“Functional fitness combined with community support saved my life, so now I’m paying it forward to provide even better fitness and sporting opportunities to Veterans and people with disabilities.” – Alec Zirkenbach, Founder, Director and Coach at Adaptive Training Academy
There’s nothing quite like the loss of a core passion and purpose that can motivate a deep desire to refocus energy and will to overcome adversity.
Alec Zirkenbach, Founder, Director and Coach at Adaptive Training Academy (ATA) in San Diego, is testament to the passion and purpose that can be redirected when life-altering loss strikes close to heart. Alec’s thriving adaptive fitness and training nonprofit company originated through his personal experience with lengthy loss of walking ability due to severe injury during military service.
Before founding ATA in 2012, Alec served nine years in the Navy and was a proud U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer, reaching the rank of lieutenant (O3). During his service, he deployed on military missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq). Later, he deployed on humanitarian missions to the Central and South America west coasts, and deployed on United Nations counter-piracy missions.
Often, Alec’s Navy service was more than a job – it was indeed an adrenalin-inducing adventure.
However, with adventure also came deploying in harm’s way and facing life-threatening service. As his military career progressed, Alec’s role often involved assignments where danger lurked on any given mission.
Dangerous Service in Harm’s Way
Eventually, the serious nature of Alec’s service struck him in a life-altering instant. During a counter-piracy operation, he suffered a severe lower leg injury that nearly cost him his right leg. Though he prefers not to share details of his injury, he attests the life-changing event and his lengthy recovery are the origins that inspired his current adaptive fitness mission.
“I was put on Limited Duty for a year-and-a-half while recovering from the injuries. I almost lost my right leg due to severe fractures and compartment syndrome,” he shares. Compartment syndrome is a serious medical condition – most often in the lower leg – where intense pressure rises in and around muscles essential for mobility. Without emergency treatment, it can lead to permanent damage and also cause disability, paralysis or death.
Alec’s severe and debilitating lower leg complications didn’t keep him from Service.
“When I regained function through rehab and community-supported functional fitness, I requested to rejoin full duty status,” Alec says. “I completed two more tours of service, including a forward deployment to the Middle East, before being medically retired due to my injuries.”
Mobility challenges continued for Alec. Early on he experienced a lengthy loss of walking ability, setting back his recovery and raising concerns of permanent disability.
“I had extensive physical therapy to regain function of my lower right leg and lots of support from orthotists to make a leg brace to help me walk again,” Alec shares. “But therapy only got me so far. What literally brought me back on my feet again and a second chance at a happy and healthy life was joining a functional fitness gym and the community support I received there.”
Launching the Adaptive Training Academy
Through the extensive support Alec received from the functional fitness community, the inspiration for Adaptive Training Academy began to take form.
“ATA started as a rehabilitation program in my community gym,” Alec says. “We ran free fitness classes for patients from the local Naval Medical Center and anyone in the community. That experience taught our fitness team how to work with a broad spectrum of adaptive trainees. Our adaptive fitness program grew, and a well-known fitness company asked us to create an educational course to teach other trainers how to train people with disabilities,” he explains.
“Fitness and community support saved my life,” Alec says, “and so my fellow Veterans, Active Duty service men and women, and all people with disabilities deserve to have trainers who are prepared to serve them, access to adaptive equipment, and support systems to help them rehabilitate or stay healthy through daily exercise.”
Alec’s initial development of the adaptive fitness program at his local community gym became the catalyst for developing ATA, providing a training resource for other rehabilitation professionals supporting a range of adaptive needs.
Partnering on Adaptive Fitness with VA
The success of ATA in developing adaptive fitness and training programs for a range of injuries gradually built a strong reputation as a supportive resource for local service-disabled military members and Veterans.
Eventually, the adaptive fitness programs taught by Alec and his trainers drew attention from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and its staff dedicated to developing adaptive sports and activities for Veterans.
Today, ATA is an active partner at VA’s annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) and its National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic (NVSSC). The premier adaptive sports and recreation events are enthusiastically attended and enjoyed by the disabled Veteran community.
The strong partnership with VA has allowed Alec to continue developing ATA to offer more training and resources for others with severe injuries seeking adaptive fitness and training.
“ATA converted to a nonprofit last year so that we can better serve the community through funding, adaptive equipment, and as always, adaptive fitness education,” Alec explains.
“Currently we are creating new courses in specialized areas such as spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injury and are excited to release those in early 2024,” Alec adds.
In addition to developing new adaptive fitness training resources, ATA has a full slate of events on its 2024 schedule. In January ATA will host the Sports4Vets Throwdown, a nationwide functional fitness virtual competition for Veterans of all ability levels, ages and backgrounds. Over the summer ATA will partner on the NVSSC in June, the NVWG in July, and the National Veterans Golden Age Games in August.
For Alec, continuing the growth of ATA to help others through adaptive fitness and training is a way of giving back for the positive rehabilitation community support he received through his challenging recovery.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about providing safe and effective adaptive fitness training education and supporting the growth of gyms and adaptive programs,” Alec shares. “Functional fitness combined with community support saved my life, so now I’m paying it forward to provide even better fitness and sporting opportunities to Veterans and people with disabilities.”