Fitness with Heart
Who Inspires You?
December 1999
By Anamary Pelayo
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


[Editor’s Letter]: Who Inspires You?
Recently, I took an amazing karate class. Watching Lisa Rutledge teach a small group of mentally challenged (and ultra-enthusiastic) adults was humbling and inspiring. You can meet her in “Fitness With Heart," Mary Ellen Mark's photo essay on page 78. (Her new book, American Odyssey, is just out from Aperture.) This story got me wondering: Who inspires you? If you know someone who has changed the way you look at fitness, nominate her for our “Fitness With Heart" awards. Write me at FITNESS, 375 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, 10017, or e-mail me at

During this season of gimme, gimme, gimme, FITNESS honors three women who share the joys of their favorite workout with very special students.

Millions of women love to work out. Once in a great while, one of them loves what she does so much that she just has to share. We found three extraordinary women who have taken their passion and given it to others, just for the joy of watching someone new-- someone disabled, perhaps, or a child- learn to overcome obstacles and love physical fitness as much as they do. And thanks to their volunteer efforts, they're changing the world, one workout at a time.

This is our very first "Fitness With Heart" award, and we bet you can help us find more inspiring women like those you're about to meet. If so, please nominate them: Send your nominations to "Fitness With Heart," care of FITNESS, 375 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, 10017, or e-mail us at

231B-014-12 [Lisa Rutledge]

231J-023-034 [Carol Dimaggio]

231H-019-023 [Cecelia Sun]

Lisa's students work at their own pace, but they don't get special treatment. Despite their disabilities, they earn new belts the way other karate students do.

Students learn grace and control. Advanced brown belt Billy Thompson practices a knife-hand strike.

A meditation moment: Students take some time at the start and finish of each class to get centered.

No contact is necessary in this class. Students practice effective fighting techniques without touching.

Lisa helps karate student Dana Huerta work on her form.

Pushing through barriers: Strong in body, strong in spirit.

Martial Heart

Two days a week, Lisa Rutledge teaches 17 mentally challenged adults through the YAI National Institute for People With Disabilities in New York City and the World Seido Karate Program.

HER INSPIRATION: Four years ago, Lisa, a black belt who has been studying Seido karate for seven years, saw a group of disabled adults perform at a karate demonstration and found herself instantly moved. "The students were so enthusiastic and proud of themselves," she says. She's been volunteering ever since.

THE DRILL: The exercises are not toned down for the group; Lisa and the other instructor use standard fighting techniques. "We emphasize technique over strength, and spirit over technique," she says. An hour-long session includes a warm-up and a cooldown - stretching, punching and kicking-and is peppered with instructors' karate-style barking, which seems to help the students to focus. "Many of them live in very structured group home environments, so karate class is their time."

WHY SHE GOES BACK "It feeds my spirit," Lisa says. "It feeds my students' spirits as well, because it helps them overcome their disability." Lisa leaves each class armed with motivation, something she initially thought she'd be providing. "They remind me of what's important in life and when they ask about a cold I had six weeks ago, they make me feel loved."

Horse Heaven

A special‑education teacher's aide, Carol DiMaggio spends her summer vacations and one day a week during the school year at Pal‑O‑Mine Equestrian in Huntingdon, New York, where she teaches therapeutic horseback riding to seven physically, cognitively and emotionally impaired adults and children.

HER INSPIRATION: Carol's older brother, Tom Berg, had polio. "Yet I never heard him complain," she says. "He never let his braces and crutches stop him from doing anything ­including riding horses. I also had a slight case of polio as a child, but my brothers determination, despite his more severe diagnosis, showed me how fortunate I was. Volunteering at Pal‑0Mine is my way of giving others the gift my brother gave me."

THE DRILL: Depending on the rider's disability and skill level, Carol rides with students or walks alongside the horses, providing instruction and motivation. "Riding helps the students improve their posture, balance, mobility and coordination. They also learn to concentrate as well as communicate with the horse."

WHY SHE GOES BACK "Horseback riding gets the students out of their wheelchairs and makes them feel like they're walking," says Carol. "Each of them has incredible courage‑ some people are afraid of horses, but these students ride despite not having full use of their bodies. I feel privileged to be part of their lives."

Carol and Steely, who's being trained for the program. Just 6 years old, he's still too playful for the students to ride.

Paul Koch, 15, has cerebral palsy, weighs 40 pounds and sometimes must wear a brace while he rides.

Carol walks beside Lauren, 13, who has been riding for two years and can now hold the reins and guide the horse with limited assistance.

Demond Ford, 8, has been riding for a year. He used to lie down on the horse but now sits up.

It often takes three or four Pal‑O‑Mine staffers to help a student mount a horse.

In the half‑hour or hour‑long sessions, riders improve their dexterity and muscle tone ‑and have fun.

Hoop Dreams

Two Saturdays a month during basketball season, Cecilia Sun, Through New York Cares, teaches basketball to 10 to 17 girls ages 8 to 12 who live in Brownsville, a neighborhood in Brooklyn with several public housing facilities.

HER INSPIRATION: Playing basketball and other sports while growing up raised Cecilia's self-esteem and taught her discipline and how to work as part of a team. "Sports impart invaluable skills that last a lifetime," says Cecilia, who has been volunteering for two and a half years. "There aren't many programs out there directed at girls' sports. I want to spark an interest in my players to try out for a team sport, so they can realize how fun it is and how self-confident it can make them feel."

THE DRILL: The team isn't quite ready for a full‑court competition yet, so during the two‑hour sessions, Cecilia has the girls practice their dribbling, passing and shooting skills.

WHY SHE GOES BACK: "I see how proud my players are when they make a basket or their ball‑handling skills improve. I hope they will take the confidence and teamwork skills they've learned here and apply them to other areas of their lives." To celebrate the end of last season, Cecilia and the other coaches took the team to their first‑ever WNBA game at Madison Square Garden. "Who knows? One of the girls could be the next Rebecca Lobo."

Cecilia with Dolapo Arowolo, 8, whose school, like many of the girls', doesn't have an organized after‑school sports program for girls.

Cecilia keeps competition to a minimum by encouraging the girls to cheer each other on.

Socializing on the sidelines: Taysha Frazer, 11, and Clarissa Wilkinson, 12, became fast friends through the New York Cares basketball program.

To teach them the basics, Cecilia has the girls spend an hour and a half doing drills: shooting, passing and dribbling.

The Brownsville team with coach Cecilia, who encourages them to shoot for the stars.

produced by Nadine Raja Desiderio

Share Your Spirit

Thinking of volunteering? One of these organizations could be right for you:

www.ywca. org
Conducts physical fitness programs for young women

Girl Scouts of the USA
Teaches fitness skills to girls
United States Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association
Provides sports training to athletes with cerebral palsy

Disabled Sports USA
301‑217‑0960, ext. 54
Offers fitness and recreation services to children and adults with disabilities

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America
Arranges one‑on‑one mentoring and recreational activities for boys and girls

Special Olympics
Provides Olympic‑style training to mentally disabled adults and children

Nike's PLAY.
Helps disadvantaged kids discover sports