Tichelle Florence grimaces under the strain of weight training as personal trainer Kellye Williams guides her through the exercise. Staff Photo: Lee Depkin
Last December, Kellye Davis Williams was shopping with her daughter in the Covington Kroger for a Christmas party. She noticed a woman in her 20s in a wheelchair in the grocery store and thought to herself, “She is too young to be in that condition.” Williams saw the woman again in the parking lot and this time the voice of God, too strong for her to ignore, she said, told her to approach the woman and help her.
Williams introduced herself as a personal trainer who wanted to offer her services for free. She didn’t ask why the woman was in a wheelchair, she just jumped right into presenting the idea.
“I was really nervous because I didn’t know, are they going to think I’m crazy or get mad, but I had to do it. I said, ‘I don’t know your condition but I’m a personal trainer in Covington and I feel like I could help you,’” said Williams. “They were very gracious, they said they would have to get clearance from their doctors before they participated in any fitness program.”
The young woman in the wheelchair, Tichelle Florence, said Williams’ approach shocked her at first and she was skeptical of the offer. She’d seen many physical therapists, with no success. Florence suffers from a degenerative neuromuscular disorder that has robbed her of her ability to walk, weakened her arms and hands, slowed her eye-hand coordination, affected her speech and caused her heart to fail.
Florence’s fiance Jeremy Thompson urged her to give it a try.
“Jeremy said, ‘You should give her shot,’” said Florence.
On New Year’s Eve day 2013, Florence had her first session with Williams, who owns her own business, Kellye Personal Fitness, on Newton Drive in Covington.
“It was very different than what I’d been used to. She basically had me working out,” said Williams.
Those workouts, now up to 45 minutes long twice a week, have changed Florence’s life. Her heart is improving and so is her mobility.
“She’s walking. She wasn’t ever supposed to do that again,” said Williams.
She walked .05 miles (about the length of a football field) at the Bacon Chase at Atlanta Motor Speedway in March and she traversed 1K (about ¾ of a mile) at the Loco Glo in Kennesaw.
Next up on Florence’s list of races is the Covington Police Department’s Fuzz Run in Covington on Sept. 13. She’ll participate in the 1-mile fun run, with assistance from her fiance and Williams, who will hold her arms to ensure that she doesn’t fall if her knees give out.
Florence suffers from Friedreich’s ataxia, a rare genetic disorder doctors diagnosed her with at age 12. She’s undergone a spinal fusion and has used a wheelchair since age 19, after the birth of her daughter.
Florence graduated from Eastside High School in 2006 with honors and a dual diploma, but her physical condition has prevented her from continuing her education.
Florence said she’s gained muscle strength from the workouts and her heart has improved. She said her cardiologist told her that if her heart had six cylinders, it was running on one, and now it’s running on two.
“I guess it’s working,” said Florence. “I’m getting stronger.”
Though successful, the exercises do seem somewhat unconventional, said Williams. Florence puts on heavy gloves and hits a bag. She throws medicine balls. She pulls oversized truck tires with weights up to 240 pounds. She performs hip raises and calf raises. She uses dumb bells. She lifts sand bags.
“To see myself doing a dead lift, back then I would have been like no way,” said Florence.
Florence also works out at home and it’s a boost to her emotional well-being to have her 6-year-old daughter watch.
“She is so proud of me, it’s an amazing feeling,” said Florence.
Florence said only about 15,000 people worldwide suffer from Friedreich’s ataxia and that she shares her story of success to help others.
“I’m giving them hope and it gives me reason to keep moving,” she said.
Williams said she’s aiming to bump Florence’s workouts up to one hour and she calls her an inspiration to others.
“I’m just really blown away. It really goes to show you that your willpower, your determination play such a huge part in what you can do. She has proven that,” said Williams.