Vanessa Cantu working hard with ATF trainer Madi Jacob

Vanessa Cantu working hard with ATF trainer Madi Jacob


By Kim Constantinesco

Millions of people every day sluggishly drag themselves to the gym just to “get through” a 30 or 60-minute workout.

Reasons for stepping inside the mirror-clad, iron-filled space vary as much as iPod playlists do. However, at the root of losing weight, feeling better, gaining muscle and “my doctor said I shoulds,” sits something much more profound.

While folks are logging miles, hoisting dumbbells, and spinning their legs, they are both finding themselves and losing themselves in the process, all so they can keep in touch with themselves outside of gym walls.

It doesn’t come without risks, however. Those in search of sweat chance the embarrassment that might come in the form of stumbling through a new exercise, showing “weakness” in failing to lift a heavy weight, or even just wearing shorts.

Vanessa Cantu, 32, is no different, yet because she ruptured her spinal cord in a car accident 17 years ago, her gym going experience runs even greater risks. By the same token, her workouts foster greater rewards, too.

The Impact of a Broken Back

Cantu was your average high school freshman who played softball and maintained good grades until a car accident on Easter Sunday in 1998 changed it all.

Screen shot 2015-10-14 at 2.06.47 PMOnly the lap belt of Cantu’s seatbelt worked on impact, which left the teen with significant injuries. She lost one of her kidneys, her spleen, and ruptured most of her internal organs, including her spinal cord at T12 and L1.

She spent four months in the hospital with a colostomy bag, and wounds so profound that her back was a secondary concern for a long time even though she had no feeling or movement from the waist down.

Eventually, she recovered enough to have surgery on her back, where two rods and 14 pins were placed. Little by little, she started to slowly regain feeling.

However, when you’re 15 years old, being in a wheelchair and wearing leg braces is far from cool.

“I was just in a very bad place. No one would ever know, but I was very depressed. I hated my body and I hated my disability,” Cantu said. “I hated everything about it for about 10 years. There was no self-acceptance, and I had low self esteem. I spent a lot of years trying to figure out how I was going to be normal again.”

A Fire Ignited

Cantu hit a plateau in rehabilitation. She progressed from a wheelchair to walking in leg braces with two crutches, and thought that was as “normal” as she would ever be. Then she got pregnant with her daughter in 2013, which “reignited a fire” in her.

“All I ever wanted was to just be able to let go of a crutch and walk with a cane, so I could have one hand free while taking care of my daughter,” Cantu said.

After giving birth, she started doing CrossFit at CrossFit Ft. Worth East, and even signed up for her first CrossFit competition well before stepping foot inside the box (CrossFit’s term for “gym”).

Cantu and her daughter, Izzy. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Cantu

Cantu and her daughter, Izzy. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Cantu

“I knew that if i had something to train for, then I would be forced to attend and take CrossFit seriously,” Cantu said. “I was the only person there with a disability.”

With her CrossFit trainer Miles Knupp, Cantu figured out how to modify movements before doing an actual class. The two met three times per week for months to figure out how to adjust workouts so that when classes finally began, Cantu would be less intimidated.

The extra work paid off, and Cantu progressed to the point of feeling comfortable enough to take part in that first competition she blindly signed up for. It was there where she met former NFL player and Adaptive Training Foundation (ATF) founder/CEO David Vobora.

Vobora runs a no-cost gym that is the ultimate playground for adaptive athletes to test their limits and train well beyond the scope of the typical rehabilitation programs. And, most importantly, it’s a place that puts support and fun high on its agenda.

“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,” Purpose2Play’s Patti Putnicki wrote after visiting ATF. “And it’s a testament to what incredible things can happen when a great idea and outstanding people come together for a common cause.”

“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.”

Dropping the Crutch

Upon meeting Cantu, Vobora looked her in the eyes and asked, “why don’t we get you walking without crutches?” She looked at him curiously because no one had ever directed her to that line of thinking before.

So, she became Vobora’s second client, and worked with him three times a week as part of ATF’s nine-week class.

“What makes this program unique is I train all people like I would pro athletes. I don’t see a difference,” Vobora said. “If I had a pro athlete who had a knee scope, we wouldn’t not train that day. We’d find optimization around that.”

Cantu working with David Vobora. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Cantu

Cantu working with David Vobora. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Cantu

Vobora bought a device called the Solo Step, which has a harness and allows those with disabilities to walk without the fear of falling.

“Vanessa had her little girl, who was in the process of figuring out how to walk, and naturally, she was falling a lot.” Vobora said. “Vanessa was thinking, why is my pride so big that I can’t do the same?

With help from Vobora and the Solo Step, Cantu was walking on one crutch three months later.

“She has been brilliant. She doesn’t even need that one crutch,” Vobora said as he was watching Cantu balance against a wall. “Eventually, she won’t need those braces either.”

Strong and in a Wheelchair

Cantu does CrossFit three times per week and still goes to the Adaptive Training Foundation on Fridays, when all ATF alumni gather for a group workout.

She’s training hard not to just ditch her last crutch, but to perform well at the Wounded Warrior Games in November, which is one of the biggest CrossFit competitions strictly for people with disabilities.

This will be her fourth CrossFit competition, and she’s coming in hot after placing third in her last event.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Cantu

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Cantu

“Now that I have this new found confidence within myself, I feel unstoppable in what I can do. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been since my accident,” Cantu said. “All I want to do is pass that on to other people. I don’t want it to take them 10 or 15 years to figure out how to get back on their feet. I tell people all the time that you can be in a wheelchair, you can be disabled, but you can be the strongest person in a wheelchair.”

It helps that Cantu has the support of ATF and Vobora.

“No one here is an outsider because they’re different. It gives me chills every time because when you come in here, everyone is passionate, they’re smiling, they’re focused, and you don’t want to leave,” Cantu said. “I wish it was like this everywhere I went.”

It’s fitting that Cantu has a master’s degree in sociology and a minor in psychology, and Vobora is a self-proclaimed “psychologist who uses sweat.”

Together, they’ve harnessed not only Cantu’s body, but her mind, so that she can tap into the best version of herself.

And that’s worth every extra rep, bead of sweat, and stumble along the way.