In a crowded gym Saturday afternoon, 31-year-old Mikey Taylor hoisted a sandbag into the air, over and over again, until his biceps burned with fatigue. Judges counted his repetitions and kept time with stopwatches. Onlookers cheered, counted along and shouted, “Let’s go Mikey!”
But this wasn’t a typical fitness competition.
Just minutes earlier, Taylor’s grandfather, Lucius Taylor, helped raise Mikey’s arms so he could change into a yellow T-shirt that read, “No Limits.” Then, Lucius, 73, held his grandson’s legs steady as they tremored from strong spasms that shook his whole body, from his navy sweatpants to the top of his Nike winter hat.
Mikey Taylor, who is a quadriplegic paralyzed from the chest down, was among more than a dozen competitors in the Adaptive Fitness Games, organized and hosted for the first time by MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest Washington.
He has no feeling below his elbows, so he strapped on Velcro cuffs that allowed his balled-up hands to grip the sandbag.
“This is a good way to get the competitive juices flowing,” he said.
Others participating included survivors of strokes, gunshot wounds and car crashes, along with those who were born with spinal-cord defects.
“We wanted to inspire more people living with disabilities,” said Devon Palermo, a therapist who specializes in modifying exercises for people with disabilities. “There are no limitations. Everything can be adapted.”
Palermo said adaptive fitness opportunities have been growing in recent years. Historically, he said there has been a gap in what happens after a patient finishes physical therapy and goes home. Many gyms may not be accessible to those with disabilities.
“This is fitness for everyone at every level,” he said. “Whatever level they’re at, it’s about trying to improve.”
Physical competition is nothing new for Taylor. He was a reserve running back at Delaware State University, about to begin a new football season in 2003, when his life changed on an August night.
Taylor, then 19, and his girlfriend were driving on the Beltway, toward Silver Spring, at around 10 p.m. when they were hit by a tractor-trailer.
“I tried to move, but I couldn’t,” he said.
He thought he would die because he was struggling to breathe. When he woke up in the hospital, he was on a ventilator. Doctors told him he was paralyzed.
Still, he didn’t fully grasp the severity of what had happened. It wasn’t until later, when he began in-patient rehabilitation, that he got his first look in the mirror at what had happened to his body.
Once a 195-pound running back, he had lost 20 pounds of muscle.
“There was anger. There was sadness. But I was never depressed,” he said. “I always realized there is someone out there worse than you are. There could have been brain damage or death.”
Taylor flashed a wide smile when he finished his first event on Saturday. His grandfather, Lucius, snapped some photos with his cellphone.
“I kick his butt sometimes and keep him motivated,” the 73-year-old quipped.
Later, another group of athletes wheeled to the center of the gym to compete in a heavy rope event, which entailed swinging long ropes up and down as they slapped the floor.
One of those competitors was 29-year-old Harsh Thakkar. Thakkar survived a drug-related shooting in 2005 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. In physical therapy, he feverishly worked to complete every goal as quickly as possible.
“I thought that achieving those goals would eventually help me walk again,” he said. “I realized a year or so later that this was a lot more permanent. My phase of accepting and identifying with my disability came later in life.”
Thakkar went on to play wheelchair basketball at a college in Pennsylvania. Now, he works for MedStar and helped coordinate Saturday’s competition.
To help get the competitors ready, he organized regular workout sessions in the hospital’s gym.
Chanelle Houston, 31, took advantage. She practiced planks, push-ups and pull-ups to build up her upper-arm strength.
Before a car accident left her paralyzed in 2009, Houston had been a longtime swimmer.
“I wanted to get back in the pool, but I didn’t think that was possible,” she said.
But once she learned about competitive swimming for paralyzed athletes, she realized it was possible.
Last weekend, she placed bronze in her division in the 400-meter freestyle at the Can-Am Para-Swimming Championships in Toronto. Now, she has her sights set on the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Since Houston can’t kick with her legs, her arms must be stronger than they’ve ever been. She needs them to pull all of her weight through the water.
On Saturday, in her wheelchair accented with neon-pink paint, she lined up alongside her male competitors for the heavy-rope event.
“It’s all about having goals and just saying, ‘I’m going to rock this,’ ” she said.