who have special needs — whether that be autism, developmental differences, cognitive delays, or physical disabilities.

It was during Clinchy’s time as a math teacher at NYC public schools that she began to realize just how beneficial running could be. She had started a running club at one of the schools she worked at and quickly saw how much of a positive effect running had on kids. Thanks to a friend who worked at a school for children with autism, she began testing out a similar program there. The program took off — culminating in the aforementioned track meet — and Clinchy quickly realized the need for more athletic opportunities for the special needs population in New York City.

She now works with over 100 athletes in seven different programs, some school based, some community based. The ages of her participants range between five and 50.

Clinchy with Project HAPPY members after an adaptive running class.

Clinchy with Project HAPPY members after an adaptive running class.

A large part of Fast Feet is changing people’s attitudes towards running.

Clinchy approaches her role as a running coach much like she approached her role as a math teacher.

When she taught math, Clinchy would often have kids walk in on the first day of class only to inform her that they hated math and were going to do nothing in her class. Now, she hears “I hate running” fairly often. Clinchy takes this as a welcome challenge.

“It’s just slowly working on changing their attitudes — that math doesn’t have to be so confusing and overwhelming, and running doesn’t have to be this terrible, scary, hard, long thing that you have to do,” Clinchy said.

Clinchy focuses on setting small, attainable goals and celebrates successes as much as possible.

So what does it take to change a stubborn aversion to the sport? According to Clinchy, it’s all about starting with small, attainable goals, designing activities that allow participants to achieve those goals, and then celebrating those successes as much as possible.

“I’ll go crazy if they run a whole lap without stopping,” Clinchy said. “I’ll make it such a big deal, because it is a big deal.”

At the same time, Clinchy is careful not to veer into the territory of hand-holding. It might take one of her athletes 10 minutes to tie his or her own shoes, but she’d rather have them take that time than contribute to what she refers to as a learned helplessness.

Clinchy and fellow teammate Allie Kieffer.

Clinchy and fellow teammate Allie Kieffer.

The Fast Feet programs are modeled after the training Clinchy went through as a runner in college.

Clinchy is quick to point out that the kids and adults she works with are athletes and therefore should be treated as such. It’s for this reason that she models her programs after the training she went through during her years running track and field at Wake Forest University, alongside teammate Allie Kieffer.

A typical session starts with a warm up of walking, jogging, or skipping, which then progresses into biomechanic exercises such as high knees and butt kicks. Movement-based stretching, known as dynamic flexibility, comes next, and then the group will work on endurance. Clinchy likes to throw in some work with mini hurdles or an agility ladder, and then end on a relay race before a cool down. She says it’s important to strike a balance between keeping the structure consistent enough to make her athletes feel comfortable, but also varied enough to challenge them mentally and physically.

There’s no obstacle too big for Clinchy to help her athletes overcome. She remembers working with one boy in particular who learned how to run by working his way through a series of small movements like bending his knees and jumping off the ground while bracing himself against a wall. Now, he elects to participate in the warm up run all on his own, thanks to the confidence he’s gained in his physical abilities.

Clinchy participating in a Project Moonshot training run.

Clinchy participating in a Project Moonshot training run.

Kettlebell Kitchen, as well as Clinchy’s friends and family, help make it possible for her to run Fast Feet on her own.

Clinchy fully understands that addictive feeling that comes when you can see the progress that results from your hard work. It’s this feeling that drew her to running — and cemented her love for the sport — when she was just a 14-year-old high school freshman.

Despite operating Fast Feet all on her own, she still maintains an impressive training schedule, running five days a week and adding in weight lifting and cross-training (biking or swimming) twice a week. She races too. This past fall, she competed in six different road races.

How does she manage to juggle all of these priorities and find the energy she needs to give her athletes the best experience possible? Clinchy relies on her family, friends, and boyfriend for support, and she accepts help when she needs it. This past fall, that meant ordering meals from Kettlebell Kitchen while training with Nike Project Moonshot, a program for those planning to run the New York City Marathon.

“Having food in my refrigerator that I know is healthy and is going to give me the protein and energy my body needs — that’s so amazing,” Clinchy said.

Clinchy’s favorite part about Fast Feet is seeing parents’ reactions when they see their children run.

In the end, all of the juggling is worth it to see the happiness on parents’ faces when they come to watch their children participate in a Fast Feet program. This is Clinchy’s favorite part about her organization.

“Watching the parents — and a lot of the times they’re crying or they’re videoing — you can just see them so proud,” Clinchy said. “Maybe they never thought their kid could be participating in an athletic event, but there they are, and they’re doing amazing, and by themselves they’re running as fast as they can around a track.”

While Fast Feet currently only offers programs in the New York City area, Clinchy hopes to expand the organization and make it nationwide one day. She hopes to create a network of Fast Feet running programs that follow the ethos of her original programs, but have their own spin.

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