Bodybuilding Builds Pride and Confidence for this Local Teen with Down Syndrome

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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now another in our series Limitless, stories about living with disabilities from youth reporters in the NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs network.

We travel to Norfolk, Virginia, to meet Jonathan Atkins, a 19-year-old bodybuilder with down syndrome who competed in the 2017 Body Sculpting Open.

The story was produced by Student Reporting Lab at Granby High School who are mentored by WHRO producer, Lisa Godley.

WATCH MORE: Limitless: Breaking the Bounds of Disability

The student correspondent is Jamil Aforo.

JAMIL AFORO: Professional bodybuilders are praised for their ability to enhance their external appearance, pushing the limits of the human body.

But for Jonathan Atkins, the hobby has transformed not only his body, but his life. The 19-year-old athlete comes to this Virginia Beach gym, called the Houze of Champions, to work out with his trainer, Joe Hartfelder, every week.

Jonathan was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that stems from an additional chromosome.

JOE HARTFELDER, Trainer and Professional Bodybuilder: My name is Joe Hartfelder. I’m a WNBF natural pro bodybuilder.

I met Jon over a year ago, and through his mother, who I have known since I was around 6, 7 years old.

He always showed an interest in lifting weights at the house and kind of doing his own thing.

I don’t impose bodybuilding on anyone, because it’s — a lot of people don’t get it, and everyone does it for a different reason. And there is a lot of ego in the industry. And I just don’t like that.

JAMIL AFORO: After working together for about a year, Joe encouraged Jon to enter a local bodybuilding competition.

JOE HARTFELDER: I really love people and helping people. So, with Jon, he was already flexing, and he was kind of already doing that anyway, and I guess looking on Facebook and looking on different things on social media. So I was just like, hey, he could do this.

LISA DUDLEY, Jonathan’s Mother: Down syndrome has low muscle tone, so for him to have the muscles he does is pretty impressive, because he didn’t walk until he was almost 6.

JAMIL AFORO: Lisa Dudley, Jonathan’s mother, has seen how bodybuilding has improved her son’s self-esteem.

LISA DUDLEY: Because, a lot of times, he knows that he is different and that he’s — there are certain things that he cannot do, but this is one thing that he knows that he can do, that, for self-confidence, I think it’s been awesome to him.

JAMIL AFORO: With encouragement from his trainer, Jon traveled to Phoebus, Virginia, in February 2017 to compete in the Body Sculpting Open.

He had never been on a stage before, or been in front of so many strangers. He was one of two participants to compete in a challenged division section of the competition.

LISA DUDLEY: When I saw him on stage, I felt very nervous, but I was proud. I was proud that he actually went out in front of all these strangers and hundreds of people. And it was like he had done this a hundred times before.

And he didn’t look the first bit nervous. And he looked good. He looked really good up there.

When he did his one-minute routine, this is what he — this is the pose he did, right at the end, before he walked off.

JOE HARTFELDER: Oh, it was great. It was great. He loved getting the trophy. Every part of it, he was just a champ the whole way through.

The beauty in it is, you can always get better. In lifting, whether it’s bodybuilding, in life, in anything, you are just always pursuing to do better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jonathan Atkins, you are a star.

And you can see more of these stories from young journalists across the country. That’s at

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