ATF founder David Vobora provides Vanessa Cantu with some motivation as volunteers assist.

Photo: ATF founder David Vobora provides Vanessa Cantu with some motivation as volunteers assist.

By Patti Putnicki

It happens in an instant. The accident, the injury, the IED explosion—the unthinkable event that changes life as someone knows it forever. After the hospital stays and surgeries, amputations and “we did everything we could do’s,” comes rehab; the place where paraplegics, quadriplegics and amputees are sent to learn to live within their limitations.

For many, that’s where the story ends. People adjust to their new realities and move on to the next chapter, oftentimes leaving the activities they loved and a part of their identities behind.

Former NFL linebacker David Vobora, flanked by a small but mighty staff and team of volunteers, is working to change all of that. He’s the founder of the Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF), a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization that focuses not on limitations, but possibilities. Using modified training methods, energetic trainers and a whole lot of heart, ATF is helping motivated people with physical impairments maximize the capabilities they have.

The place, itself, is magical. The intensity of the workouts would put most able-bodied persons to shame. But, the joy here is the surprise factor. It’s undeniable. It’s contagious.  And it’s a testament to what incredible things can happen when a great idea and outstanding people come together for a common cause.

From Trainer to Transformer

For the record, David Vobora isn’t your stereotypical NFL player. He has a degree in psychology from the University of Idaho and a hyper-developed understanding of both the physical and mental intricacies of athletes and non-athletes alike. He’s a people person, a motivator, who, upon retiring from the NFL, parlayed those skills into the creation of The Performance Vault, a Dallas-based, for-profit gym that provides customized performance training for elite athletes.

In 2014, Vobora met U.S Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee who lost his limbs, but not his desire to be “Army strong.” The two started working out together, customizing and adapting workouts to Mills’ unique challenges, without sacrificing their intensity or benefits.

Chance Dean working hard with Coach Maack on a Friday afternoon.

Photo: Chance Dean working hard with Coach Maack on a Friday afternoon.

After seeing the physical and mental results, Vobora developed a new passion—helping people with life-altering injuries get from where they’re left after basic functional rehab to where they want to be. The Adaptive Training Foundation was created to bridge that gap.

Every athlete selected for the customized, nine-week “redefine” program shows up for two-hour sessions, three times a week, at the gym located inside the Trident building in Dallas’ design district. These training sessions, delivered by Vobora,  Director of Operations Madi Jacob, as well as a host of volunteer and staff trainers, use “good pain” to push out the “bad pain. “

Don’t think for a second that this program is kid stuff. It’s kick-your-ass tough—and exactly what the participants, ranging from soldiers to civilians, of all ages and levels of physical challenges, want.

Every athlete here wants to defy the odds, to blow past the predictions of what their lives were “supposed” to be after illness and injury. They want to do more than they were told they could do after rehab. And, with a little faith, hope, encouragement, and a whole lot of sweat, they’re succeeding.

“At some point, a self-fulfilling prophecy comes into play. I don’t want to bash doctors, because it’s their job to paint a picture that’s realistic, but I have this profound ability to ask, ‘why?’ Why is that the sentence for you?” Vobora said. “We help people reframe the lie they’ve been telling themselves. We just try to put to sleep their worries. We tell them to come in, do the work, and I’ll do all the worrying.”

And, man oh man, is it ever making a difference.

Meet a Few of the Athletes

Chance Dean, for example, is a 37-year-old power lifter with a beaming smile, a big personality and a wicked tattoo on his left bicep. At the age of sixteen, he had a car wreck and has been in a wheelchair ever since. He found the Adaptive Training Foundation—rather, it found him—right when he needed it the most.

“I was here to apply for a job at Trident (the security firm that provides the space for the Adaptive Training Foundation),” Dean said. “I couldn’t get my wheelchair in the front door, so I came around back and saw the gym. That’s when I met Dave (Vobora).”

Dean was part of the Adaptive Training Foundation’s inaugural class.

Emmett Pryor works the battle ropes.

Photo: Emmett Pryor works the battle ropes.

“It completely changed my life. I had been partying a lot, and I decided I was getting too old for all of that. I started training with Dave, and powerlifting. People could see the change—I could see the change—my arms were getting bigger; I was getting stronger,” Dean said. “I started telling everyone I knew about the program.”

One of Dean’s recruits was Emmett Pryor, a friend from his wheelchair rugby group. Pryor is a former Marine who served in Iraq; a quadriplegic who was injured after he completed his tour. On a fateful night in June of 2011, he jumped into a pool and hit the bottom, head-first.

“When I came here, I was in a wheelchair with electric wheels. I couldn’t bend to the side and pull myself back up; I couldn’t raise my arms,” Pryor said. “The first day, they put me in the straps to develop the arm muscles I have. Pretty soon after, I got rid of my electric chair for a manual chair so I could stay strong. Now, I can wheel myself two or three miles uphill and I’m going to start driving soon—I can’t wait for that. None of that would be possible if I hadn’t come here.”

The whole idea is strengthening the functionality each athlete has left, instead of focusing on what they have lost.

“For me, it’s about identifying the weaknesses, and then making it about ‘us’ versus the impairment. There’s something empowering that happens when you approach things that way,” Vobora said.

It’s important to note that the athletes don’t have to pay a dime for this program. The facility relies on the generosity of corporate and individual donors, a very hands-on board and a legion of volunteer trainers to bridge the gap between the small staff and the giant need.

The People Who Fuel the Passion

Every Friday, ATF alumni gather to work out with the current class. It’s almost impossible to describe the energy level. Think rock concert, World Series and presidential inauguration combined, and you might come close. I can tell you this–there’s not a solitary soul inside of the gym who wants to be anywhere else.

“It’s impossible to come here and have a bad day,” said former Marine and volunteer trainer Lance Calloway, echoing a sentiment we heard from practically everyone on site. “The athletes motivate us as much as we motivate them. They push themselves—they support each other. I’ve played team sports my whole life and I’ve never seen the level of support and community that I see here.”

Katie Lichetenberg is a training professional who learned about ATF through social media, and soon became a volunteer.

“I love it here. The athletes are game to learn anything. They each have a program designed to work within their individual limitations, but nothing here is about limitation—it’s about making the most of what you have,” Lichtenberg said.

Then, there’s  “Coach Maack,” the coach from Prestonwood Christian Academy, recruited by a board member when she overheard him training one of his daughters at the gym.

“When I heard about what the Adaptive Training Foundation was doing and met the people behind it, the only thing I had to say was, ‘How can I help?’” Maack said.

Like we said, it’s hard not to want to be part of the magic.

Photo: Vobora provides a little weight for Lawrence to work on his obliques.

Photo: Vobora provides a little weight for Lawrence to work on his obliques.

The same holds true for the organization’s board of directors. In fact, board member Jim Francis is often stationed out in the parking lot, in the blazing Texas sun, smoking a brisket for the athletes’ Friday lunch. The rest of the board is equally hands on.  It seems everyone here is invested in helping each athlete achieve more than he or she ever thought possible, in whatever way they can. And they continue to succeed. Again and again and again.

“I think we all are motivated by people who have been told that they can’t do something; that they’ll have to give up a dream,” said Hunter Clark, staff trainer for the Adaptive Training Foundation,  “Our goal is to prove those statements wrong; to help our athletes get to the next level; to get them back to competing in sports or participating in the activities they love.”

Will there be bad times? Absolutely. But, not inside of these walls.

“If an athlete’s having a bad day, if he or she feels like the situation is hopeless, I tell them, come here. If you can’t work out, then be here and watch,” Clark said. “Do that, be a part of this place, be a part of this energy, and you will get better.”

It is a writer’s credo not to get emotionally involved in a story. To tell the story, but not to feel anything.

That’s not a possibility when you’re writing about the Adaptive Training Foundation. It’s a place like no other, with a pure, authentic purpose that infiltrates the soul from the moment you walk into the door.

It’s the kind of place you leave with a little more faith in the world, whether you’re an athlete, a volunteer or a cynical writer. It’s the real deal. And we can’t wait to tell you more about it.

Editor’s Note: Purpose2Play was so inspired by ATF that we will be publishing some athlete profiles, and returning with a video crew in the spring to give our readers a look inside this amazing facility.