BEMIDJI-Early last year, Bemidji athletes Parker Bruns, David Wangberg and Dale Williams, Jr. did something extraordinary.

The three local powerlifters each bench pressed their way to the podium at the Minnesota Special Olympics for their respective weight classes, thanks-at least in part-to training they received here in Bemidji.

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The athletes connected with CrossFit Bemidji in 2015 when Shannon Murray, the community outreach specialist for Bemidji Special Olympics, started looking for a place for the powerlifters to train. Gym owner Carol Richmond recommended that they work with head coach Eric Russell, and the rest was history.

"It sounded like it was a different adventure," said Russell. "I've been coaching weightlifting and group fitness classes. And it just sounded like it was going to be something a little bit fun and different."

Bruns and Wangberg began working with Russell in 2015, and Williams joined them last year. The trio, along with other Special Olympics athletes, spend about 12 weeks training at the local CrossFit affiliate gym before they travel to the competition in Golden Valley, Minn., in mid-February.

On Wednesday evenings, the competitors fill the brightly painted warehouse that houses CrossFit Bemidji to perfect their bench presses, deadlifts and squats. Russell's coaching takes the form of gentle ribbing, friendly encouragement and genuine faith in his athletes' ability to go above and beyond.

"He's awesome," Wangberg said after a late-December training session. "He's the best at it."

Williams, too, appreciates Russell's help getting ready to compete. Ever since he heard about the powerlifting competitions, Williams wanted to get involved. This year, he plans to branch out from the bench press and also compete in the deadlifting event.

"I'm always looking for a challenge," Williams said. "(Russell) motivates us."

The Special Olympics athletes motivate Russell as well. Though he was initially intimidated by the prospect of stepping so far out of his comfort zone, Russell said the change has made him a better coach.

"I had never worked closely with special needs people before, or Special Olympics athletes," he said. "I had to learn and grow as a coach, just to be able to actually communicate effectively."

Despite the challenges, Russell is now in it for the long haul.

"They were just really excited about it, and it seemed like, because they were excited, it was the right thing to do," he said. "It's fun to see them succeed, and they have such a good time with it."

Traveling with the athletes to the competition is a highlight for everyone involved. Wangberg and Bruns, best friends, love working out together, and Bruns loves to pump up spectators before completing a heavy lift.

"He's kind of like the showman," Russell said, recalling an earlier competition. "He was flexing at the crowd, and then he went and hit his big bench press for the day, and he was so excited about it. It was a lot of fun."

The competitions are open to the public, and held at the Breck School in Golden Valley on Feb. 17-18. For more information, visit www.specialolympicsminnesota.org.