Local man starts gym for Special Olympics athletes


After going through a series of warmup exercises, Jeremiah Griffin was ready to do some powerlifting.

James Neal put 20 pounds of weight on the bench press bar and told Griffin if he couldn’t lift it, he would be there to spot him and take the bar.

It was no problem for Griffin.

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“Not too bad, actually,” he told Neal, who replied with “Good job” and gave him a fist bump.

The weight went up to 45 and 75 pounds, and Griffin made it look easy.

Moving to deadlift, Neal asked if he really wanted to challenge himself, and Griffin confidently responded, “I can do it.” He felt confident because he had done deadlift during a weights class at Seymour High School.

After Neal placed 75 pounds of weight on the bar, he told Griffin to get his hands lined up and feet close together and put his back flat, butt out and head up.

Griffin again made it look easy, even smiling while lifting.

“You weren’t even struggling on that one,” Neal said. “Good job. Piece of cake. I don’t really see you straining. You’re killin’ it.”

The weight bumped up to 95, then 105, 115 and 135.

“Now, you’re starting to feel a little bit of weight there,” Neal said of the latter weight.

“That’s probably where I’m at,” Griffin said of 135 pounds. “I can probably do more next time.”

Griffin building confidence is one of the reasons why Neal started Big Cat Strength and Conditioning in late 2019. The garage gym at Neal’s Seymour home is dedicated to increasing strength and building confidence for Special Olympics athletes and powerlifters in south central Indiana.

Griffin is the first Special Olympics Indiana Jackson County athlete to try powerlifting, and Neal hopes to add more as the year progresses.

“My goal is I just want them to be able to have fun and get in shape so that no matter what they do, whether it’s playing basketball, going on hikes, whatever it is, they can be more capable and feel better about it because that’s why I do it,” Neal said.

After graduating from high school, Neal said he didn’t do much of anything exercise-wise because he was on the computer all day at work and then when he got home.

“I had gotten way heavier than I wanted to be and out of shape, and I was traveling for work and walked up a flight of stairs and was just like, ‘I’ve got to do something about this,’” he said.

One day, his wife, Amanda, said she was going for a run, but he was working second shift and didn’t feel like going. About 10 minutes later, Neal said he looked outside and saw the sun shining, and he changed his mind and decided to run.

“Then it just went crazy from there,” he said.

He started Couch to 5K, a program that helps people go from the couch to running a 5K in eight weeks. Early on, he said he couldn’t run for more than a minute at a time. He, however, gradually improved and was able to complete the program in 10 weeks.

The more he ran, Neal realized he could try a long-distance run.

“Once I realized I had the motivation to do it, then you get hooked on it,” he said of running. “The half-marathon was kind of neat, and then I decided I would train for a full (marathon), and when I finished that, I was so blown away by it because I never in my life expected that was something I could do. I hated running so much I quit the soccer team in high school, and then it just clicked, and it was like, ‘Well, what else can I do?’”

While he felt comfortable with the running he was doing, Neal said he realized there was still a gap in what he felt he needed to be healthy.

“Especially as I’m starting to get older, one of the most important things is keeping your muscle mass, to keep your body weight off and fight off osteoporosis and all of that stuff, so I started going to CrossFit a little bit here and there,” he said.

A friend talked him into going to Jordan’s Barbell Club in Seymour a couple times a week.

“It was the same thing with running. Once I started, it was so ridiculously hard to start, I just kept doing more and more of it until I just got hooked on it,” he said.

While running, Neal said he listens to music, a podcast or an audiobook. One of the podcasts he listens to is Lift Heavy Run Long, and while scrolling through its Facebook group page one day, he learned about a man who was training Special Olympics athletes.

“It was just really motivating to me when I saw this. It made me feel good,” Neal said. “When I saw that he was doing that, (the athletes) get so pumped about it, and it kind of made me think of how good it made me feel when I started getting good at it, the challenges and going all the way back to that first marathon I finished.”

As the athletes lifted, Neal said he could see how excited they were.

“I started thinking, ‘Man, that would be something I would like to do’ because I’ve always wanted to find a way to engage and give back to the community in some way or another,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s something I might actually be able to do and finally have some way to give back.’”

Neal was connected with Bill Newby, the Special Olympics Indiana powerlifting competition director, to become certified.

During the testing, Newby had some athletes run through a powerlifting competition, which consists of three lifts — deadlift, bench press and back squats.

Neal passed the certification test and could officially start training athletes.

Griffin has attended three training sessions so far, and Dennis England also is interested in getting started. Sessions are at 6 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays at Neal’s home.

Once the weather warms up, he said he will open the garage doors and hopes more athletes will be attending by then and can work at different stations.

If the athletes want to compete at the Special Olympics Indiana Summer Games in Terre Haute in June or do other competitions, Neal said he’s willing to help them do it.

“Being prepared for competition requires a wide range of strength and conditioning training that improves physical health and makes self-confidence skyrocket,” he said.

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For information about Big Cat Strength and Conditioning, visit facebook.com/bigcatstrength.


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