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Staff photo by Sabrina Bodon / Michele Luccketta talks to her Lionhearts Fitness students on a recent Thursday evening. The fitness-focused nonprofit engages students in physical obstacles and strength training.

There are three rules at Lionhearts Fitness: No phones, no bullying and no helping somebody until they ask.

The nonprofit gym is geared for children and young adults ages 5-22 and employs obstacle course training to teach kids the fundamentals of getting in shape and tackling life's challenges.

Michele "Shell" Luccketta was inspired to start the nonprofit after facing her own challenges. Diagnosed with a terminal illness a few years back, she began reflecting on all she wanted to do. One of the items on her bucket list was completing an obstacle course Spartan Race.

She began training — sicker than ever, she said — and inspired her youngest son, Isaiah, then 14, to race with her. He ended up completing the race two hours before her and waited at the finish line for her.

When he saw her, he broke down.

What she and her son learned that day was that he could keep pushing himself forward, even if his mom wasn't by his side, she said.

"He said, 'Mama, we need this for all kids,'" said Luccketta.

Isaiah, now 16, goes by Coach Luccketta these days. His age helps him connect with the gym's younger students, he said.

Spartans

Those interested in racing or sponsoring racers can contact Michele Luccketta at 831-406-0239 or shell@LionheartsFitness.com

He doesn't let other kids try any of the obstacles, like the monkey bars or warp wall, until he masters it.

And what's important at Lionhearts is that kids are given the chance to fail. They can try as many times as they want with the encouragement of others, and if they can't perform the task, it's an environment where they can ask for help.

Accessible to children of all abilities, the nonprofit caters to anybody who can attend, offering more than just obstacle course racing with activities like chess club, art and theater.

Based in Gateway Mall off Cloud Springs Road in Ringgold, the group also goes out and performs a good deed every Saturday. Whether it's picking up garbage or shifts at the soup kitchen, Luccketta said it's important for young children to see that they can have an impact.

"It doesn't matter if they're 5 or 15," she said.

That also includes differently abled children.

"We have adaptive youth," said Luccketta. " We have autistic children, we have children with Tourette's. It doesn't matter."

In the past year, the group has been voted by Chattanooga Times Free Press readers as the "Best of the Best" in two categories: nonprofit and place to take kids.

With all the success, Luccketta tries not to get down when things go the other way, like when her two other employees had to leave recently or when a sponsor for the group's events pulls out last minute. After all, overcoming challenges is what the group stands for.

On April 4, the Lionheart Spartans were scheduled run their first race in Atlanta. Luccketta is working to make sure that every kid who wants to race is able to, by providing registration fees and shirts through donations from community sponsors.

So far, it's a model that's served. Everything, she said, motioning to the space around her at the mall, was either donated or sponsored by community members. The inside gym has community-built monkey bars and jump ropes donated by Chattanooga-based playground equipment company PlayCore.

"We all work together as a united community," said Luccketta, "so we give back community service."

Email Sabrina Bodon at sbodon@timesfreepress.com.

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