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Tom Mix, Published April 10 2013

Gold medalist applauds Fargo's TNT gymnastics special needs program

FARGO - When it comes to offering movement-based physical education for children with special needs, Fargo-Moorhead is ahead of the curve, and one big name is taking notice.

Bart Conner, a United States Olympic gold-medal gymnast, is in Fargo visiting TNT Kid’s Fitness and Gymnastics Academy to observe its special needs program first-hand.

Conner, who first heard of TNT’s special needs program last year through friend and USA women’s gymnastics team physician Dr. Larry Nassar, got his first look Wednesday at the facility located on Main Avenue in Fargo. Connor will be at TNT again from 1-2 p.m. today and will speak during an event that is open to the public.

“What they are doing here at TNT is probably the most progressive program we have seen so far using the gymnastics movement education model,” said Conner, who won an individual gold medal in men’s parallel bars at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and also won gold as a member of the men’s gymnastics team the same year. “We are really impressed with what is already happening up here.”

Conner owns and operates a gymnastics academy in Norman, Okla., along with his wife and former Romanian gold medal gymnast Nadia Comaneci. He also serves as a vice chair for the International Special Olympics.

Four years ago, his academy began offering a movement education class based on gymnastics with the help of several adaptive physical education instructors. Today, that class has more than 110 participants and has led Conner to seek advice from the gymnastics community on how to increase participation in special needs programming across the nation.

Nassar, who has an 11-year-old daughter with autism, pointed Conner to TNT executive director Kim Pladson. Pladson has overseen the special needs program that helps children with disabilities enhance their sensory integration, improve their muscle tone, and learn other social inclusion skills through movement.

Pladson said the program, which started with five students when TNT opened its doors in 2006, has grown steadily each year. Participation in the special needs program today exceeds 450, including 200 participants from schools in the region.

Last December, Pladson was invited to Conner’s gym in Norman to discuss special needs physical education opportunities with other program directors from the United States and Canada.

“We didn’t realize why we were being called there,” Pladson said. “But when we got there we were told we were hand-picked. They said, ‘Kim, the reason you were hand-picked is because you have a model that is the Cadillac of the country and you don’t know it yet.’ ”

During the summit in Norman, it was decided that Conner would visit Fargo and observe TNT’s program, with the intention of learning more about it and continuing to explore possibilities of implementing TNT’s education model at gyms across the U.S. and Canada.

“We were enormously impressed with what they have done already here at TNT,” Conner said. “We thought we’d come up to Fargo and see what is working up here.

“I think they have a great, sustainable program,” Conner added. “I think it could be replicated across the country and maybe even around the world based on what movement education can do for children with special needs.”

Pladson called gymnastics centers a gold mine for helping individuals with special needs increase their motor and movement skills.

Uniform education, funding and research models for the proposed international special needs program still need to be developed, but Conner said he sees it catching on in a big way.

“One of the great aspects they are trying to do here in Fargo is eventually have a training center where coaches, gym owners and adaptive P.E. teachers can come here and learn how to do this in their own communities,” Conner said. “It has enormous potential when you look at the opportunity for gymnastics schools to serve this need.

“The whole concept is serving all children of all abilities and total inclusion,” Conner added. “Gymnastics is the perfect place. I don’t know if there is a better fundamental sport that helps build motor coordination than gymnastics.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Mix at (701) 241-5562