Special Olympics floor hockey team loses in a good way

The name stuck when John Carlo Razo was in third grade. Everyone he knew called him "Big John" because, as the joke goes, he was big even when he was little. But at 6-foot-8 and 395 pounds by age 19, Razo wanted to move beyond the nickname.

A 45-pound weight loss in eight weeks last fall has made him a poster boy for the Special Olympics Team Wellness program. And his floor hockey team serves as an example of the impact the plan can have on a community that, reflective of the rest of American society, is in need of a coordinated emphasis on good nutrition and fitness, experts say.

Razo's team, the El Cajon (California) Gulls, will travel to Austria for the Special Olympics Winter World Games, which take place March 18-24.

For Razo, who says he has lost another 33 pounds since September, the changes were dramatic. "At the beginning, we would go on a track and I'd be tired, out of gas maybe halfway through the second lap," he says. "Now I can run a mile without being tired. That was my minimum goal. Now I'm trying for two and a half or three miles without getting tired. Then four."

But more importantly, he says, are the potential long-term health benefits. "I was prediabetic, at risk of [diabetes], and now I'm not," Razo says. "I had asthma and now it's more controlled."

The initiative was conceived and developed as the Oregon Team Wellness program by Janet Capetty, senior vice president of program and coach services for Special Olympics Oregon. Capetty says she was inspired to act after observing what happened to one Oregon athlete. "We called him Big Jim, and he wasn't very tall, under 6 feet, but he came in at 350 pounds and got medical clearance to play [Special Olympics] basketball," Capetty says. "That's when I said, 'It's time: We've got to get this done.'"

Under the guidance of Special Olympics Oregon CEO Margaret Hunt and Oregon Health and Science University Hospital, and with the endorsement of the American Association on Health and Disability, Capetty says there was "an easy way" to implement the program with the current coaching infrastructure of Special Olympics. "I thought, why not use wellness as a sport and deliver it in the same way?" Capetty says. "That was kind of the key."

Capetty ran a pilot program for several hundred Special Olympics athletes in Oregon over the last three years before offering it in California, Washington, Montana and Illinois. Pilot programs were rolled out last fall in El Cajon, which is east of San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles. Jeff Van Fossen, assistant vice president for Special Olympics Southern California, says 45 new groups in the area will begin testing the program in March.

"Overall, the education and fitness levels, as well as the healthy eating levels, increased across the board," Van Fossen says of the California athletes. "On average, athletes lost five to 10 pounds. One athlete in Orange County lost 20 pounds. No one was on the level of Big John, but the goal of the program was to teach athletes healthy lifestyles, personal hygiene, reading food labels, and to understand the impact of binge eating."

The most prevalent example of that, they found, was the consumption of sugary drinks. "I knew our athletes drank a lot of pop [soda], but until we did pre- and post-testing, I didn't realize how much," Capetty says. "I was shocked."

According to Van Fossen, they found that athletes in the Southern California pilot program were drinking an average of eight sugary drinks a day.

The El Cajon team, coached by Rodney and Kim Hurn, whose son, Christopher, is on the team, received training and guidelines that focused on a fitness goal and 15- to 20-minute discussions on healthy eating habits during their weekly practices.

The first week, Rodney Hurn says, his team, ages 17 to 27, could run a quarter mile as a group without stopping. By the end of the eight-week period, they made it a mile. Every member of the team, led by Razo, lost weight. And even Rodney lost 25 pounds. "It did wonders for all of them, and they all still think about it," Rodney says. "They see me at practice and say, 'Hey Coach, I went to Subway and got a vegetarian sandwich.' They always tell me they made conscientious choices. They tell me when they don't too, and then I give them a little teasing in a positive way."

As a reward at the end of the eight weeks, rather than celebrating with pizza, the group took an hour-and-a-half hike up nearby Cowles Mountain, exulting at the top in the breathtaking view of San Diego, Mexico and the Pacific Ocean.

Team member Haley James, 19, demonstrated her dedication to the program, driving four hours with her family from their new home in Arizona to attend practices and work out on her own at home. "Before I started that program, I went to the doctor for a physical and they said I had prediabetes and I had to become sugar-free basically," James says. "So when they said they were starting the program, I said, 'Yes, thank you.' ... I'm still on that diet to this day. I don't want to go back to that drama."

James says she lost 28 pounds during the eight-week program in the fall and has lost seven pounds since then.

Along with the weight loss, according to Team Wellness participants, has come a renewed or even a first-time surge of self-confidence. "Definitely," Razo says. "My confidence has gone up a lot more because I'm not worried how hard it is to find jeans in my size. I lost a good seven, eight sizes. I wish I did this when I was younger. I was always bullied in middle school because I had autism and was overweight."

James says she could tell as the program progressed that Razo was "much happier." And with the encouragement and built-in support system of teammates, it was easier for all of them to succeed. "I think every practice we have is good where we're all excited to be with each other," she says. "Whenever I come over, the guys are so excited, like, 'Yeah, Haley's here, let's practice.' Then we'll run five or six laps around the gym before we start practicing."

James joked that as Razo, her childhood buddy, lost weight, she wondered "Where did Big John go?" She also watched in amazement as her own body was transformed. "When I did the program, I looked at IDs from school, and I didn't look the same at all. I also realized how strong my legs are, and then I realized, oh my gosh, I feel better."

Why does fitness and nutrition appear to be a common issue among Special Olympics athletes? "In the old days, we used to teach people it was cheaper to eat healthy," Capetty says. "Instead of fried chicken, you can bake a chicken. But it's not that way anymore. It's much cheaper to buy ready-made convenience foods, and for our athletes living on their own, not knowing how to cook and prepare -- which is part of Team Wellness [lessons].

"Many of our athletes don't make their own food choices. Perhaps they live in group homes or with parents, care providers or siblings who don't have knowledge [about nutrition] either. Hopefully we can do this all together."

Sandy Lock, mother of El Cajon athlete Casey Lucore, says sometimes it is more complicated than that. "I think having to take care of a special needs child, somebody could have a hard time sticking to the regimen," she says. "If you have someone with behavioral issues, you have to pick and choose your battles. That could be one of the issues."

Tim Taft, medical director and head physician for Special Olympics USA, adds that certain genetic conditions among those with intellectual disabilities may lead to a tendency to be a little heavier. But more than that, he says, "These athletes are not isolated from society as a whole. All you have to do is walk down Main Street and see what a problem this is, so they're subject to those same influences and stresses."

With the success of the early programs, Special Olympics officials have the challenge of implementing them nationwide and beyond. Taft said through the Healthy Athletes initiative, which has conducted 1.7 million free health exams in more than 130 countries, many problems he encounters can be fixed on-site at events such as the World Games. Expanding the Team Wellness program, he said, is more involved. "Giving somebody a pair of glasses, a hearing aid, showing somebody how to brush their teeth or doing restorative dental work, works very effectively," he says. "For weight issues and physical conditioning, this goes beyond giving them a handout and short lecture.

"Longer-term issues need lifestyle changes. This is what [the Team Wellness] program can do, and I hope they can show measurable change and get something rolled out on a broader scale. Something has to be done on the local level on a regular basis."

At many Special Olympics events, small strides have been taken by offering water instead of sugary drinks. And Capetty says that working out the bugs of the Team Wellness concept while building off the success of its pilot programs will "blow it open" for Special Olympics nationally. "It's available for anyone interested, and some states say they are," Capetty says. "Now we just need follow-through."