13-year-old Parker has Down syndrome, and he's found friendship in his personal trainer, Sammy Callari. Nicole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News
Standing on top of a walkway bridge, 13-year-old Parker Seward looked up at his personal trainer in the mid-afternoon light.
With a conniving grin, Parker shouted, “Look, a squirrel!”
And he took off running down the hill in a North Naples residential community.
“You cheater,” Sammy Callari, 27, playfully snapped back.
But Parker had crossed the imaginary finish line first. He threw his fists into the air triumphantly.
To Parker, these gym sessions are simply a chance to hang out with his “big brother.” They call each other “meatball” and “pork chop.” They play fight in between sets and listen to Usher on the drive from Parker’s house to the gym.
But to Callari, it’s an opportunity to teach Parker about his abilities.
“While it looks like he has a lot of setbacks and a difficult road of life, I look at Parker as a young little boy; he has goals, he has aspirations, he has ambitions just like anybody else.
“My goal is to bring that out of him, or show that no matter what he’s up against or no matter what task lies ahead of him, that he can overcome that with a little bit of hard work, a little bit of patience and perseverance.”
Callari admits he was a little nervous the first time he was asked to train a child with Down syndrome. A former mixed martial arts fighter and now a certified personal trainer, Callari took all the proper training courses, even the ones about working with those with disabilities.
“I will never forget it,” he said. “I was a little bit anxious, definitely excited, but anxious because it was going to be a new experience for me. We hit it off. He gave me the nickname ‘Luke Bryan’ because he thinks that’s who I look like.”
Parker started calling his new trainer “big brother,” and Callari called him “little brother.”
“I almost look at him like he’s an underdog,” Callari said, “because I’ve been in that role many times in my life.”
In high school, Callari played baseball and basketball. He was the skinny one on the team, though, so he said colleges looked past his talent.
In mixed martial arts, he was the underdog in four out of five of his fights. He finished his career with three wins and two losses. He gave it up because of concussions.
“I have always had an underdog mentality of people counting me out and saying I couldn't do something,” he said. “It’s a rewarding feeling that when you’re in that situation and you put the work in and you can overcome anything.”
Last fall, Callari decided to move back to his hometown, in Cleveland, Ohio, to chase his dream of becoming a full-time trainer and coach at a gym.
Personal trainer Sammy Callari works out with Parker Seward, 13, at his community gym in North Naples on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. (Dorothy Edwards/Naples Daily News)
He stayed in touch with Parker, even 1,200 miles apart. They FaceTimed and mailed each other letters and packages.
Sometime around last Christmas, Callari felt something was pulling him back.
“I made the decision that I was going to move back down here in Southwest Florida to pursue my dream to help and inspire as many people as I can.”
Since returning in January, Parker and Callari have been training together twice a week, and Callari has become something of a role model.
“I’m very grateful for Sammy,” Annamaria Seward, Parker’s mom, said. “How refreshing for a young person to be just as good with Parker as he is. That Sammy is something special. He’s going places.”
It’s important for all growing boys to live an active lifestyle, but especially ones with Down syndrome.
The one-hour workout sessions help Parker to release some of his pent-up energy and help him focus his attention.
Callari has learned to recognize when Parker loses interest in an exercise, so he moves on to the next one.
“I want the heavy ones,” Parker said during a recent workout as they did reps of chest press together.
“Those are a little heavy for you,” Callari replied.
“But I’ll get stronger.”
Callari takes Parker through endurance and strength workouts. They do chest press, bench press, squats and planks. Bicep curls are Parker’s favorite.
In between sets they fist-bump and talk Power Rangers.
Since January, Parker has lost 2 inches around his waist. His upper body endurance has doubled. He can now do 10 assisted pushups instead of five. And Parker can now hold a plank position for 17 seconds instead of eight.
“As Parker grows up," Callari said, "he can take a lot of the lessons we’ve learned from everyday life and in our gym sessions, and that will help him build a solid foundation as he becomes a young man. He’s already off to a great start."
Parker is just like every other 13-year-old boy.
His favorite food is macaroni and cheese. He even named his bulldog “Mac.”
He likes to play video games and listen to country music and his favorite basketball player is LeBron James.
“He likes all the good things in life,” his mom said.
Parker likes it best when his entire family can sit down together for meals.
"He teaches us every day," Annamaria Seward said. "We’ve all got our purpose on this Earth. And Parker taught us to love.”
He has goals and ambitions, too.
“I want to grow up and be a policeman and pull Sammy over,” Parker said. He’s perfected the deadpan joke.
Callari, who already trains clients with Parkinson’s disease, said one day he plans to open his own facility in Southwest Florida where he can train others with disabilities.
For now, he hopes to teach Parker about what he’s capable of.
“He can do the same things that any other little boy or girl can do,” Callari said. “I think just by showing that he can do it in the gym and in our daily life, that it can give (others) the motivation that, ‘Hey, if Parker can do this, why can’t I?’ ”
Personal trainer Sammy Callari and Parker Seward, 13, take a walk in between sprints during a workout at his community gym. (Dorothy Edwards/Naples Daily News)