O2 Fitness director fights back after paralyzing injury
Inside the O2 Fitness facility on Seven Farms Drive on Daniel Island, the sounds of the quest for betterment ring out on any given day. Feet pound on a fleet of treadmills. Weights clink back into position lift after lift. Puffs of air expel from bodies pushing themselves to the limit. But on a recent afternoon, a voice cut through the clamor.
“I want you to explosively push and land outside!” exclaimed Chris Williams, Daniel Island O2 Fitness Director and General Manager, as he led a client working to improve his tennis game through some floor exercises. “…That’s it. That’s the cadence right there.”
At Chris’ direction, the client employed a slight change in movement to focus on different muscles.
“What’s the ‘why’ behind this exercise?” asked Chris. “…When that tennis ball is coming – you need to be able to respond.”
There’s always an answer to the ‘why’ question, Chris tells all of his clients, and it should fuel their work-outs. No one in the room knows that better than he does.
Why did he find himself alone on a mountain highway in North Carolina four years ago after a horrific motorcycle accident, with no feeling from the chest down? Why did he survive? Why was he able to stand on his own two feet when doctors told him it was likely he would never walk again? Why should he even try?
Why? Because Chris Williams had other plans.
The accident that would change his life happened near the Blue Ridge Parkway on July 14, 2012, about two weeks after his 30th birthday. Chris lay on the side of the road in the hot July sun for over an hour before someone found him. He suffered multiple injuries – a C3-C4 cervical fracture, T7-T8 thoracic fracture, a spinal cord injury at T-7, a broken right scapula, 14 broken ribs, a broken right hip, and an ACL-MCL posterior meniscus tear. His oxygen level had dropped to about 80 percent and his resting heart rate was in the mid to low 40s.
“I was able to lay there and control my breathing,” recalled Chris, who played football in college while attending the University of Georgia. “I had no movement from the chest down...complete paralysis.”
A fitness professional who holds a master’s degree in exercise science kinesiology, Chris was at the peak of good health at the time of his accident. And he put all of what he learned into practice.
“If it wasn’t for my dedication to fitness, the support of my family, and my willingness to try to get better every single day, I don’t think I ever would have recovered.”
And, perhaps most importantly, he refused to take “no” for an answer. Early on in his treatment, when he couldn’t lift even a one pound weight with his feet, his physical therapist told him it was time to quit. Chris got back to his hospital room and found $1.76 in change beside his bed. He put the coins into a sock, pulled it around his foot and got to work.
“I lifted it and lifted it and lifted it, maybe a million times, until the next morning when I could go back to physical therapy and show my therapist that I could do it!”
It was a pivotal moment.
“For me, it meant the world to just get a little bit better, to get a little bit stronger…When we meet adversity in our lives, and we’re challenged to overcome it, whether it be with your family, whether it be in relationships, or whether it be with regards to your fitness, we have to take that daily incremental approach to try to just get one percent better each day…and if we can do that, that one percent adds up.”
Chris continued to apply that “one percent” philosophy to his treatment. He spent hours after his PT sessions each day working on his own in the hospital gym. By the fourth month after his accident, he was walking. It is a lesson he hopes will offer encouragement to anyone facing obstacles.
“I wanted to get better as badly as I wanted to breathe,” said Chris, who studied up online to research the best way to achieve success in his recovery. “When you can take that approach and that mindset, when improving yourself, whatever it is your doctor told you – that you needed to lose 30 pounds to help your cholesterol, that if you don’t lose the weight your knee is going to keep bothering you, or your back problems are going to persist... When you want something badly enough, you can set your mind that you’re going to conquer it.”
So he did. Chris was an inpatient in the hospital for six months and then took part in outpatient rehab for three and a half years, both on his own and at MUSC and Imagine Physical Therapy. On July 5, he is scheduled to have surgery on his lumbar spine, which was crushed in the accident.
“This could be the last piece of the puzzle,” he said, of this final procedure. “But I’m gonna continue to work and be as good as I can possibly be, and if I can’t be as physically strong as I was once, I am going to be mentally and emotionally stronger than I ever was…That’s definitely the plan.”
But there is another important aspect to Chris’s plan. And that is to share what he’s learning through his experience not only with the fitness clients he works with at O2, but also with anyone in need of a message of encouragement about overcoming adversity in life, in business and in health. As the fourth anniversary of his accident approaches, Chris recently launched an inspirational speaking tour. He has already addressed audiences at MUSC, Church of the Holy Cross on Daniel Island (Boy Scout Troop 519), and the Daniel Island Library. In October, he will speak to members of the Daniel Island Rotary Club. Part of his dispatch is to share with groups that when facing a mountain of hardship, there are three types of responses - you can be a quitter, a camper, or a climber.
“The most common are the quitters,” he said, while speaking at the library on June 23. “They see the mountain. They see the challenge. They get the news they didn’t want to hear and they just quit. They never even try.”
Next are the campers, he continued. They are the most dangerous in his opinion, because they do just enough to get by, and they encourage everyone else to do the same. The final group – the climbers – are the most inspirational, Chris said.
“We don’t want to be quitters, and we certainly don’t want to be campers. We want to be climbers. We want to be the type of people that reach the top of the mountain, that face the challenge of hardship and adversity head on, and look for the next challenge…Once you get to the top, run back down and grab some of those quitters, and then run halfway up and grab some of those campers, and bring them to the top…and show people that adversity can be overcome, step by step, one percent by one percent.”
And through his own life, Chris is doing just that. Because he has learned that it’s not so much what happens to us that is the most revealing – it’s what happens next.
“I’ve learned not to focus on who I was, but on who I want to be,” said Chris, who displays no visible remnants of his accident to the outside world, aside from a scar on his back from surgery and a slight limp. “…I had to believe in myself, that I could try, and the miracle was in the ability just to try and get a little bit better.”
Back at O2 Fitness, amidst the clanging of weights and the whirl of the stationary exercise bikes, Chris Williams brings more than top notch education, training, and experience to the table when he works with those seeking to meet their fitness goals. His company’s core values provide him with the perfect platform for using his story to help others.
“Come on!” Chris shouts, as he encourages the tennis player to push on, even when it seems his client can’t move another muscle. “Let’s go! You’ve got to stick with it.”
Why? Because it can make all the difference in the world.
To find out how your group can book Chris for a speaking engagement, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 706-254-2184.