Sergeant Tony Austin, a former US Marine Corps drill instructor currently residing in Toronto, has over 22 years experience in the fitness industry, working with both civilian and military personnel. While military-style training might sound daunting for those new to the workout circuit, it is a refreshing and much-needed change for the participants of Project O, a volunteer athletic training program run in conjunction with Covenant House and Pro Action Cops and Kids Foundation. Bringing together diverse, high-risk individuals between the ages of 15-26, the program unites participants weekly under Sergeant Tony A’s leadership to work on fitness, health and discipline. Culminating in a graduation ceremony, the 16-week course allows each participant to achieve a sense of belonging, improved body image, acceptance, friendship and an understanding that they are not alone.
While 95% of the participants have had a run-in with the law, Tony does not let this cloud his judgement when meeting the new “recruits.” “These are not bad kids,” Tony explained. “They have merely fallen into hard circumstances and need help to get out.”
As the co-founder of Fit Factory Fitness, a military-style boot camp gym, Sergeant Tony had the facility and drive to help organize Project O. Tony can identify with many of the participants and understands how it feels to be prejudicially labelled. As an African-American from the state of Florida, Tony has experienced racism and prejudice and knows how this can negatively affect one’s self-image and self-respect.
When asked why the participants, generally opposed to strong authority figures, respond so well to the training, Tony explains that he is someone the participants are “not used to” and that “they see they are all treated equally.”
“I don’t care what they did before they got here. I know what they can achieve and they respond well because they know I believe in them,” Sergeant Tony said.
He admits that his style of training can be daunting, recalling two female participants who spent the first few weeks in tears because both had been abused by men and were intimidated by his military approach, which often involves yelling. Despite this unique challenge, Tony persevered and worked one-on-one with the women, who eventually became enthusiastic participants.
Finding the appropriate clothing and shoes is a hurdle in itself for most of the participants, which is why Project O outfits each member in a uniform t-shirt, shorts and running shoes—items highly prized and appreciated by this diverse group of young men and women. Once uniformly dressed, their differences melt away and they begin working as a cohesive team, supporting and encouraging each other through what can only be described as grueling physical activity. Following the program, the participants are invited to do an obstacle course, such as the “O Course” or “Spartan Race,” where they have the opportunity to put their newfound skills into action. Alone, these races are almost impossible to complete, but as a team, the difficult tasks become more manageable and at the end the members of Project O can often be found covered in mud and dirt, wearing huge grins. One individual who completed the Spartan Race was so proud of himself that he would not take off his Project O t-shirt—or his medal—for a full week.
While Carlos Marin participates in the program because he enjoys sports and being in shape, the greatest benefit, as he sees it, is mental. Marin identifies himself as having a mental illness and says Tony’s program “helps keep my mind focused and healthy and teaches me that I am the only one holding myself back.” Another participant, Insuthan Krishna, attributes his 60-pound weight loss to Tony’s training and says he is a “different person since starting the program.”
Volunteers Melissa Grieco and Laila Tannis note that Tony’s training is successful because, as Grieco puts it, “Tony won’t cut anyone any slack and treats everyone equally.”
Making small life changes can often seem insurmountable, but the participants of Project O have already overcome so many hurdles simply by signing up, showing up and working hard.
You can meet Sergeant Tony along with other Canadian fitness personalities at “Sweat 4 Sick Kids” charity on June 6-7 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
This article originally appeared in Good News Toronto, by Sara Rosen.