You’d have to look hard to notice what makes Andrew Cameron’s soon-to-open Lions United Fitness Center unlike anything else in Mendota Heights, the Twin Cities or, likely, Minnesota. There’s the requisite lifting and strength-training machines, the treadmills and punching bag. But notice the generous amount of space allocated between rows of equipment — sufficient to allow a wheelchair to pass through. Cameron, a certified personal trainer and Special Olympics coach for 15 years, has built his gym for athletes with special needs from school age up. Many are driven to win medals, others just want to stay or get fit. Cameron, who lives in New Hope with his wife, a nurse, elaborates on his inclusive vision.

Q: When do you open?

A: We’ll have a soft opening March 25 from 3:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. (lions and a grand opening May 4.


Q: Tell us about the lion symbolism.

A: The lion is a symbol for bravery. The Special Olympics Athlete Oath is “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” We’re also emphasizing the word united. People with special needs don’t have to be separated from other athletes.


Q: I believe your inspiration for this effort came largely from your cousin Steven?

A: Yes. Steven, who has Down syndrome, was the only athlete with special needs I knew growing up. I became a Special Olympics coach 15 years ago and coached the Minnesota Special Olympics golf team at the National Games in New Jersey in 2014, then the USA golf team at the World Games in California in 2015. A special connection and bond is made between athletes and coaches that stays forever.


Q: You’ve called people with special needs “one of the most overlooked communities” when it comes to sports and fitness. How will your gym rectify that?

A: Just because someone walks a little different, talks a little different, doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of great things. But the athletic seasons with Special Olympics are so short. It’s not like the NFL where athletes are continually practicing. That means we’re always having to start over to get back into shape. Our gym allows these athletes to come in every day and work out. Repetition is key, getting them on a schedule and sticking to it.


Q: You’ve got about 5,300 square feet, but you wanted to start bigger?

A: (Laughing.) It’s a great starting size for us. But when I first developed my business plan, I was going to create something about 10 times the size. Friends said, “Andy, let’s dial it down a little bit.”


Q: Yours is an Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant gym. Tell us what it will look like.

A: We have about 40 pieces of equipment and large spaces between equipment to allow wheelchairs to move freely around. We have arm cranks for athletes who use a wheelchair; they can roll their wheelchair up and get their heart rate up. For people with autism, we’re in the process of building a sensory room with crash pads, lamps and little sensory tools. We also have no TVs, which are a distraction for everybody. But aside from a couple of pieces of equipment, this gym is equipped for anyone. I’ve already been working with a young lady with cerebral palsy, who has been competing in power lifting using regular weights. And we have a water bottle filling station. I’m really proud of it!


Q: Did you base your gym on similar models in other cities?

A: I believe this is the only gym like it in Minnesota. An athlete with special needs can walk into any gym, but there’s not typically people trained to assist them. I’ll offer everybody a free consultation, including assessing their strengths and goals, and conducting a full body evaluation to see what each athlete is capable of, and what restrictions might be. I’ll offer personal training to those who want it.


Q: How are you financing the gym?

A: We have a fiscal sponsor and have applied for nonprofit status. We’re getting some foundation support and welcome donations. My goal is to get enough able-bodied community members on board with memberships so that I can run the gym without needing grant money. Trainers who have clients looking for a more convenient gym to train at are welcome to come as well.


Q: Membership fees and hours?

A: Twenty dollars a month for people with special needs; $40 a month for others. We’ll also have an incentive program where any member can receive up to $20 a month through their insurance. Staffed hours are Monday-Thursday, 3:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. But members will have 24-hour access.


Q: What goals will clients set?

A: Some parents just want their kids to be active and moving. A lot want to get stronger. We’ll get a lot of competitive people, especially the power lifters. A guy who can’t talk can still come into the weight room and do what you do, and probably do it better. Everyone deserves the chance to be the best version of themselves they can be.


Q: What are you most excited about with Lions United?

A: People being able to come to a place where they’re welcomed. They don’t have to worry about people looking at them funny or treating them different. The minute they walk in the door, they’re a professional athlete.