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Wheelchair Bodybuilding

Ten years ago, Shannon Chisholm, 37, was tired of being overweight.

Though she was battling hypothyroidism and Crohn’s disease, Shannon remembers thinking: “I’m tired of being this way, tired of making excuses. It’s time to get healthy.”

So she started exercising. Months later, she had lost 20 pounds, and her Crohn’s disease was in remission. She hasn’t needed medication in years.

As friends who were trying to lose weight began turning to her for advice, Shannon decided to become a personal trainer. She also began teaching cycling and weightlifting classes. Buoyed by her success, the Fletcher, N.C., native decided to push it further: She began to compete in bodybuilding competitions. In her very first event, she netted three trophies.

But on July 17, 2011, Shannon’s drive and motivation were put to a new test – recovering from a spinal cord injury.

Five miles into a 15-mile bike ride from her home to the gym, Shannon was hit from behind by a car going about 45 miles an hour. The collision threw her into the air. When she landed, her back was broken.

“I had made that ride on that road so many times,” she says. “It never occurred to me something like that could happen.”

The T-11 complete spinal cord injury left Shannon paralyzed from the waist down. After a week at Mission Hospital in nearby Asheville, Shannon transferred to Shepherd Center, where she spent six weeks.

She tackled her rehabilitation as she did her workouts – with focus and determination.

“Every day she came to therapy with a smile on her face and exceeded my expectations,” recalls Shepherd Center physical therapist Dan Dale, who worked with Shannon. “She moved along at a much faster pace than other patients, and we accomplished more in a shorter period of time.”

He cites her wheelchair transfer as an example. “It usually takes three to four weeks to learn and master each different kind of transfer,” Dan says. “But Shannon had them down in a week. She was an inspiration to the other patients, showing them how to do it.”

Shannon Chisholm, 37, of Fletcher, N.C., has returned to bodybuilding – now in a wheelchair – following rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury. She won a national competition this past spring.

Just two weeks after leaving Shepherd, Shannon was back at the gym, working out. Her friends, including Dan, suggested she try wheelchair bodybuilding competitions. But she was hesitant. “I couldn’t imagine doing it in a wheelchair and feeling the same sense of accomplishment,” she recalls. But after reading online about female wheelchair bodybuilders, she decided to try it.

“You only fail if you don’t try,” she says.

Shannon set her sights on the 2012 Wheelchair Nationals at the Buckeye Classic Competition, a springtime event held in Columbus, Ohio. From October to April, she focused on getting back into shape and learning how to train differently. A typical workout involved lifting dumbbells ranging from 30 to 60 pounds – depending on the muscle – and pushing herself to the limit on an elliptical machine and parallel bars her husband built for her in their home.

The effort paid off: Shannon won the competition.

“I went into the event telling myself I was just going to have fun, and I did,” Shannon says. “I took the pressure off myself, and it felt great to be back!”

Though she used to compete in two or three events annually before her injury, Shannon has decided to keep it to one a year for now. “That’s because I want to concentrate on walking. That’s my priority right now,” she says. “Therapy is my main focus, and bodybuilding is what I do for fun.”

Not surprisingly, Shannon has made remarkable progress on that front, as well. After leaving Shepherd, she continued physical therapy at Carolina Spine and Mountain Neurosurgery Center in Asheville. In November 2011, she used crutches for the first time. After four to five steps, she was exhausted. But with her trademark persistence, she was soon walking longer distances. And this past spring, Shannon walked a half-mile to the pool with her children.

“I’m amazed by everything she’s done and where she has taken herself,” Dan says. “She cleared obstacles and exceeded her goals. She has been an inspiration to a large group of people. I know bodybuilding won’t be the last thing she accomplishes.”

Shannon plans to return to her job as a physical therapy assistant in the near future. For now, she’s taking time off to focus on her rehabilitation and family, including husband Ray and sons Brandon, 15, and Jakob, 10.

As for advice she would give to others, it comes down to this: Never give up.

“You can still live your life. You just have to learn to accept your new circumstances,” she says. “It’s a different way of living. But I’m grateful I’m here to live my life and watch my children grow up.”

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.