Catastrophic injuries may have robbed them of their ability to walk, but for participants in the little-known sport of wheelchair bodybuilding, the key to physical prowess is mental toughness.As Nick Scott stared at a hospital ceiling, his hand hovering near a button delivering intravenous pain-killers, he pondered what seemed like the end of his life not long after it had begun. At just 16 years old, his personal history now was cleaved almost neatly into two halves — not unlike his spinal cord.
In fact, that’s what he is. Scott is the most visible athlete from an underground sport that encapsulates all of the drama of the human condition: wheelchair bodybuilding. If bodybuilding is a fringe pursuit, its wheelchair subculture is even more fringe within it — but it’s also more inspiring.
At a scattered handful of events throughout the country, a hard-core clan of paraplegic athletes — defined for competition purposes as anyone with impairment in both legs — gather to show off iron-honed physiques and even more ironclad will. When so many people make excuses for their lack of physical activity, Scott and his cohorts show them up with one flexed, oiled pec.
“I was put in a situation, and I was dealt a hand. You can look at it as negative or positive. But the reality is: It doesn’t really matter,” Scott says. “To leave a legacy, you’ve got to do stuff that’s unheard of. You have to do the unthinkable and do the stuff you fear. That’s what this is about — pushing beyond.”
Scott is the closest thing the sport has to a celebrity, boasting tens of thousands of YouTube views and sponsorships from companies like MusclePharm and BodyBuilding.com, the sport’s largest Web portal. Though he lives in exurban Ottawa, Kan., he travels constantly, evangelizing at fitness events and motivational speaking gigs. He’s even got a snappy nickname: “Beast,” which he sports on a license plate tacked to the back of his neon-lit competition chair. But he’s far from the only competitor in the sport.
In fact, its organization predates his participation. South Florida bodybuilding promoter Frank Dalto mounted the first official wheelchair bodybuilding show, the NPC Wheelchair Nationals, in 1994. In the ’90s, the sport’s stars included names like Ludovic Marchand and Victor Konovalov, whose ascent dovetailed neatly with that of the Internet — and a new generation of wheelchair athletes looking to overcome their circumstances.