Inspirational gym manager goes above and beyond call of duty for special needs clients

Armitage, then in his mid-20s, fresh-faced and fit, turned around and looked down at the slightest adult he had ever seen — a wisp of a man, 80 pounds, a living skeleton curled up in a wheelchair.

“I’m thinking of going to the gym,” the man said, looking up at Armitage. “I’ve been floating around in the pool a little bit. Do you think you could help me with some grip strength?”

As the story goes, Tim Fauquier, 75, should have been dead by then. A chartered accountant and man of international intrigue, Fauquier had positions with CIDA and the World Bank and was known for his expertise and discretion while investigating fraud corruption and money laundering. In 2012, he was returning to his Washington office from a case in Guatemala when he collapsed on the ground from Guillain-Barre syndrome, an auto-immune disorder.

For 13 months he was laid up in the Fairfax Trauma Center in Northern Virginia, all but comatose. He relied on machines and tubes to eat and breathe. Couldn’t move. Exercise, then, meant blinking his eyes.

By the time he returned home to Ottawa, Fauquier had gained some movement in his arms, but not much. To get around, he relied on a wheelchair. Fauquier tried to find a mainstream gym that would work with him and found no takers. At the JCC, not far from his home near Westboro Beach, Fauquier would “fall” into the outdoor pool from his wheelchair, scaring the lifeguards half to death.

“They wanted to pull me out,” Fauquier says. Once an accomplished swimmer and polo player, post-Guillain-Barre Fauquier was reduced to a dog paddle to stay afloat.

It was about seven years ago that he asked Armitage about getting into the gym.

Sure, but to do what?

Armitage picked Fauquier up out of his wheelchair, gently deposited him on the rowing machine and Fauquier was just able to grab the handles of the rower, although his fingers were curled and stiff from disease. He performed a few pulls on the rower … and was on his way. One pull at a time.

One day, Fauquier asked his trainer if he might be able to walk again, something he was told repeatedly during those months of atrophy that would never happen.

Nearly two years after first meeting Armitage, Fauquier took his first, unsteady steps. This was in August of 2012. Though he still uses a walker, Fauquier is able to drive a car and has his mobility and considerable mojo back. Fauquier says he’d rather a “heart attack or stroke on a machine” than quit. Yet, Fauquier credits Armitage for his entire rebirth. He tried to pay him for his help, but Armitage, a salaried employee at the facility, refused. So, a couple of years ago, Fauquier took Armitage as his guest to Lima, Peru.

“The sun rises and sets on that guy,” says Fauquier, happily married for 53 years and blessed with family and friends. “I don’t fawn over him. I tell him when he’s screwing up,” he adds, with a wink.

Armitage deflects the credit back to them. They’re the inspiration, he says. They have the work ethic. He provides direction and positive encouragement.

“Sometimes you just need one person to tell you — you can do it.”

Around here, a little motion and a lot of notion, go a long way.

A few years ago, Armitage was at a conference on multiple sclerosis, speaking about his work with Fauquier, whose challenges were similar to those of MS patients. After his talk, a man in a wheelchair, long hair and a wild beard hiding his rugged face, approached Armitage and told him he needed a place to train.

So began his history with John Woodhouse.

Woodhouse used to work for a publishing house, in shipping, and grew strong from carting great boxes of books. That was before a debilitating case of dystonia set him on a path that shook his voice and stole his being, ravaged him, heart and soul.

From the basal ganglia of the brain, dystonia causes involuntary muscle contractions and tremors that impair a person’s speech and movement. Woodhouse self-medicated with alcohol to try to calm the spasms and numb his emotional pain.

About eight years ago he was admitted to hospital with severe infections in his legs, both of which had to be amputated just below the hips. Incredibly, despite his physical loss he overcame his alcohol dependency but craved well-being and independence.

His greatest goal? To be able to cook his own macaroni-and-cheese casserole, a task every post-secondary student takes for granted.

Initially, Woodhouse’s right arm was so atrophied from shoulder injury and affliction that Armitage could close his hand around Woodhouse’s humerus, the long bone of the upper arm.

With three or four weeks of basic movement exercises, Woodhouse regained muscle mass. Strength and confidence followed. At times, Armitage would hold his head to support it, to fight the tidal pull of spasm. It was all trial and error, as it is with most of the Armitage clients.

“There’s no book on how to train someone with dystonia who has no legs,” Armitage says, although he could one day write such a book.

To his delight, Woodhouse was able to cook again — including mac-and-cheese — in his tiny Vanier abode. He continues to make the 50-minute trek by OC Transpo to the JCC three times a week.

“I enjoy it,” Woodhouse says. “We play off of each other. He likes to be kind with me, but I like the rough stuff. Work me hard!”

Self-esteem comes in many forms. Woodhouse’s primary form of transport, his wheelchair, can get rather odorous. Lacking the means to have it cleaned, Woodhouse quietly asked Armitage for advice.

Armitage took the matter, and the chair, into his own hands, venturing outside the JCC building to give the wheelchair a good scrub-down, He has done it at least three times, to the wonder of members at the facility. The nurturing gene he inherited from his mother, Sheila, a nurse at the Queensway Carleton Hospital.

“He is wonderful,” Hannah Halpern says of Armitage. “He is kind, thoughtful, empathetic, and he insists on giving all of us with disabilities a better qualify of life. He’s so positive, you can’t help but want to please this man.”

Halpern, in her 70s, represents another of the dramatic transformations under Armitage’s care. For decades she has been dealing with a hemangioma, a benign growth on her spinal cord that limited her mobility. In the past five or six years, her condition worsened.

She tried other trainers but only made progress after starting with Armitage about a year-and-a-half ago. On a recent morning, with no small effort, Halpern rises out of her motorized wheelchair to lift one foot onto a portable step exerciser, then the other, supporting her own weight by holding a cross-bar. As she strides, Armitage guides her right knee, prone to hyperextension, to keep it from wandering.

“If I support the knee, she can step much higher, and further,” Armitage says. “When we started, these were things we were dreaming of. The next goal is to get some more forward motion, more walking.”

As a reporter interviews some of Armitage’s most challenged clients, other gym members come over to sing his praises.

“Can I say something about Ryan?” asks Dolores Guertin. “Ryan gives people hope, patience, and the ability to trust in their own body. He understands that the body can heal itself, and that’s his mindset.

“When people are injured, they really lose trust in their body. They become fearful, and Ryan brings that confidence back.”

Among his clients, Armitage works with a 90-year-old blind man, Sam Zunder (longtime proprietor of Fruitland in the ByWard Market), who is back on the treadmill after a bout of pneumonia. John Chafe doesn’t let MS get him down. Pete Verbruggen, 24, has Down syndrome. Tom Mimee still trains, at 99. “Three days a week, forever,” he says.

These mostly elder club members are a change from Armitage’s early career, getting college athletes ready for football combines.

“It was gratifying, but I found having a kid say, ‘I can bench press 10 pounds more,’ is different from having someone say, ‘Hey, I walked again for the first time.’ It’s a different kind of satisfaction.”

Armitage comes by his presence naturally. His dad, Jeff, a service co-ordinator at ADT Security, was a football coach with the Kanata Knights. Ryan’s great-uncle is Roly Armitage, the legendary West Carleton sports figure, veterinarian, politician and war hero who still has a crushing handshake at age 92.

Like great-uncle Roly, Ryan Armitage serves for the greater good.

“What I have learned from them,” he says of his clients, “ is that I really don’t have anything to complain about. But they never complain. Ever.

“They make do. And they’re amazing. I’m lucky to be in a place like this where we have a tight-knit family.”

Symbiosis in the gym: The trainer gets inspired by participants inspired by their trainer.

Bio Box:

  • Name: Ryan Armitage
  • Occupation: Fitness Centre Manager, JCC
  • Age: 32
  • High School: AY Jackson, Kanata
  • Sports: rugby, football (Ottawa Jr. Riders defensive lineman), track and field
  • Sports career: Concordia University football (derailed by a serious wrist injury)
  • College: Algonquin (Fitness and Health Promotion)
  • Married: to Kyla
  • Child: Addy, 2.