“Any body part has at least one exercise that is a pain in the butt,” Picone says. “Over time, you do become accustomed to the transfers, movements, balance and form issues. It’s all second nature now.”
All the hard work combined with an often Spartan diet of low fats, low carbohydrates and low variety all lead to the final goal: competition. And for wheelchair bodybuilders, there aren’t many opportunities. The most well-known, without question, remains Dalto’s show held annually in March in Palm Beach County, Fla. It’s sanctioned by the largest federation for amateur bodybuilders, the National Physique Committee (NPC). In 2006, another NPC-sanctioned amateur show, the USA Wheelchair Championship, debuted in Metairie, La. While wheelchair athletes are welcomed at a handful of other federations’ amateur events, these two are virtually the only ones in which an entrant is guaranteed some competition.
Finally, in 2011, Scott helped create the first pro competition for wheelchair bodybuilders, sanctioned by the NPC’s parent body, the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB). Held in conjunction with an existing annual bodybuilding show hosted by promoter Lee Thompson, it’s the one place where wheelchair bodybuilders have a shot at winning money. (First-place finishers collect $3,000, with smaller purses going to runners-up.) But in order to compete, an athlete first must receive an IFBB “pro card,” a distinction earned by taking the overall win at one of the two NPC shows’ open divisions.
To learn more about wheelchair bodybuilding and to get more information about training and competing, visit www.wheelchair-bodybuilding.com
For serious competitors, that’s become the holy grail. For every champion at the Wheelchair Nationals, there are other hopefuls nipping at his heels. (Women are invited to compete in a separate division but, with the exception of a couple of athletes like 25-year-old Fallon Turner from Texarkana, Texas, females remain largely absent from the sport.)
In 2012, the year Picone won his pro card at the Wheelchair Nationals, the next to be kinged seemed like Adelfo Cerame Jr., a 30-year-old from Long Beach, Calif. Determined to make 2013 his year, the former forest firefighter who was injured in a 2005 car accident started his serious preparation some six months before the competition and deemed himself contest-ready two months prior to the actual event. He was the picture of zenlike happiness at the competition’s prejudging, the morning session before an actual bodybuilding show where most of the placing decisions are actually made and where tensions often run high thanks to last-minute dehydration and carb depletion.
Cerame, instead, lounged in a black sweat suit, joked easily with friends and downed a slice of salty cheese pizza before hitting the night stage. Shirtless and covered in gold-flecked body paint, he happily hammed it up in his posing routine, shaking his ponytail loose and letting his shiny, black locks flow over his shoulders. Between required poses like the “front double bicep” — the quintessential bodybuilder arm flex — he lifted himself off his wheelchair seat, wiggling his hips in time to blaring hip-hop. It was enough to show off a shredded, ultra-defined torso that scored him the win for both his middleweight class and the entire show.
His showing also demonstrated the good-natured feel of the wheelchair side of bodybuilding. Whereas bodybuilding can be isolating for many competitors, for wheelchair athletes, it’s largely about camaraderie. “The whole pro thing was just a personal goal, like a bucket-list thing,” Cerame says. “I never put it up on a pedestal or pushed anyone out of the way just so I could get it.”
Indeed, most competitors seem to feel a responsibility to grow the sport, even as they pursue other personal and professional endeavors. Picone guest-poses at regular bodybuilding shows and gives speeches in his area, as does Cerame. Both counsel the recently injured.
Scott, meanwhile, earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2005 and has made promoting wheelchair athletics his life’s work. He’s pretty much the only wheelchair athlete to constantly press the flesh at major fitness-industry events, like March’s Arnold Sports Festival March in Columbus, Ohio. There, he manned the booth for TeamBodyBuilding.com, shaking hands with an endless line of fans who discovered him online and networking with other mainstream companies for potential partnerships with wheelchair athletes.
His efforts are creating a noticeable breakthrough in the fitness industry. “The industry of bodybuilding itself hasn’t been built for the wheelchair athlete,” says Mick Skinner, the marketing-events and sponsorship manager for BodyBuilding.com who gave Scott his first major sponsorship in 2008. “[Nick] forced them to reconsider all of that, which, in all honesty, I don’t think they wanted to do.”
Increasing the sport’s visibility, Scott and his peers hope, will motivate more people to their own individual greatness, whether they use a wheelchair or not. “I remember what it was like to first be injured. It sucked; it was freaking horrible. I had a busted neck, shattered ribs. But like anything, you come back stronger, and I’m a better person today because of all the nonsense and all the struggles, all the long nights and the pain,” Picone says. “That’s the one thing I hope someone can take away from me. Just do something that you love, that you’ve got a passion for, and run with it. I think that’s all any of us wants.”
ARIELLE CASTILLO is a freelance arts-and-culture writer based in Miami whose work has appeared in Spin, Billboard, Rolling Stone, The Independent, Flaunt and other publications. Her favorite lift is the dead lift.