"When I first started, people kind of looked at me like, 'Oh, wow, this is really inspirational, this guy is in a wheelchair,' not realizing that the way I'm looking at it is, 'I'm going to beat times that you guys are putting up.'"
Photos by: Jen Nichols
Chris Stoutenburg, otherwise known as “Stouty” had spent his life in sport — football, track and field, and skiing. He played basketball at the provincial level and was a standout wide receiver in football. On June 18, 1997, the summer before his first year of football at the University of Guelph, Stoutenberg fell.
“I was leaning against the railing on a second-story balcony,” Stoutenburg says. “A buddy of mine was renting the place and had only been there for a week. I heard a snap, and before I knew it, I was on the ground.”
He was flown to the hospital in critical condition. He fractured three thoracic vertebrae and was told he was paralyzed from the waist down. He was confused when he woke up after having surgery to insert metal rods to help support his spine.
“I was asking them why I couldn’t move,” he says. “I thought they had me strapped down to a bed or something, but then the surgeon came in to explain that I had broken my back and I wouldn’t walk again, and probably wouldn’t have much feeling or function from the waist down.”
After the initial shock, Stoutenburg went through a lot of difficult emotions. At first, he was not willing to accept it, he says. But after one day of self-pity, he realized there was no turning back.
“I made the decision that I wasn’t going to sit around and worry about it,” he says. “I just decided that I was going to think about what I had to do to get out of the hospital.”
Although he had two hours of physical and occupational therapy every day, Stoutenburg spent extra time in the gym, copying exercises from people who had been in rehab for longer. He was released from the hospital two weeks after the accident, and was out of the rehabilitation center within a month. He moved home in August and returned to school in September, living in residence at Guelph.
At school, a friend who played wheelchair basketball introduced him to the sport. In his first year playing, he made the Canadian junior team. The next year, he earned a Division 1 scholarship to the University of Illinois, made the Canadian Men’s National Team and won a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Sydney.
He is a nine-time Canadian all-star, six-time national champion, two-time Paralympic gold medalist (Sydney, 2000 and Athens, 2004), Paralympic silver medalist (Beijing, 2008) and has won a gold and a bronze medal at the World Championships.
After 10 years of success with the national team, Stouty retired following the Beijing Olympics.
“After Beijing, I was a little burnt out,” he says. “When I retired, I retired. I didn’t really do anything, activity wise.”
Last March, Stoutenburg’s cousin, Michelle Kuslar, tried CrossFit to get in shape for an adventure race at Blue Mountain in Collingwood. She became a member at CrossFit Indestri and encouraged Stoutenburg to give it a try.
“Since his retirement from the national team, he had been searching for something to give him that sense of accomplishment and rush of adrenaline that you get from high-level competition,” Kuslar says. “I knew Chris was looking for a challenge.”
Kuslar spoke with Scott Thornton, owner of Indestri, and he invited Chris to the gym.
“They kind of did an assessment on me and started looking at what I might be able to do,” Stouty says.
“He blew them away with his strength and skills,” Kuslar says.
When he started, Stoutenburg says every day held something new and more fun than the day before.
“The amount of exercise you could get within a workout was mind-blowing to me — how much it could kick the crap outta me,” he says. “That’s what really drew me into it. I wanted more. I thought, ‘Wow, how have I not been doing this my whole life?’”
A month after he started CrossFit, Stoutenberg accomplished something doctors told him would never be possible.
“My functionality was to the bottom of my rib cage,” he says. “I was told that I would never be able to use my back extensors or develop my abdominal muscles.”
This functional limitation resulted in him having to strap himself into his wheelchair every time he played basketball to ensure his upper body wouldn’t constantly be falling forward.
Although he had very limited trunk stability, which made it difficult for overhead lifts, Stoutenberg credits the high repetition of low loads during workouts for allowing him to develop the strength to lift himself from a forward slump without the use of his hands. Now, six months later, he can do weighted back extensions.
Modifying traditional CrossFit exercises to meet his needs, Stoutenberg has continued to prove himself as an athlete. He has a YouTube channel set up to show people how he modifies exercises like wall balls, rowing and rope climbs.
He does most workouts from his wheelchair — his favorite is Fran. Unable to squat or kip with his lower body, Stoutenburg can complete the 21-15-9 reps of 95-lb. thrusters (which he substitutes with strict shoulder presses) and strict pull-ups in his chair, which adds an extra 38 lb., in less than nine minutes.
“When I first started, people kind of looked at me like, ‘Oh wow, this is really inspirational, this guy in a wheelchair,’ not realizing that the way I’m looking at it is, ‘I’m going to beat times that you guys are putting up,’” he says.
At Indestri, a leader board displays the top-five times for the Girls and Hero workouts. Stoutenburg recently garnered the fifth spot for Cindy.
“I sub the squats for back extensions — the gym felt it was an equal substitute,” he says.
In just seven months, Stoutenburg has become a leader in the gym.
“I guarantee anybody that works out in his class has elevated their game,” Thornton says. “Less people are complaining about blisters on their hands, about being tired and things like that. They see him busting it out and they just get right back into their work again.”
“He just never quits,” Kuslar says. “When you see what he goes through to accomplish something, it just makes you realize that it’s all up to you whether you achieve your goals or not.”
Stoutenburg has achieved goals outside of the gym, as well. He coaches the Collingwood Trailblazers, an able-bodied basketball team made up of 13-year-old boys. The team trains at Indestri every Saturday and is undefeated so far this season. He also completed his first duathlon and half-marathon this past summer, and plans to complete a 5K adventure race at Blue Mountain this year — the same one his cousin was training for when she started CrossFit.
Last year, he was able to complete a 15-foot rope climb using only his arms.
“It gets a bit nerve-wracking when you’re up there,” he says. “I know I can’t just drop and land on my feet.”
This year, he aims to complete the task with the added weight of his chair, in addition to doing Fran in less than six minutes.
“My daily motivation is to just be better and to show other people who have disabilities that you don’t have to be put in a box,” he says. “If you push yourself, you can develop more skills and more abilities than you’ve been told that you could.”
“We always talk about CrossFit — I think people at work are sick of hearing us talk about it,” Kuslar says. “But when they hear what he’s doing in the gym, you can see the ‘wow’ in their faces.”