CLERMONT, Fla. – A Central Florida father who had been scuba diving since he was a boy reconnected with that hobby to help his son walk again.
David Lawrence Sr., founder of the Scuba Gym, says the underwater world he loved so much provided a unique environment to heal.
Now he and his family are sharing that success with others.
Sitting poolside at the National Training Center in Clermont, Lawrence looks out over the deep end of an Olympic sized pool as bubbles rise to the surface.
"It's just really neat that all this is going on and I just kind of oversee it now," he said.
Teams of divers go 12 feet down through a series of exercises in the near weightless environment. They include people with a variety of special needs ranging from autism to cerebral palsy.
Everyone is wearing a tank, regulator, mask and if you could see it, a smile.
"I know in my heart and from my experience that every person that comes out is changed for the better," Lawrence said.
Ten years ago Lawrence's son, David Jr., was recovering from brain surgery that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
David Jr's recovery was slow and that's when Lawrence, who always enjoyed scuba diving, decided to introduce the activity to his son as a therapy option.
"Once we started scuba therapy he started getting sensations and things like that in his left side and I was able to train him to make a step, then another", he continued. "It just progressed from there to where now he just does it and he doesn't have to think about it."
Lawrence says the quiet, near weightless environment is perfect for low impact exercises.
"When they are underwater we work on different things. If they have a weakness on their right side we're able to weight the side a little bit," Lawrence explained.
After the success he saw with his son, Lawrence changed carriers and started the Scuba Gym with his wife Kimberly.
The couple were nominated for the News 6 Getting Results Award by Lynn Thibodeau Cyr.
Thibodeau Cyr has been taking her daughter, Annie, who has Down Syndrome, to the therapy sessions for about a year. She said the sessions have given Annie a sense of confidence. She's always excited to attend.
"They're absolutely getting results," she said. "The biggest change has been her confidence. She loves to talk about diving. The expression on her face, I mean a huge smile. That tells you she's loving this."
Lawrence says the therapy offers something for everyone and he's seen big improvements in many of his clients. Some have been able to leave their wheelchairs, others have lost weight, gained strength and improved their balance. "We're able to manipulate the body under water because there's no gravity so there's no real resistance," Lawrence explained. "It's like a light switch turns on and things start changing for people."
Lawrence says the biggest success story is his son. David Jr is now attending UCF and is a scuba instructor helping others learn to dive.
"My walking has gotten a lot better," David Jr. said. "I can run and that was big for me. It's not pretty, still to this day," he laughed. "But it's running."
The Scuba Gym offers three types of therapy sessions:
Physical: working on disabilities and weaknesses.
Cognitive: Divers with autism gain confidence, get exercise and reduce anxiety.
Antidepressant: For divers with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and frustration.
"I think Kim and I are driven to do this every singe day because we're happy. This is where we're the happiest," Lawrence said. "If we can ease the pain and speed the recovery for other families and other people that's what we want to do for the rest of our lives."