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Kaysville brothers create exercise class for those with disabilities

OGDEN — Evan Fitzgerald was just 7 years old when he lost his father to an accident.

“It was definitely a terrible thing,” said the firefighter, now 31. “But with every hard thing that comes in life, there is also good and light.”

For Fitzgerald, some of that goodness came in the form of two older brothers, who could not only help him navigate the rough road to manhood, but also showed him how to serve others, be generous and loving.

“Without the examples of both my older brothers, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” Fitzgerald said.

That's one of the reasons he decided to teach a free exercise class for people with disabilities alongside one of those brothers — James.

“Another reason I wanted to do the class is because I feel an obligation to give back what I’ve been given — not just to James, but all kids with Down syndrome. All of them were an inspiration to me growing up,” he said.

Evan smiles at James, who stands next to him, cradling a muscular gold trophy awarded to him this summer at a national convention honoring Gold’s Gym employees who inspire others to improve their own lives.

While James Fitzgerald started working at Gold’s Gym in Ogden nine years ago, he didn’t get serious about his own fitness routine until about three of four years ago.

Asked how he feels about working out, James grins.

His brother puts his hand on his shoulder and prods him with, “We love it, right?”

James nods, the smile widening.

Both admit that while James, 37, loves to work out with his brother — especially the weekly class they teach at Gold’s Gym in Ogden and Kaysville — introducing him to daily physical fitness was challenging.

“Definitely it was frustrating at first,” Evan Fitzgerald said. “But once he caught onto it, he loved it.”

Evan said the key was finding a way to connect things James already loved with better health.

“It’s finding what they’re passionate about and explaining how it relates to physical fitness,” Evan said. “I think everything in life we can relate to physical fitness. It improves our well-being, it improves daily life, and (it improves) the quality of life.”

For James, the connection came through his faith.

“One thing James is passionate about is the gospel,” Evan said of his affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “He’s a great example of being spiritual, and that’s one of the angles we went with and just found consistency.”

James Fitzgerald jumps in as his brother begins to talk about their shared faith.

“It strengthens my testimony,” he said of regular exercise. “People who are disabled have a hard time bearing their testimony, and I encourage people who are disabled to come and bear their testimony.”

So how does that relate to working out?

“Working out gives a clean heart and clean mind,” he said. “It makes me not worry about anything else. It makes me stay strong.”

Originally, Evan just hoped to help his big brother develop an exercise routine. But very quickly, James expressed an interest in wanting to share what he learned and how he felt with some of his friends who struggled with similar health issues.

“We’ve done research,” Evan said. “The life expectancy for kids with Down syndrome is lower. A lot of them have heart (defects), and they also have thyroid issues. Obesity is a battle with every kid with Downs.”

During a recent class, Angie Spens coaxed her 13-year-old daughter, Kyrstin, into following James and Evan as they taught a class in Ogden. They drove from Morgan to participate in the class, which they learned about through Special Olympics.

“This is so good for them,” Spens said, laughing as her daughter wandered away from the teachers to watch a woman working out on her own.

“Just anything to help them be fit and more involved, I think is wonderful. She does Special Olympics, and she does track and basketball. … It’s a little tough (to convince Kyrstin to work out) on a regular basis, so anything that makes it fun and exciting helps. It’s nice to come down and be with her own peers, too.”

In fact, it was a conversation James had with Evan after a workout that led to the class.

“It was James’ idea,” Evan Fitzgerald recalled. “He just said, ‘I like how good I feel when I work out. I wish my friends could feel like this.’"

James and Evan took their idea about a fitness class for those with disabilities to Casey Nielsen, the owner of the Gold’s Gym in Ogden. He loved the idea, as did Evan’s brother-in-law, Kyle Scoville, who is the general manager of the Gold’s Gym in Kaysville.

Now James and Evan alternate teaching the Saturday morning class in Ogden and Kaysville, and they’ve teamed up with several organizations to get the word out about the free exercise opportunity.

It is, however, only one of the reasons Nielsen and Scoville nominated James, who works on the cleaning and maintenance crew in Ogden, for a national recognition offered by the corporate offices of Gold’s. Thousands of nominations come in from around the country, often telling inspirational stories of perseverance and creativity exhibited by Gold’s employees.

Scoville said when it was announced at the organization’s national summer meeting in Las Vegas, he, and many of his colleagues, were in tears.

“We were ecstatic that he won,” Scoville said. “Our mission statement is, ‘We exist to enhance the quality of life in our community’ and along those lines, we also exist to help individuals achieve their potential. This right here (he points to James and Evan as they teach their class) sums that up.”

Scoville said he first met James when he began accompanying Evan on occasional workouts.

“If you watch him, he’s always got a smile on his face,” Scoville said. “We hired him on our maintenance and cleaning staff, and not only does he do a phenomenal job, members are always saying stuff because he’s just a walking superstar. The kid is always happy.”

It isn’t just James’ demeanor that makes him stand out, it’s his concern and care for others. That, Evan said, is who his brother has always been.

“(Having him as a big brother) is an awesome experience,” Evan said, after the two men finished teaching a recent class in Ogden. “James is a celebrity. Everywhere he goes, he knows people, and they know him. He remembers their names, their families’ names, and he knows what’s going on in their lives. It’s a good example to me of really caring about people because that’s what he does all throughout his life.

"I’ve been privileged to learn from that example.”