By: USA Games Correspondent, MIke Gastineau
Lauren Petrick was settling into what she thought her career was going to be.
The Florida native had been a competitive gymnast in her youth and by high school had decided she wanted to be a coach. While attending the University of Florida she coached a rec class and upon graduation, she turned her passion into a living by landing a job at a South Florida gymnastics facility.
“She was training high-level teams and taking them to national competitions,” said her cousin Morgan Petrick. “That’s what she was going to do with her life.”
Then, one night, her boss approached his employees with a request. He had a friend whose son William had an intellectual disability. His friend thought William could benefit from learning gymnastics and he needed someone from the facility to agree to work with him.
Lauren volunteered. And her life’s path changed. Instead of being someone who coached gymnastics, she became someone who specialized in working with aspiring gymnasts who have intellectual disabilities.
“She wasn’t looking to do this,” said Morgan. “But once the opportunity arose she took it on. She found more and more people with intellectual disabilities who wanted to learn the sport. Eventually, she built up a large enough clientele that she left her original job and started her own company.”
That company is called LEAP which stands for Learning Enriched Athletic Program.
Morgan says her cousin is more like a big sister to her and in addition to nominating Lauren for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games #IamAGameChanger campaign, she also works for her.
She attends Florida International University. Morgan originally planned to become a nurse but the more she worked with her cousin, the more she realized that’s what she wanted to do. She eventually changed her major to recreational therapy.
“I had done gymnastics but only recreationally. I had never competed and I wasn’t sure I had the skill set to coach. But the first day I came to LEAP and got involved with the kids, there was no turning back. I can’t picture myself doing anything else.”
Morgan credits her cousin with having the vision to turn her business into a unique and very successful place.
“Lauren has created an environment in which individuals with intellectual disabilities can come together and develop the skills to train and compete on the level of any athlete. She strives to enrich the social, emotional, behavioral and cognitive aspects of her athletes.”
Morgan says the facility has become a second home to the athletes who train there. She says they often gather together with teammates for events and celebrations. The business is also growing which is creating more positive opportunities.
“In the beginning, it was just athletes with intellectual disabilities,” she said. “But since we have a gym and all the equipment, she’s begun promoting more of the inclusionary aspects with typically functioning athletes. Many of those are siblings of our kids with ID. We put them in group classes together and they’re doing the same skills.”
LEAP has developed a non-profit foundation to help parents who can’t afford to pay for LEAP’s services. Currently, the non-profit is able to fund a cheerleading class and team. But the goal is to make it bigger.
“Even though we don’t have a formal gymnastics program set up for our non-profit yet we try to get kids in as much as possible because we see the advantages of it,” she said while adding that growth of the overall business is always a focus. “Our goal is to eventually expand to multiple sports.”
But, for now, the primary concern is gymnastics. Morgan says LEAP has four athletes who have qualified for the 2018 USA Games in Seattle and she laughs when she’s asked if she’s coming to the West Coast to watch them compete.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I told Lauren that even if she isn’t chosen as a coach I really want to go see it and see what it’s all about. Special Olympics competitions always blow my mind and we’ve only been to the local competitions. I’m really excited to see everything in Seattle.”