Health & Fitness

Once obese and depressed, this KC athlete can now climb a rope while in his wheelchair

Workout regimen brings new life to Kansas City gunshot victim

In 2012, Wesley Hamilton, then 23, suffered a gunshot wound to the back and was paralyzed from the waist down. After lying in a bed for two years battling depression and physical ailments, training and exercise have brought a new life and hope.
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In 2012, Wesley Hamilton, then 23, suffered a gunshot wound to the back and was paralyzed from the waist down. After lying in a bed for two years battling depression and physical ailments, training and exercise have brought a new life and hope.

The new year is upon you, and 28-year-old Wesley Hamilton knows the fear in your heart.

Resolved: You’re going to lose weight.

Resolved: You’re finally going to achieve that one great thing, whatever it is, that fills your loved ones with shimmering pride.

But can you, will you, really do it?

Hamilton understands. Five years ago in January, the Kansas City father suffered the most disastrous moment of his young life.

He was 23, almost 24, non-athletic and vastly overweight — a 5-foot-4, 230-pound single dad. He was a regular working guy, employed full time at an auto finance place and wrangling with the mother of his 2-year-old daughter to obtain custody.

That day he was standing outside the Grandview apartment of another former girlfriend. It was his birthday weekend. He thought the conversation had gone well when, just as he was getting into his car, two shots rang out.

He collapsed, blood pooling around him. The slugs pierced his body, one slicing through his chest and fracturing a rib. The other entered his abdomen, partially severing his spine and paralyzing him below the waist. The shooter was a guy he’d never met, a friend of a friend of his ex-girlfriend.

“Everything at that point went through my head,” Hamilton said. A young man held his hand and prayed. “I had a 2-year-old daughter. It was the weekend of my birthday. I thought, ‘Is this it?’ …People started coming over. I had a couple of people holding my chest, trying to stop the blood.”

Hamilton would spend three weeks in the intensive care unit at Research Medical Center. He also would spend almost two years fighting the severe emotional depression that arose from his belief that his life would forever be bedeviled by medications, surgeries and limitations.

“It broke me,” Hamilton said. “It messed me up.”

That was then.

Now Hamilton — 100 pounds slimmer, his tattooed biceps bulging like bocci balls — sits in his wheelchair at a gym, CrossFit Lee’s Summit. A rope dangles from the ceiling.

“This is where the magic happens,” he says. A giant smile crosses his face.

He clasps the rope and pulls himself up, powering 5 feet, 10 feet, 15 feet into the air with his body still strapped by a belt into his wheelchair.

He lowers himself. A few moments later, he wheels over to two gymnastic rings and begins — 1, 2, 3, 4, on and on — doing tricep dips, his body and chair rising and lowering together.

Then come his pull-ups, lifting off the floor once again in his chair.

Part of Hamilton’s message, to be sure, is hardly unique: If you can conceive of it, you can do it. Never give up.

“A lot of people out there don’t think it’s easy to change their lives. For me, it wasn’t. But, at the same time, I pushed myself, because I was already at my lowest. I didn’t have the opportunity to go any lower. …I want to let people know as long as you push you can can get anywhere you want to be.

“No matter what your situation is, there is always a way you can overcome it. Acceptance is the first thing. Once you accept who you are, life comes a lot easier. I’ve lived life a lot easier once I accepted who I was.”

Grief cycle

Notable about Hamilton is the fact that his narrative is not that of an injured former athlete who, through determination, regains the athleticism and sense of self he thought he’d lost.

Hamilton was never an athlete and had never been in shape.

“I was just big around,” he said, laughing. “I liked cakes. …I never even thought of fitness. I never even thought of lifting a weight. I don’t think I could climb anything.”

Instead, Hamilton’s story is one in which he both found himself and remade himself by thinking of someone other than himself: Nevaeh, his now 7-year-old daughter.

“It’s ‘heaven’ spelled backwards,” he said.

Hamilton already had temporary custody of Nevaeh on the afternoon he was shot by a stranger. Fatherhood, he said, had always been his prime motivation in life. He later received full, permanent custody of his daughter.

But he also knows that Nevaeh was forced to see him at his lowest and watched him go through the toughest years of his rehabilitation. For at least the first year after his injury, he said, he languished, living with false hope that his diagnosis of an “incomplete” severing of his spinal cord meant that he would walk again.

“I was in denial. I swear to God,” Hamilton said, and carried that denial into rehabilitation therapy. “When they said ‘incomplete,’ all I thought was they just got to give it (my spine and legs) time to wake up.”

“Incomplete” meant that he still has some small nerve connection to his legs that allowed minimal movement on one side, his right, but he was still paraplegic. Not willing to believe he would no longer walk, Hamilton barely did any of his prescribed exercises.

“I didn’t do nothing they told me to,” he said.

His body — already obese — turned worse. He became deeply depressed. He developed a deep tailbone ulcer and infection that ultimately would result in six surgeries within two years, and a colostomy bag.

“My deal was raising my daughter,” Hamilton said. “But every day was a struggle. I could only get up for three hours a day.”

He left his job and relied primarily on disability to survive financially. His depression deepened, which Linda Klaiber, a physical therapist at Mid-America Rehabilitation Hospital in Overland Park, said is hardly unusual among victims of spinal cord injuries.

Klaiber has known Hamilton since soon after his injury.

“It’s a process. It’s almost like the grief cycle,” she said of dealing with a spinal cord injury. “You grieve the loss of your body parts....Your sense of identity changes.”

Not all individuals, she said, successfully escape the depression. But Hamilton did, she said. A doctor told him that if he truly wanted to change his life for the better, he had to eat better and strengthen his body.

It struck Hamilton that he needed to change to be the father he intended. “I had to be strong for her,” he said of Nevaeh. “That is kind of what pushed me every day. I couldn’t let her see me down.”

His attitude inspired Aaron Axmear, owner of CrossFit Lee’s Summit, who had never before trained a wheelchair athlete for CrossFit.

“He definitely could have gone the way of feeling sorry for himself,” Axmear said. “He basically said, you know, ‘I’m better now than when I wasn’t in this chair.’ 

The transformation started as he cut fats and carbohydrates and focused much more on eating protein, vegetables and salads. Exercise played a minor role at first.

“I had one 20-pound weight that my brother had given me, and resistance bands the therapists gave me,” Hamilton said. “I did little hand workouts — enough to break a sweat, and different stretches and things like that.”

At the Mid-America Rehabilitation Hospital, he used a hand-cranking machine that allowed him to move his arms and legs for 30-minute aerobic workouts several times a week. But his eating habits became the key.

“I had all these extra problems that were preventing me from being myself,” he said. “So I was determined to see what this protein thing would do. I was determined to see what eating different would do to my body.”

‘Great role model’

Eight months after he began, Hamilton’s body was trimmer by 100 pounds.

He gradually went off medications. After his last surgery, in March 2015, he began hitting the gym hard. A friend told him about adaptive cross fit. Adaptive athletics describes sport or exercise for anyone — child, adult, veteran — who has a physical, developmental or other disability that may require some kind of adaptation to engage fully.

In March 2016, Hamilton competed for the first time in the Working Wounded Games for adaptive athletes and is training for the competition again in 2017. He also plans to compete for a second year in West Palm Beach, Fla., as a body builder in the wheelchair division of National Physique Committee CJ Classic.

At the Mid-America Rehabilitation Hospital, he has become a peer counselor for others with disabilities who feel as shaken as he once felt.

“He is a great role model and he is someone who can say, ‘Hey, I was where you are for about two years,’ ” Klaiber said. “Everybody is impressed when Wes comes back.”

In February, he was impressive enough to be named one of nine “GRIT Trailblazers” nationwide by the Boston-based GRIT Freedom Chair company, which produces a lightweight wheelchair with mountain bike tires so riders can go off-road.

“Wes is one of the most motivated people we know,” the company’s chief executive officer, Tish Skolnik, said in an email to The Star. “Not only does he push himself every day, but he constantly motivates others to push their limits and overcome obstacles.”

Hamilton in March began his own nonprofit organization, Disabled But Not Really, to help motivate others with any kind of disability to push for healthier bodies and lives.

“Every day I drive myself because she looks up to me,” Hamilton said of his daughter. “The things I’m doing now, it gives her a different perspective of her dad, as well as helping her to where she doesn’t judge other people with disabilities.”

His current plan includes vocational technical training to get back to work full-time. He would like one day to work with other individuals with disabilities as an adaptive cross-fit trainer — helping to pull up others with disabilities just as he pulled up himself.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler