College basketball star Hoewisch helps motivate her 'No. 1 fan'

Celeste Hoewisch and Zach HeugelUW-Green Bay women’s basketball player Celeste Hoewisch plays with one hundred percent, all-out, pure determination. And the Phoenix faithful love her for it.

But there is one fan in particular who leads the cheers for Celeste. Zach Heugel jumps to his feet and high-fives his dad when Celeste makes the big steal, and he’s the first with his hands in the air (the universal sign for a three-pointer) when she connects from behind the arc.

It is also painfully obvious that he shares her disappointment, as well. Watching him with his head in his hands in the final minutes of Green Bay’s Horizon League Tournament semi-final game March 12, was as telling of the impending loss as a glance at the scoreboard.

Celeste HoewischThat’s because Zach Heugel isn’t just a fan, and Celeste isn’t just another talented Phoenix player moving up through one of the most successful programs in college basketball. Off the court Celeste, the junior guard from Hortonville, has taken the time to make a profound and lasting impact on Zach’s life.

As his father John Heugel explains, Zach is a young man who struggles with motivation and social interaction — typical of someone with a cognitive disability such as Zach’s, but a pattern difficult to alter. That said, John and his wife Nancy were becoming increasingly concerned about Zach’s health and lack of motivation.

“People with cognitive disabilities don’t have the capacity to interact as much socially as the rest of us,” John Heugel said. “The one-on-one interaction outside of the family is so important for them to have a normal life.”

A Green Bay attorney, and familiar with campus as a member of UW-Green Bay’s Founders Association board, John Heugel wondered if there was a UW-Green Bay student who could help Zach, and at the same time, get some practical experience in his or her field of interest.

That’s when Hoewisch entered the picture. After consulting with Heugel, UW-Green Bay Director of Career Services Linda Peacock Landrum approached Hoewisch, a biology major with an emphasis in exercise science, about the opportunity. After meetings with the Heugel family and approval of the Human Biology department for a two-credit internship, Celeste agreed. And Zach, who had previously only cheered Celeste from the stands, was thrilled by the chance to work with one of his favorite Phoenix players.

The internship resulted in meetings once or twice per week for directed physical activity and practice on socialization skills. Hoewisch was required to develop a written exercise training program (including purpose, goals, means of objective verification and more) and to document Zach’s progress.

To increase Zach’s activity level, the two played basketball, football, bocce ball (to get Zach ready for state Special Olympics) and racquetball. They swam, golfed and jogged. Hoewisch trained Zach in weightlifting (now, next to basketball, his favorite activity). They also worked on goals he could work on at home, like a minimum 20 minutes of walking per day. Most importantly, she kept Zach on task with a food log and worked with him to establish nutritional goals, such as “no soda,” increasing his water intake, and eating at least one serving of fruits and vegetables per day.

The results were staggering. Zach lost 50 pounds, and a recent body composition analysis showed that he carries only 11 percent body fat. He now has well-defined muscles as a result of his weight training (that he’ll proudly demonstrate when asked), and he is obviously enthusiastic about his accomplishments and determined to continue on his new wellness path.

“I just can’t express the difference this has made in Zach’s life,” said Zach’s mom, Nancy. “The change in him is beyond words. Celeste did a wonderful job and Zach is really a different guy.”

“I have more energy,” says Zach, who is preparing for his own basketball tournament as part of the Green Bay Magic basketball team that will play in the Special Olympics regional March 20 in Oshkosh. (That’s the day before Celeste’s Phoenix team takes the floor in Ames, Iowa vs. Virginia in NCAA opening-round action.)

Zach said he doesn’t get tired and only comes out of the game when the coach tells him to. But if it were up to him, he’d play every minute.

He said he’s most proud that he gave up soda, a habit that he and his dad enjoyed together. He continues to make healthy choices (like his favorite – sweet potatoes) and faithfully writes in his food log. He also makes certain he gets a workout in between working limited hours in two jobs at Culver’s and Target.

For her part, Hoewisch takes little credit; instead, she credits Zach.

“It’s all Zach,” she said. “The biggest thing I helped him with was setting little goals with him which gave him that satisfaction of accomplishment and kept him motivated. So I would set goals for every little thing we did and he would always strive to do his best!”

Hoewisch said that she didn’t know what to expect going in, and the weight loss was really an additional benefit after setting goals to get him motivated and make some lifestyle changes.

“I ended up taking so much away from this experience,” she said. “Working with Zach was so rewarding because anyone who knows him knows how open and honest he is. Zach will tell you exactly what he is thinking and it was really refreshing. He is an amazing person and I know he is the one who lost all the weight but I really feel that I benefited from this experience just as much because working with him was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Hoewisch said that working with someone with some unique challenges allowed her to grow in her own perspective on life’s challenges.

“I didn’t know Zach before we started working, and I was a little nervous but just for the simple fact that this was my first time working with a special needs person,” she says. “The nerves quickly went away when I got to know him and realized how much fun he was. I never once dreaded having to go to my internship and not many college kids can say that about their jobs. He was such a joy and always looked like today was the best day of his life. Seeing him so happy really made me in my own life not to stress about life’s little challenges but to spend my time enjoying the great things in life.”

She said it also helped her begin to form her own plans for life after basketball (which still includes that NCAA Tournament appearance this year, a senior season with the Phoenix in 2010-11, and perhaps even a chance at playing pro ball.)

“This experience did help me realize that whatever I do, I need to be interacting and helping others,” she said. “It felt so good to have a positive impact on someone else’s life.”

Noteworthy: Although the internship ends, Celeste and Zach remain friends and Zach is working with another UW-Green Bay student-athlete, Laura Bartingale, who is currently directing Zach’s physical activity program with Celeste’s advice.

“Due to the growing number of Human Biology majors and the increasing demand to exceed admission criteria for graduate programs, securing an internship or independent study within our program is highly advised, yet becoming more and more difficult,” said Human Biology Assistant Prof. Amanda Nelson.

Says Nelson, “Zach’s 50 pound weight loss and 11 percent body fat, as indicated by BodPod measurements, clearly indicate the success of this internship from a physical standpoint. A brief conversation with Zach is more than enough to convince anyone that Celeste and Laura have done a great job interacting with Zach from a social perspective. While the benefits of this internship are evident in Zach’s development, the growth and maturity gained by the student interns will make them both exceptional candidates for professional school following the completion of their undergraduate degrees.”

– Photo by Adam Koenig, student photographer, Marketing and University Communications