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East Lyme — When Sarah Best left home for college, she had never caught a ball.
Born with cerebral palsy, Best had always had difficulty with simple physical tasks that were easy for other children. The tight muscles that are a common symptom of her condition can benefit from regular exercise, but Best had never found a trainer who could adapt a program to her disability. During her sophomore year at Mitchell College in New London, she finally found someone who could help.
Her mother, Ellen Best, recalls a moment in the kitchen of their Pound Ridge, N.Y., home during that academic year. "She wanted something I had and I said, 'Here, catch it,' and she caught it and we were like, 'Whoa!'"
In the fall of 2009, when Best enrolled at Mitchell to study early childhood education, she started training with David McIlhenney, who runs a fitness studio in East Lyme. McIlhenney had never trained a client with cerebral palsy but was willing to keep an open mind. "I didn't want to have preconceived ideas of what she could or couldn't do," he said.
They started working together regularly, and Ellen Best saw results in her daughter immediately. She remembers clearly the phone call home after their first meeting. "She said, 'Oh my God, he was great! How many times a week can I do it?'" she recalled. "And this is a kid who rebelled through all of her sessions of physical therapy."
Throughout her childhood and adolescence, when traditional exercise programs failed to improve her balance and range of motion, Best simply moved on to the next trainer or therapist, never finding someone who had experience with cerebral palsy.
"A lot of other physical therapists and trainers have been like, 'I don't know how this is going to work because I don't know if you can do this stuff,'" she said.
"I think we've gone through probably dozens of trainers or physical therapists," Ellen Best said. "They just put her on the traditional treadmills or machines and just tried to walk her through like their other clients."
McIlhenney said their success had little to do with specific exercises. "We communicated," he said. "I think that probably was the biggest thing."
During a recent training session, McIlhenney helped Best through a set of core exercises on the floor before starting an upper-body workout. She used her crutches to walk across the room, only getting help from McIlhenney to position herself for each exercise. Near the end of the session, she sat on the floor with her back against the wall while raising a dumbbell over her head. McIlhenney guided her arm through the first few repetitions, congratulating her when she completed a set of 10 on her own.
McIlhenney can chart his client's progress in strength and range of motion, but the real improvements can be seen outside the gym. Best still needs assistance with some things, like getting up off the floor at the end of the workout, but she doesn't talk about what she can't do. "It doesn't limit me in any way," she said. "I pretty much can do anything."
Her parents took a tough-love approach toward their daughter's disability. "We've always tried to set the bar high for her, never allowed her to have a wheelchair until high school," Ellen Best said.
In 2011 Best transferred to the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she is now a junior psychology major. The two-hour-plus drive back to East Lyme means she only will be able to see McIlhenney every few months, but she hopes others can learn from their relationship.
"Don't assume who a person is when you first see them," Best said. Now 21 and slim, less than five feet tall, she relies on crutches or a wheelchair to get around.
"All through my life people have looked at me and said, 'You can't do that' or 'I didn't expect this, what am I going to do now?' You're just going to go forward and work with it. Just because I have a disability or because someone is who they are, it doesn't mean you should step back and say, 'This is not going to work.'"
Best smiled throughout a recent 45-minute workout, exhibiting a will that McIlhenney said inspires him.
"I have a hard time honestly taking people and them saying, 'I can't do it,'" McIlhenney said. "As a trainer you generally are reluctant to accept that.
"After training Sarah for as long as I have, I'm less likely to accept someone saying, 'I can't.'"