Meet Eric Russell

Cardiac Technology, Bemidji Medical Center

Eric Russell was driving back from ice fishing in Red Lake, Minnesota, when his phone rang. He doesn’t normally get good service in that part of the state, and he almost never answers calls from numbers he doesn’t recognize.

“It was just a really funny happenstance that I was driving in an area of the state that had cell service,” he says. “So I took the phone call and it ended up being an amazing thing.”

The person on the other end was calling from Bemidji Special Olympics. The organization was looking for a coach to train their group of powerlifters, and they were hoping Eric could be that person.

Eric was nervous, but he also knew this would be a new opportunity to challenge himself as a coach. He had already been a personal trainer and coach in different capacities for almost 10 years, but he didn’t have any experience working with special needs athletes.

“I don’t want to do things half-heartedly,” he says. “So I thought if I’m going to do it, I’m going to deep dive into it.”

Eric started learning as much as he could about the special needs community. He quickly realized that he would need to take a different approach to coaching in order to communicate effectively with his athletes.

As a naturally fast talker, Russell can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, but many special needs athletes don’t learn best by listening. Instead, having someone demonstrate an action can be a better teaching method.

“I had to be more creative than ever before was the big thing,” he explains. “If something didn’t quite work, I had to find a new way of saying it or demonstrating it so everyone could get on the same page.”

In his first year of coaching the powerlifters, Eric had two athletes compete at the Minnesota Special Olympics.

By the time his athletes finished competing – each taking home a medal in their respective weight classes for bench pressing – he felt a collective sense of relief, excitement and accomplishment.

“Not just from my end, but I knew those guys felt the same way,” he says.

The state meet is an event Eric now looks forward to every year, just like his athletes.

“With how much fun they have and how much fun I have watching them, this is something I’m going try to do for as long as I can,” he says.

He also emphasizes that although competing in Special Olympics is both rewarding and fun with a highly supportive audience, it’s also a serious competition.

“The people that are there are giving their best like you wouldn’t believe,” he says. “And that’s one thing I think a lot of people don’t understand.”

Now in his fifth season of coaching, Eric usually helps anywhere from two to eight athletes train each year.

For several weeks leading up to the state meet in the spring, he leads the powerlifters through warm-ups, bench presses, deadlifts, squats and general cardio and fitness exercises. Because of the intensity of powerlifting, he pays special attention to his athletes’ knees, back and shoulders to prevent injuries.

Although the powerlifters train with the goal of competing at state, Eric doesn’t want their health and wellness to stop at the podium.

“Working in cardiovascular services at Sanford, people’s overall health is really important to me, and in every aspect of my coaching I want to teach that,” he says

Since his Special Olympic coaching journey began in 2015, Eric says that he’s learned just how easy it can be to make a positive impact through the time he’s spent with the powerlifters.

“My athletes walk through the door for their first practice of the season, and they’re doing secret handshakes and high fives and everybody is trying to hug you,” he says. “Then you start to laugh and chuckle, and they just envelop you in that ‘nothing but love’ mentality.”