StoriesBrendan Aylward ’15

Taking Inclusion to the Gym

Creating a "community of acceptance" for athletes

Brendan Aylward at Unified Health and Performance

Even a brief conversation with Brendan Aylward ’15 is enough to make you want to lace up your sneakers and start training for a 10K. A special education and math major, he was leaning toward a career in teaching, but instead of heading to the classroom, he used his savings to open a gym where athletes with disabilities could train alongside non-disabled athletes.

Today Unified Health and Performance in Lancaster, Massachusetts is a uniquely inclusive strength and conditioning facility, serving athletes of all abilities. Brendan is also the director of the Central Massachusetts Special Olympics program, coaching soccer, basketball, baseball, and golf throughout the year.

As an athlete at Nashoba Regional High School, Brendan first got involved with the Special Olympics after being sidelined by an injury. But he found the experience of working with adaptive athletes suited him. “I was and still am pretty quiet. I liked being in the position of helping and coaching.” He started working with his first 11-year-old Special Olympics athlete when he was 15. “And he’s still one of my athletes and close friends.”

A Fresh Start at Lesley

After transferring to Lesley from Providence College, Brendan continued to train athletes with special needs, working as a behavioral therapist with a young boy with multiple disabilities who still lives with him on weekends. He commuted to Lesley from his home in Stow (“I don’t really need a lot of sleep,” he admits sheepishly), and had little time for campus activities. Still, he made strong connections with his advisors and professors including Michael Lambert (who, he says, made his transition to Lesley exponentially easier), Janet Sauer, and Linda Dacey. “I felt like they were very invested in my success; not only in their classes but beyond that," says Brendan.

In 2014, Brendan became the youngest ever coach for Team Massachusetts at the Special Olympics USA Games. He got involved with Team Hoyt New England, running races from 5Ks to marathons while pushing a rider-athlete in a custom-built racing chair. This fall the pair finished a half marathon in one hour and twenty-seven minutes.

An Inclusive Community

After graduating in 2015, Brendan weighed his options. “I wanted to teach, go back and work at Nashoba. But I had met so many athletes and their families through the Special Olympics," reflects Brendan. "I felt as if I had the ability to impact their lives in a different way.”

He opened Unified Health and Performance in 2016—the only gym in New England that caters equally to athletes with and without disabilities in a sports performance setting, aspiring to create what Brendan calls “a community of acceptance.”

The gym currently serves over 300 athletes, training for everything from half marathons to power-lifting competitions. Brendan runs Unified Health and Performance entirely on his own (“well, I have an accountant…”) coaching and creating individualized workout plans for his clients, but he has already partnered with other organizations on some innovative projects.

This fall, a group of engineering students from UMass Amherst collaborated with the gym to create a rowing machine seat to make rowing workouts more accessible for adaptive athletes. And athletes from Unified Health and Performance will be participating in a study on how strength training can affect heart health for people with Down Syndrome.

What does it take to run a gym that meets the needs of a wide variety of athletes? Brendan is typically modest. “Athletes of all abilities can co-exist perfectly fine. You just need the right mentality and understanding. Being personable helps.” Coaching, he points out, is similar to teaching in many ways, and figuring how to break down a particular movement to help someone run faster or build muscle strength isn’t so different from helping them understand algebra.

“Not everyone learns math the same way,” he observes, “and not everybody trains the same way.”