UI student creates adaptive challenge course for people with disabilities

Junior Emily Zimmer created the Hawkathlon, an event scheduled to take place at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center later this month, to help people with disabilities stay active and build new relationships.



Cooper Worth, News Reporter

As a peer mentor for a special education program in high school, Emily Zimmer volunteered for a local triathlon for students enrolled in high school special educations programs around the Green Bay, Wisconsin area.

Now, the University of Iowa third-year student has created a similar fitness event, the Hawkathlon, for people with disabilities.

The free-adaptive challenge course was created to help people with disabilities stay active, find new relationships, and build confidence. It is scheduled for April 24 on the third floor of the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center from 1-3 p.m.

The Hawkathlon consists of two activities: one running or walking laps around the track at the center for 30 minutes, while the other group completes 10 fitness stations including an obstacle course, rowing machines, using medicine balls, and agility ladders.

After 30 minutes, the two groups will switch and finish with one final lap together.

Zimmer said she has seen firsthand how much confidence events like the Hawkathlon bring people with disabilities.

“The event is to create opportunities for people with disabilities and encourage a healthy lifestyle regardless of personal circumstances,” she said. “We intend to empower all of our participants that anyone is capable of anything.”

Zimmer approached her instructor, lecturer Bri Swope, in the department of health and human physiology on her idea of the Hawkathlon during the fall 2021 semester.

“After class one day, we were just talking and I told her about this dream of mine to start a triathlon [in Iowa City], and she was like, ‘That’s practical,’” she said. “There’s nothing like that in Iowa City, and we can totally do it.”

Swope said she and Zimmer have had weekly meetings since the fall semester to plan the event.

“An adaptive triathlon was the original plan… but then thinking about the temperature in April, it can get unpredictable, so we canceled out anything with water just because it would be too cold,” Swope said.

Erin Litton, department of health and human physiology internship director and coordinator of experiential learning opportunities, signed Zimmer up for an independent study for the event and reached out to UI’s recreational services who agreed to host it at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center.

Litton said she has been impressed seeing Zimmer work with such passion to replicate an event that she experienced back home, and bring it to the Iowa City

“Working with somebody like Emily, who’s taken an opportunity to expand her education by launching this inaugural event has been inspiring both as a faculty member and community member,” Litton said.

Participants in the Hawkathlon are also encouraged to complete the event alongside a partner.

Zimmer said she has witnessed just how effective participants working in pairs can be in terms of encouraging one another.

“I had a few different partners, and it could be a challenge to motivate them to run, but for me, it brings me so much joy to see them happy and smiling when they ran past the finish line,” she said.

Zimmer said her main priority for the event is that all participants have fun and step out of their comfort zone.

“It’s a chance for participants to be active and meet new people,” she said. “For a lot of these people, physical activity is not something they do on a daily basis, so just encouraging them and showing them that this is something that they can do and just seeing them have fun and smile is what it’s all about.”