Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to interview one of the most prominent dads in the Tampa Bay autism community, Olando “The Warrior” Rivera. The former kickboxer, whose record boasts several championship titles, now is a successful business owner running the B.A. Warrior Gym and soon opening the Warriors for Autism Fitness & Sensory Center specifically designed for individuals with special needs. The center inspired by his own son and other children on the spectrum will have a sensory room, zip line, rock wall and various activities that are geared toward children and young adults with sensory sensitives.
As you can imagine, I was a little nervous meeting someone with his résumé, but it turns out he was a really nice guy who seemed to genuinely care about all the kids that walk into his gym. As I was listening to his story, I couldn’t help but feel like it could be the plot to a movie; star athlete who had it all, life tries to knock him down, comes out in the end happier than ever, knowing family is more important than anything else. Listed below are the questions I asked Mr. Rivera, followed by his responses. Hope you enjoy!
Q: Please describe your mission here at the B.A. Warrior Training Center. We can all read it online, but I’d like to hear it straight from your mouth.
A: “The mission here, our vision, is to have a place where the kids can come in and have fun, but at the same time, not feel like they’re overwhelmed with all the noise. I can’t have it loud and noisy in here, or have a lot of bright lights, because as you know, I have an autistic son. He’s 17 now, and I want him to know that when he comes into this room, he can have fun and not squint his eyes or cover his ears and stuff like that; I’ve been through this with him his whole life, so I understand what he needs. I basically designed this place alongside my wife with the thought of helping these kids, and my son, to not only have fun, but to get some exercise. Can’t get in shape when you’re sitting at home on the computer!”
Q: What sort of growth do you usually see in your disciples, from when they first walk in here to when they leave for the last time?
A: “That’s another reason why I’ve been so inspired to do this program. Since I started this back in 2000, what I’ve seen throughout the years with all the kids that have come through those doors to train with me, is that when they got here they were very shy and scared, and didn’t know what they were getting into really. I’ve seen them transform from that into saying, ‘Hey this is so fun and cool!’, and it had to do with simple things that I did to help them, which I’ve also done with my own son. I figured if it works for him, I could probably duplicate it with other kids. Why not help as many of these kids as I possibly can? The best feeling is when I see some of them go from non-verbal to verbal, and actually say, ‘Thanks coach!’, it’s magical. It shows how much they truly do care. The key, I believe, is the eye contact. Once you’ve established that, and they’ll look at you right back, you know you’ve gained their trust.”
Q: How did getting that initial diagnosis for your son change things for you and your family?
A: “That one’s really close to the heart. When we found out, we didn’t know what it was. Who did? He was 5 when we found out, so going on 12 years now. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I’m a champion athlete, why does my son have something like this?’, and it was hard for me, as a man, to wonder how could he have gotten this from me when I’m so healthy? It caused a lot of problems between me and my wife; shifting the blame on one another, going back and forth, it was bad. But through the grace of God, we realized fighting wouldn’t solve anything, and that he’s our son and he needs us to help him. Being completely honest, I was in denial about it, thinking he’ll be fine, or “grow out of it,” but as the years went by, nothing changed. My wife Deena stayed on top of it though, making sure he always got what he needed. They called me a warrior when I was fighting, but she was the real warrior, doing what needed to be done for her kid. When I realized that, I accepted my son for who he is, and began my mission to help out other kids in similar situations.”
Q: There’s an unfortunate stigma against dads of children with autism, that they “can’t be as involved as the mom.” What would you say to any dads out there to convince them to be proactive in their child’s life?
A: “It comes down to the last question I answered. I was in denial as a dad, I didn’t want to believe it even existed, let alone that my son had it. I’m sure there are a lot of dads out there who go through the same thing I did. But that’s crazy, because if you think that way, then you’re not really a dad. When you’re a parent, you take your child, and you deal with the hand you’re given, and you do what you have to do to ensure they’re the best they can be no matter what’s involved. Moms are going to do what needs to be done almost always, because they carried you! They know what’s best for you by instinct, but many dads don’t have that. What I can say though, is to just remember: it’s not about you, it’s about your kid. Just love them and take care of them, and I promise you’ll do just fine.”
Q: Thank you so much for doing this. Last thing, can you give any general advice to all the dads out there who may be reading?
A: “It’s no problem, glad to do it. My suggestion to the dads out there: get down on one knee, look them in the eye. MAKE that contact with them, if they look away, pull their face back to yours. Let them see you, because once they do, it breaks that barrier they put up automatically. “There’s nothing you can do to change your situation, other than change your situation.” Doing nothing will change nothing. I’ve seen it consistently ever since I opened this place up. When you work hard to make things better, the change you will see is contagious, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world. That’s the reason I’m here today standing in this building with you, is my determination to make things better, and that is my advice to all the dads out there.”
- G. Sosso