Sporting a Bulls T-shirt and carrying her University of South Florida ID badge, 22-year-old Thalia Arbelaez strolls the campus like a typical college coed.
She’s headed toward the USF Campus Recreation Center where she’s training to be a nationally certified Group Fitness Instructor.
USF Fitness Coordinator Sue-L Cohen administers the 6-week course that prepares students for the Aerobics & Fitness Association of America’s written and practical-skills exam. In her four years as program instructor, she’s taught a wide range of people with various personalities and skill sets.
But, to her, Thalia is “special.”
It’s the same term the young woman’s parents, Alicia and Arbey Arbelaez, use in place of saying their only child has Down syndrome, a congenital abnormality that doctors told them shortly after her birth would likely result in her death within six months. And should she live longer, she’d never be able to walk.
Thalia proved them wrong on both accounts.
She has far outlived their prediction and she learned to walk in accordance with the norm. Moreover, she started dancing at the age of 2.
Since then, dancing has played a major role in her life, earning her invitations to participate in Patel’s Conservatory’s performance of the “Nutcracker” with the highly regarded Orlando Ballet, the National Down Syndrome Congress Convention in Orlando and the Down Syndrome Association of the Republic of Argentina’s Family Day Event in Buenos Aires.
She also was invited by the Casa Taller Artezas organization to dance in Colombia, the birthplace of her parents.
Cohen said Thalia’s dancing experience and public exposure give her an edge in the musicality aspect of fitness instructor training.
Nonetheless, the curriculum also involves being proficient in such subjects as anatomy and physiology as well as designing and executing her own fitness program. Trainees must also learn microphone etiquette, which includes making announcements and giving instructions.
“In Thalia’s case, she has been treated the same as every other student in the GFIT program this semester,” said Cohen, who noted her twice-weekly two-hour-long classes that include her one-of-a-kind student began in September.
At the end of her training, she will be required to pass a 100-question written test and practical skills exam administered by the Aerobics & Fitness Association of America.
Cohen said Thalia’s team-teaching duties and assignments will extend beyond the typical six-weeks to ensure she has the skills and confidence she needs to lead a group on her own.
“I’ll continue working with her through the end of December and then she’ll do another class,” said Cohen.
“I was so excited to learn about and be able to work with Thalia,” she said. “She has progressed consistently and I think the other students are inspired by her.”
The opportunity for Thalia to enroll in the class unfolded by way of Mackenzie Tewell, who underwent USF’s fitness instructor training program under Cohen’s leadership, earned her certification and now teaches an on-campus fitness class part-time.
She also works as an epidemiologist in the same building as Thalia’s mother and overheard one of her co-workers talking about the young woman’s talent and her dream of becoming a dance teacher.
After speaking with Alicia, it occurred to Tewell that while entrance into the fitness trainer’s program is not solely based on a candidate’s rhythmical and dancing skills, Thalia’s passion for performing might qualify her.
When she posed the question to Cohen and her supervisor Aaron Craig, USF’s assistant director of fitness, the response was unanimously positive.
“We’ve got the resources, so why not?” Craig said. “We’ve got the potential to help Thalia’s dream happen.”
Tewell said the experience taught her a valuable lesson: Anything is possible if you simply pose the question.
She’s since watched a video of Thalia during her training sessions taken by her father, who drives her to the classes and records her every movement. In turn, he replays them at home and gives her suggestions for improvement.
“Learning to teach fitness is not an easy process,” Tewell said. “But she is so bubbly and just a ray of sunshine.”
“I hope she opens the door for others,” Craig said.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]