Bullies may have set a 9-year-old Miami, Florida girl on the path toward the grueling 24-hour BattleFrog obstacle race with her father but the empowerment of fitness has moved her to inspire other kids to "get up off the couch."
Milla Bizzotto’s father says that after spending three hours a day in the gym with him over the past 10 months nothing stops his little girl, emotionally or physically – including the race designed by Navy SEALs and SeaBees.
"At first she didn’t want to tell me that she was being bullied. She told one of my trainers instead," says Christian Bizzotto in a phone interview from his gym, the Focused Movement Academy. "She was in third grade and she came home with these pictures from some boys that were of her and she was dead with knives in her and blood all over."
Mr. Bizzotto says he went through the school system’s procedures to counter bullying but, "it was just the wrong way to go for my daughter. It wasn’t helping her handle the situation. So I started taking her to work with me to the gym and got her a boxing coach named Scooby."
However, Bizzotto says his daughter never needed to use what she learned from the boxing coach.
"She never needed to fight. The bullying just stopped as she spent more time getting fit and she just radiated confidence," he says. "It was a paradigm shift in her head, in her thinking. You could just see that her whole being changed in the way she carried herself and the way she interacted with people."
"A confident child is a bullyproof child," says Rener Gracie, Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner and founder of the Gracie Bullyproof Program, in a phone interview. "I want to congratulate Milla and her father on their accomplishments. As a father I know how vitally important it is for parents to work out with their children from a very young age. Being fit together will empower your child with unshakable confidence."
In Milla's podium speech – after she raced 36 miles, swam eight kilometers (nearly five miles), and completed 25 obstacles (like crawling through mud under barbed wire) – Milla said, "I wanted to inspire kids to get up off the couch. To show they have a special inside of them and tell people who don't believe them who they really are."
She also competed in a Spartan Race – complete with obstacle course – with her father and grandmother last year.
Saying Milla got into shape is not to imply she was overweight, just the opposite in fact, "She’s just tiny, tiny, framed and super, super, athletic," says Bizzotto. What Milla did was become more physically active and strong with the support of her father and the community he created around her at his gym.
"Actually, I was the one who was out of shape for a long time when she was little," Bizzotto says. "I got up off the couch first so that I could be a better father and a better example to my daughter."
He says he lost 100 pounds, left the sedentary business he was running, and opened his own gym specializing in training for obstacle racing.
"Now my daughter is there with me training three hours a day and we are doing these races together," he says. "The gym became a family experience. I supervise her and she inspires me."
He helped Milla start a GoFundMe page to raise money toward her entry fees and to buy items (such as a tent) that she would need to complete the race.
Some experts say that parental engagement is directly related to how much activity children get.
"Studies have also found the more sedentary the mother, the more sedentary the child, and the more physically active the mother, the more physically active the child early in life," according to the website The State of Obesity’s page on physical inactivity in America.
The site states that 80 percent of American adults do not meet the government's physical activity recommendations for aerobic and muscle strengthening, while 60 percent of adults are not sufficiently active to achieve the standards set by the government to achieve health benefits.
A recent survey of 2,000 parents in United Kingdom made headlines when it found that nearly three quarters of children there get outdoors less than one hour a day. Meanwhile United Nations guidelines require that prisoners get at least an hour daily of "suitable exercise in the open air."
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website, in the United States, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
Dr. Rhonda Clements, author and director for the physical education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., who also writes on children's need for physical play says in a phone interview, "When children begin to see the lines changing in their bodies as they get more physically fit it's a confidence booster. You must boost confidence before you can confront bullies."
Milla's dad could see her confidence improve as she gained strength in the gym.
"She felt like she could conquer the world, literally, after that BattleFrog race," Bizzotto says of Milla. "Now she’s like on this campaign to let kids know that they shouldn’t be bullied. That they have something special inside, which I think is the cutest thing in the world when she says that. I support her efforts 100 percent!"