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RED BANK: “LIFE CHANGING” GYM FLEXES BODIES AND SOULS

 

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By BRIAN DONOHUE

Zack Ritchie grew up with a brother with autism. Stacey Ritchie, his wife, spent her childhood watching her mother work at a school for kids with disabilities.

The experiences shaped them both, moving them to take up careers serving people with special needs.

And when hundreds of athletes move through the streets at the Alpha Fit Club Red Bank Classic 5K road race Saturday, Red Bankers will get a chance to see firsthand the ripple effects it’s all having on the lives around them.

The ZR Fit and Wellness team at last year’s 5k race, above. The gym, below, is located on Shrewsbury Avenue. (Click to enlarge.)

Down Broad Street and over the grueling Tower Hill, the two will lead a team of 15 people with various developmental disabilities, from autism, to cerebral palsy to a rare bone disease.

Some will run far ahead of the pack. Some will be pushed in wheelchairs. Some will walk slowly towards the finish line, a small miracle in itself.

The team members are all clients of the couple’s business, ZR Fit and Wellness an “adaptive and inclusive fitness” gym that has become a godsend for scores of people with disabilities and their families since it set up shop on Shrewsbury Avenue three years ago.

“For us, it’s about finishing the three miles,’ Zack Ritchie said of the race.

But for many of the families they serve, the race will be a symbol of the larger way the Ritchies’ work is changing lives.

As he did last year, Zack Ritchie will be pushing Red Bank resident Jack Willis in a special wheeled chair purchased by the Red Bank Parks and Recreation Department. Jack’s father, Jim Willis, struggles for superlatives to describe the results he’s seen since his son started regular workouts at ZR Fit and Wellness.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that working out with Zack, Stacey, and their team of coaches has totally changed Jack’s life,’’ Willis said in an email. “After working out with them for just a few weeks, we saw Jack doing new things – getting up and getting a drink from the kitchen or going up the stairs on his own to hang out in his room. “

“Years of physical therapy and occupational therapy may have given him the skills to do these things, but it was only after working with Zack and his team that he had the confidence to do them on his own. The confidence and independence Jack has gained through their program is truly life-changing.”

Zack Ritchie and Jack Willis working out. (Photo courtesy of Zack Ritchie.)

For the Ritchies, ZR Fitness was kind of an accident. 

In 2020, the two were faculty members at Rumson Fair Haven High School, working with students with multiple disabilities.  

When the pandemic lockdown began, they went mobile, traveling to visit students to provide therapy and training in backyards and parks, wherever he could get students outside for exercise. 

Eventually, they thought, “why not do this all the time?”

Ritchie reached out to his friend Brendan Murphy, who operates Elite Sports Training (EST), a soccer-focused gym at 264 Shrewsbury Avenue, to see if he could see clients there. By mid-2021, Ritchie was working in the gym with clients and groups full-time. It’s a six-day-a-week operation now. The ages of clients range from age 5 to 55.

EST and ZR still share the space, with ZR also offering training at other locations. Zack says the gym goes beyond services offered in physical therapy programs, turning workouts into fun social experiences and pushing clients as trainers do with athletes. 

“We really establish a good ground of /what are your goals? What are your goals for your kid?’”

Stacey Ritchie now works in school administration overseeing four schools serving developmentally disabled students in Union County. She works at the gym on weekends and off days alongside Zack. 

Zack says they’re getting more than they give.

“So many of my buddies are like, ‘every day I struggle to get up. I struggle to get up and work at a desk. I hate what I do,'” Ritchie said. “Iget up every day and I enjoy exactly what I do, every single day.”

“To see the change and making that difference is everything,” Ritchie said. 

The Red Bank Classic 5k begins at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The start and finish line are at 69 Broad Street. For more information and a map of the route click here.

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