Fitness on Wheels, or at Any Age

Second in a series inspired by my book, Finding My Twenty-Five: The Prime of Your Life Is Now

In 2006, Josh (“Wheels”) was riding his motorcycle at night on State Street. As a college student in his twenties, he was learning, growing, and preparing for his future. His life was about to change as he would have to learn and relearn so much more. He would take his experience with him as he essentially created a whole new world.

Somebody coming from the other direction on State Street didn’t see him as she made a left turn in front of him. The impact launched him into the air. His helmet popped off onto the road. In her statement, the driver who hit him said immediately after the impact she watched in horror, thinking his head had been severed and was still in the helmet, rolling away from her location.

His body was broken with much of his upper body, and all of his lower body paralyzed. But he was and continues to be very much alive. As a teenager and into his twenties, Josh was competitive, fit, and athletic. Then his life changed in a moment. But a deep desire to be fit and his competitive spirit kept him moving forward.

Thirteen years later, on Tuesday, August 27, 2019, in Lima, Peru, Josh, and his fellow Team USA players rolled out onto the court. After a win over Colombia the previous day, they won Gold, beating Canada fifty-eight to forty-seven. They won the Americas Championship of the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation.[1]

He felt good about reaching out to me prior to completing his occupational therapy back home. He said he had delayed his university studies because “some things came up,” and he had received an impression I was to become very involved in his life when he returned for school.

A spinal cord injury rehabilitation team is composed of doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, speech therapists, orthotists, recreational therapists, and other professionals.[2] He was motivated by his competitive spirit and desire to be active through the challenges beyond rehab treatment. I later realized his call to me was part of his guided recovery process to ask for support and to assert control over his circumstances.

When Josh arrived for school, he discovered the apartments he saw advertised as ADA compliant (Americans with Disabilities Act) were not suitable to accommodate his physical condition. That was a quick call to action for me. I quickly built a ramp and with minor modifications, our hundred-year-old house worked well until he could find an apartment that would accommodate his needs.

I didn’t realize it previously, but I had already been going through training to prepare to be a part of Josh’s new life. Another friend of mine had been in an accident at about the same time as Josh. I visited a lot during his rehab. I was compelled to visit him almost daily. I just prayed that I might somehow be of some benefit. In the process, I began learning about the complexities of the life of a paraplegic.

Being in a wheelchair is much more than just being that person who can’t reach a carton of yogurt off the upper shelves in the grocery store. Every moment and every aspect of your life is changed. I couldn’t begin to understand what it was really like. I began to grasp only the reality that I could only see from an outside perspective. The same principle applies to each of us as we learn about one another and our distinct challenges. As we seek understanding we draw closer and continue to learn. It is a continual process as we grow together.

This dear friend shared with me that when you first wake up in the hospital after a spinal cord accident, the counselors tell you directly you are paralyzed with the prognosis you will never walk again. The details emerge over time because it would be too emotionally overwhelming to hear it all at once.

People are not automatically resilient; it comes through great effort and toil. At a certain point in therapy, his support team shared interviews with him of other individuals who had suffered similar accidents and injuries. The interviews were recorded several years after their respective accidents.

The interviewers specifically asked them if they could go back in history and erase their accident from history, would they? In almost all cases the answer was, no. They reported if they erased their experiences and associations over the years, they would no longer be the persons they are today. As a follow-up, they were asked whether, if they could be healed tomorrow, they would accept that miracle. The responses were unanimously affirmative.

Living a fit lifestyle was still important to Josh and would require developing new skills and meeting new people. The New South Wales Agency for Clinical Innovation was an organization that would validate Josh’s approach as he shaped and continue to shape his world. “Successful rehabilitation involves reintegration into the community and adjustment to a very different lifestyle with the re-establishment of satisfying relationships, roles and opportunities to express one’s own identity.”[3]

After being released from the hospital and completing occupational therapy, Josh was looking for new athletic challenges. Taking on new challenges gave him a sense of control, something that is often lost for spinal cord injury patients.[4] A mutual friend, also named Josh, offered to team up with us as we all learned how to create a lap swimmer with no lower body muscle control or sensation. There was no manual, no website to teach, not a single pop-up ad. The three of us knew what we wanted to accomplish and found a path to success.

We anticipated as many details as we could. Based on our combined experiences, we set him up. We learned right away he was a sinker, meaning his body had no natural buoyancy. To keep his legs from sinking, we strapped flotation devices to his legs to keep him aligned horizontally with the surface of the water. Just a few yards into the swim we ran into a problem — spontaneous muscle spasms.[5]

Just as in all other aspects of life, health, and fitness present challenges. We all have challenges. Most we hold in common with others. Other challenges are ours alone. Each of us must find and build our own path. Health and fitness form an integral part of who we are, who we choose to be. There is no way to separate Josh’s spiritual, intellectual, and social life.

Having no muscle control, his legs would spontaneously spasm, bend and curl up, bringing his body to a complete stop in the water. We adapted and learned from this phenomenon. We walked alongside him as he swam. As soon as Josh’s legs began to spasm, we would immediately straighten them and push to start him back along his way. He was determined to thrive. He was far beyond the common excuses for not being fit. I never heard him say it was inconvenient, or say, “I’ll start again on Monday.” He didn’t then and still doesn’t look for excuses. As hard as it is, he looks for and creates a path forward.

Josh networked and met more people. He discovered a sport that could keep him fit and motivated through the lure of competition. Wheelchair rugby is a fast-moving, high-intensity competitive sport played on the same court as basketball. Josh continues to play across the United States and internationally. These days he lives in Arizona with his wife and family and works for the USA Wheelchair Rugby Association. Josh’s internal yearning to be fit and competitive has and continues to pull him through challenges. Fitness was his choice before and after the accident. He had new mentors — other players — to teach him and help him develop fitness workouts and athletic skills. Then he added his own style to make his fitness program his own.

“Fitness is a universal gateway to opening the doors to accomplishing pretty much everything in life. Fitness is a powerful medicine for so many of life’s challenges. Overcoming paralytic injuries is just one example.”

Immediately after getting acquainted in the gym, another twentysomething — who I’ll call Jared — asked if I would be willing to support him in his drug addiction recovery. After being released from a residential drug rehab program, he needed someone to support him and to be there for him during times of distress, and to cheer him on as he reported his successes. He needed to find someone he could trust and who would care about him, his transformation, and his goals.

As I got to know him better, he shared past experiences of deep distress. I found myself crying in my sleep as I learned of severe childhood traumas and of the loss of his father when he was a young teenager. After that his life got harder, serving prison time. After prison, he entered drug rehab. As part of his treatment, he and other friends went to the gym together. He continued working out at the gym after completing the rehab program because, like the spinal cord patients, he gained a sense of control and could see and measure his progress.

Jared’s success in the gym gave him a sense of confidence that he could succeed despite barriers and challenges. Years later, he is successful in work and in building supportive relationships. He’s another example of a person who finds deep meaning through fitness, meaning that carries into all aspects of life. He knows why he wants to be fit and always finds a path to his success.

I meet people in the gym who are there because they want to gain confidence and overcome challenges in any area of life. With proper motivation and a desire for deep change, they see measurable results. Like patients withspinal cord injuries, the sense of control offers people greater confidence in all areas of their lives. I’ve met people who are working through personal challenges, depression, or trauma, including divorce, sexual assault, and loss of a job or business. Some are confused about life, sensing they have a mission or calling in life, but are unsure about where their path is.

Maintaining a fitness regimen is a lifelong prospect for many. If you start in your teens or twenties, you can build a lifelong habit. As your circumstances change, if health and fitness are a part of who you are deep down, you will adapt. If your fitness regimen is based around surfing and you land a job in Wichita, you’ll have to make changes if you want to stay fit. If you are or become committed to lifelong fitness beginning at any age (including now), you will naturally make adaptations to your circumstances.

Learn more about overcoming obstacles to fitness in my new book, Finding My Twenty-Five: The Prime of Your Life Is Now.

[1] International Wheelchair Federation, “IWRF 2019 Americas Championship Results,” August 27, 2019.

[2] Michael G. Fehlings,”Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation: What to Expect,” Spinal Universe, accessed February 23, 2021.

[3] Annalisa Dezarnaulds and Ralf Ilchef, “Psychological Adjustment after Spinal Cord Injury: Useful Strategies for Health Professionals,” NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation, accessed February 21, 2021.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, “Spasticity,” accessed March 1, 2021.

Learn more about overcoming obstacles to fitness in my new book, Finding My Twenty-Five: The Prime of Your Life Is Now.

Having been on the frontlines, I’m deeply familiar with life’s challenges and traumas. I’m inspired by courageous people who triumph and succeed.