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'Never Felt Better': Inside the World of a Wheelchair Bodybuilder

John Quinn was given a 10 percent chance of surviving the accident that left him paralyzed; the same accident that changed his life for the better.

by Trent Reinsmith
Nov 13 2014, 4:06pm

When it was time for lunch, John Quinn hopped on his motorcycle and left the lot of C & J Automotive in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. The 21-year-old mechanic was headed west on Route 30 when the driver of a minivan headed in the opposite direction made a right turn. Quinn and his Yamaha crashed into the minivan with Quinn's helmeted head smashing through the minivan's side window. The impact of the accident spun the minivan 180 degrees with Quinn coming to rest in the middle of the intersection. After being transported to the University of Pennsylvania Trauma Center in Philadelphia by helicopter, Quinn was given a 10 percent chance of surviving his first night in the hospital.

Quinn did survive, but his injuries were extensive—two fractured femurs, a broken wrist, broken jaw, and traumatic brain injury (he was wearing a helmet). Even worse, the crash shattered his T9 vertebrae and shredded his spinal cord to the T6 level. The catastrophic spinal injury left Quinn paralyzed from the waist down.

Photos from the crash that caused John Quinn's paralysis. Photos provided by John Quinn

Prior to the accident, Quinn was like many young men, he hit the gym to stay in shape, but he didn't follow a steady program. If you had asked a 21-year-old John Quinn what he wanted to do with his life, he would have told you that he planned to stay in the automotive trade, and that he eventually hoped to open his own shop. What he wouldn't have told you was that he had any aspiration to become a competitive bodybuilder.

Two years after his injury, and with his self-esteem in the doldrums, Quinn headed back to the gym in the hopes of getting in shape. The now 37-year-old insurance broker said that it was during one of those visits to the gym that he was shown an issue of Flex Magazine that covered the 2000 National Physique Committee (NPC) Wheelchair Nationals. Quinn, who said he felt no desire to participate in other wheelchair based sports, was astounded. His thoughts upon seeing the images were, "Holy crap! If I have to be in a wheelchair and I can look like that, I would feel a lot better."

Almost immediately, Quinn hit the weights with the goal of competing in and winning the Wheelchair Nationals, an amateur contest held once a year.

Quinn admits there was some apprehension when he returned to the gym after his injury, "You feel a little self conscious, like everyone is looking at you because you're the guy in the wheelchair. You feel like you stick out, and you can't do as much." However, he says those feelings disappeared once he started moving iron. "People got inspired by seeing me in the gym. I realized that people might be looking at me, but they're looking at me like 'Wow, that's inspiring to see that guy working out.' So, it kind of turned around to where I was getting complimented more than anything, so that helped my self-esteem."

Once Quinn adjusted his goals from owning an auto shop to becoming a bodybuilder, he realized that things weren't going to be easy. Gyms may have wheelchair access to their entrances, but the equipment inside is a different story. As Quinn said, "Not many gyms out there have special equipment for people in wheelchairs, so you need to think outside the box when it comes to training. It can be done, but you just have to do it differently. It's more of a trial and error to see what works for you."

Photos provided by John Quinn

What Quinn has to do when he works out, due to the location and extent of his injury, is use belts to strap himself in. "I do a lot with dumbbells, but the stability issue comes into play. With the dumbbells I have to make sure I strap myself in real good because as soon as I'm lifting them over my head, that's where my stability goes out the window," said Quinn. "That makes a difference as far as how much I can lift. The more stable I am, the stronger I am."

Machines are an option for Quinn, and he finds them a little easier to use, but like most bodybuilders, he prefers the full engagement that free weights give him during his workouts.

Another drawback that Quinn must deal with is the fact that he often requires the help of a workout partner. That obstacle has resulted in a somewhat inefficient workout schedule. "It's difficult because I'm relying on other people to help me when I'm in the gym," said Quinn. "I can only do so much on my own, but all in all, I'm definitely getting in four days a week."

Quinn says his most recent placing, a sixth place finish (out of seven) in the 2014 International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) pro wheelchair division was the result of an inconsistent workout schedule, something he plans on remedying as he prepares himself for the 2015 event.

While Quinn does have some control over his workouts and workout scheduling, one thing that is completely out of his control, which he has to deal with, is his on-stage competition. "In this sport, it's really hard to keep a level playing field, because everyone has a different level of injury," said Quinn. "So, you might have a guy with an injury at the waist level, and he'll have a full six pack abs and all the core muscles, and my level of injury is much higher, so I can never have six pack abs because it's below my injury level. So, his total package is going to look better when you're sitting next to him, and the judges are supposed to take that into consideration, but it's still frustrating."

However, the disadvantages that Quinn and some of the more severely injured competitors face do not result in sneers and backbiting among the core group of professional wheelchair bodybuilders. As Quinn said, "Everyone gets along for the most part because we share a lot of the same stuff. Everyone has their story to tell, everyone had some kind of accident or traumatic thing happen so we can all relate to how much harder it is for everyone to train and be at this level, and not too many people can understand what we have to go through, so when we get together everyone supports everyone else."

While there are 16 wheelchair bodybuilders with their pro cards, the turnouts for the four professional events that have been held have been sparse. The largest group of competitors was the eight that hit the stage for the inaugural pro event in 2011.

One of the factors limiting the number of competitors is the fact that until this year there was only one way for a wheelchair bodybuilder to get their pro card—win the Wheelchair Nationals. The number of pro cards given has recently increased to two with the addition of the NPC USA Wheelchair Championship.

As more competitors earn their pro cards, the hope is that the IFBB will one day have the wheelchair division on the biggest stage in bodybuilding, Mr. Olympia. According to Quinn, the Mr. Olympia organizers have said that one of the issues preventing that addition is the limited number of competitors. Quinn is positive that it's just a matter of time until that issue is remedied and the wheelchair bodybuilders grace the Mr. Olympia stage.

Still, a downside of receiving that coveted pro card is that wheelchair bodybuilders then become ineligible to compete in amateur contests. The positive is that, as pros, they are eligible for prize money when they do compete. Right now, the prizes are $1,000 for third, $2,000 for second, and $3,000 for first. Quinn says the money is a nice perk, but for him, the biggest victory is just getting on the stage as a professional bodybuilder after being given only a 10 percent chance of survival after his accident.

Quinn said other severely injured people often ask him about bodybuilding, and his message to them is, "I would encourage anyone in a chair to try it. You have nothing to lose. Not only will you improve your overall physical condition but it will help you build your self-confidence. You can only benefit from it. I'm in the best shape of my life and have never felt better about myself. The benefits are limitless."

After spending the last 16 years of his life in a wheelchair, the main benefit for Quinn is simple: "I can say that I've done a lot, so I feel like I haven't wasted my life. I've actually accomplished more in my chair than I did before I had my accident. I did a lot more traveling, a lot more of everything—competing as a professional bodybuilder. I'm in the best shape of my life. It's kind of crazy. It feels good, it's a good feeling."

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