When U.S. Air Force veteran Dan Schlemmer opened Black Sheep Strength and Athletic Performance with his wife Nichole in 2016, their garage barely fit the barbells, dumbbells and one squat rack they could afford. But the Schlemmers were determined to bring personal training and group classes to the Fort Walton Beach community.
- Over 7 years later, Black Sheep has expanded into a large private training facility at 685 Denton Blvd NW, offering personal training, group training, youth training and online coaching.
In 2023, the gym took on a new endeavor: training special needs athletes to compete in the Florida Special Olympics.
The catalyst was 18-year-old Emma Chestnut, one of Black Sheep’s athletes who has special needs. “We had worked with her for a good year and a half. We got her to her first powerlifting meet and she wanted to go to the Special Olympics, she wanted to qualify and she wanted to go to state,” Dan Schlemmer said.
Emma’s mother connected the gym with the regional Special Olympics chapter. Nichole took the lead on the initiative.
“My wife is the head coach of the Special Olympics program here at Black Sheep,” Dan Schlemmer said. Nichole and other coaches were certified by Special Olympics on training special needs athletes.
Last year, around seven athletes including Emma trained at Black Sheep for powerlifting three times a week. The coaches focused on tailoring their methods to each individual, just as they would with any other member who joins at Black Sheep.
- “A consultation here is going to tell you what the logistics are to join the gym, but we also learn about you and why you are here,” Dan Schlemmer said. This was amplified further for special needs athletes, with coordination on medical conditions and other needs.
Two athletes, Emma and 20-year-old Gabe Lee, progressed to qualify for the 2023 Special Olympics State Fall Games in Orlando, Florida in November thanks to the basics they started with earlier in the year.
“We had to teach them how to do it safely,” explained Schlemmer. “That was the number one thing. They had to have the capability to hold this bar on their back, walk it out, know the commands that are in a powerlifting meet, and then return it safely. That was probably the biggest thing that really helped them when they did their competitions because they knew all the rules from the beginning. They had a foundation.”
At the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, both Emma and Gabe won gold medals in powerlifting. But for the coaches, their achievements were much more.
- “It wasn’t a matter of if we could do it as coaches. Could we get the athlete to realize that they could do it?” said Dan Schlemmer. “I knew [Nichole] could do it too. So seeing all of it come together was special.”
Other gym members rallied around the Special Olympians as well. They would stop workouts to watch and cheer during training sessions. Some even attended competitions out of town to show support.
- Chestnut competed in two categories in the Special Olympics: Bench and Deadlift. She won the gold medal in her sub-junior category and reached all her records. Emma secured the gold medal in County, Regional, and State competitions.
- Lee competed in a Combo 3 in the Special Olympics, which consisted of Squat, Bench, and Deadlift. He won gold in his age and weight category.
The program also fulfilled something for Nichole. “This really fed upon her desire to nurture and help people,” Dan Schlemmer said. “And there was no monetary gain from it. This was something that we wanted to do and Nichole was perfect for it.”
Some of the athletes continue to train at Black Sheep after their Special Olympics season ends. Emma trains five days a week, while Gabe bikes to the gym each weekday afternoon, speakers blaring.
- Black Sheep Strength does not charge special needs athletes to train during Special Olympics seasons, covering coaching and facility expenses themselves. The Florida Special Olympics also provides funding for transportation, equipment, and health services like eye exams for registered athletes.
In 2024, the gym aims to expand the program to help more special needs athletes realize their potential. Schlemmer also wants his coaches to grow from the meaningful experience.
“We’re excited to do it all over again and get more people in here,” he said. “When a mother tells us that this is the best thing that her child has had in a long time or is coming to us or that they have no problem getting up early to come to the gym, that’s the thing I’m looking forward to. I want to hear more stories like that along the way from my wife’s lead, as well as my coaches that are helping.”