When the mother of a 21-year-old with a rare form of dwarfism asked Sickel to teach her daughter how to ride a bike, he broke it down into steps. First the young woman needed to improve her balance, so Sickel had her stand on one foot, then on a wobbly board. Next she had to learn the motor skills involved. She sat on a bike as Sickel held on to the back of it and explained to her that the faster she moved the pedals, the easier it would be to keep the bike upright. “Like a spinning top,” he said. Then he showed her how to shift her weight. Eventually, with Sickel’s help, she began to ride. Then he let go.
“I can remember when her mom came out, and tears are rolling down her face,” says Sickel, a father of two. “It’s when you have moments like that that tell you ‘this is what it’s all about.’ So many times kids have the skills, but they don’t believe it. You gotta get them to believe it.”
Growing up, Sickel wasn’t confident in his own abilities. In elementary school, he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and a severe learning disability. “I was getting myself in trouble because I couldn’t sit still in the classroom,” he says. “Quite frankly, my level of hyperactivity would probably increase when things were very hard for me to understand.”
He estimates that he attended seven different elementary and middle schools in Montgomery County—at one point he was homeschooled for six months while his parents figured out where to send him next. Things got better at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, where Sickel took advantage of the peer tutoring program and improved academically. But when he tried out for the junior varsity football team, in the hopes of fitting in and making friends, he became even more frustrated with himself. “Just doing the drills was too hard,” says Sickel, who lives in Silver Spring with his wife, Melanie. “I was just not coordinated…and it only made me feel worse.”
When he was 16, Sickel asked the athletic director at Whitman if he could become an athletic trainer, and soon he was working with the football, baseball and basketball teams, learning how to evaluate and manage injuries. “I liked helping the athletes feel better and get back to where they were,” he says. “It was very nice because I really built a rapport with students I probably would not have known otherwise.”
Sickel attended West Virginia University for two years and set his sights on the school’s athletic trainer program, but when he applied at the end of his sophomore year, he didn’t get in. He started over at the University of Maryland—most of his college credits didn’t transfer—which offered an athletic trainer program that was more like an apprenticeship, he says. He was a trainer for the men’s football, lacrosse, soccer and track teams before graduating in 1986 with a degree in kinesiology.
After graduation, Sickel worked as an athletic trainer in a hospital wellness program, then at a community center and fitness center before taking a job at the Landon School in Bethesda. He built an athletic training business on the side, which the school allowed him to promote, and started to develop his own philosophy as a trainer. At the time, resistance parachutes for running were becoming popular among high-level athletes, and Sickel wondered if they would help kids have fun while they exercised. He invested in a few parachutes and strapped them to some of his young clients’ backs. The kids went farther—without complaining—and laughed as they ran, so he began to brainstorm other ways to make fitness more enjoyable.
“I have you working on one thing, but I’m actually working on something else but you don’t even realize that—you actually think you’re playing a game,” he says. The Fitness for Health concept was born. After eight years at Landon, Sickel decided to focus on his business full time. In the mid-’90s, he leased his current space on Rockville Pike, across the street from the old White Flint Mall.