Nick Scott ready to pump some iron.
Steve Puppe

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.

Scott with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 2009 Arnold Sports Festival
Courtesy Nick Scott
It was 1998, and Scott, a typical heartland high school football star, had been piloting his Buick Skylark across a bridge to team practice near tiny Pomona, Kan., when his left front tire blew out. Jerking the wheel quickly to avoid colliding with an oncoming car, he veered into a ditch instead. The impact threw him from the car, which then flipped five and a half times, clipping him and breaking his back in the process. Once a varsity lineman, he now faced life as a paraplegic with a T12-L1 lower-spine injury, with specialists concluding he would never regain use of his legs. Now, at age 31, he still avoids eye contact while discussing the emotional depths to which he plunged in the aftermath. “After my accident,” he says, “I felt like I had nothing.” But while doctors wrote him off as forever physically broken, Scott’s body says otherwise. Meaty forearms connect to swollen biceps; thick trapezius muscles squeeze out of the neck opening of his T-shirt. Pass by him quickly, and you’d probably think he was a near-contest-ready bodybuilder who just happened to be sitting down.

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.