How I Became an Amputee Wheelchair Champion

I was determined to adapt to prosthetic legs, and I didn’t reach my goal. But I didn’t fall short—I found a new way to stand tall.

By Eric Gabriel

Three years ago, shortly after I became a bilateral above-knee amputee, I wrote for Amplitude about my efforts to rise up from my wheelchair and learn to walk again. The endeavor was both physically and emotionally difficult, and I wasn’t sure it would be worth the pain and tears. “I know I can function just fine in a wheelchair,” I wrote then. “Why should I put myself through countless rehab hours with more frustration than triumph? Why not give up? I’ve paid my dues in the rehab world.”

When I said “paid my dues,” I was talking about a journey that began in 1977 with my first knee surgery and continued through more than 60 subsequent operations. I was a semipro ballplayer in my 20s and 30s, sacrificing my body with head-first slides and a hard-charging playing style. My dad had warned me: “The way you are throwing your body around, the payment will be costly when you get older.” No truer words.

The extent of that cost became clear in 2009. After multiple knee replacements, my right leg was beyond repair. Amputation was the only choice. This was a blow to my identity as an athletic male who had always excelled at sports. But I adapted, as amputees do. No longer able to compete on the diamond, I pivoted to rowing and found a new outlet for my competitive drive. I qualified three times for the World Indoor Rowing Championships and won a silver medal one year. In 2012, I was invited to try out for US Paralympic Rowing Team. 

But my orthopedic struggles continued, and in 2018 I had both legs amputated above the knee. Adjusting to life in a wheelchair wasn’t easy, but I thought it was the only feasible way I could remain active and mobile. I’m a large, muscular man—6’5″ and barrel-chested—so I didn’t believe prosthetic legs could give me a workable foundation for walking. I also wasn’t mentally prepared for the long, arduous rehab process. I especially dreaded the preliminary stages of rehab, when I would have to learn to walk on stubbies that reduced my standing height to a mere 4’5″. That was a very difficult blow to my ego, as I explained in my previous Amplitude article: “My thoughts of standing and gaining independence were overcome by the realization of how short and awkward-looking the stubbies were, and how short and awkward-looking I would be….At that point, I felt safer, emotionally, staying in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.”

Here’s why I eventually changed my mind: I came to view the stubbies as an interim step to full-length prosthetic legs that would allow me to stand tall again. The prospect of regaining my full 6’5″ stature was incredibly motivating. I had a whole team of prosthetists, physical therapists, weight trainers, and other supporters cheering me on. In addition, I was blessed with a pair of computerized prosthetic devices that would allow me to function at a very high level once I learned how to use them.

“I am so thankful to have this opportunity when so many others don’t,” I wrote at that time. “My stubbies now represent a symbol of hope.”

The Ingredients of Goal Setting

When we work toward a goal, we rely on three mechanisms: effort, persistence, and direction. Effort refers to the intensity a person brings to pursuing their goal. Persistence is the ability to sustain effort over time, even in the face of obstacles or problems that interfere with the goal. Direction is defined as focusing effort toward goal-relevant tasks and away from irrelevant ones, along with the activation of stored knowledge and skills that bear upon the goal. 

All three mechanisms kicked in as I started my quest to regain the ability to walk. The first time I got between the rehab bars in my stubbies, I already had a mental map of the process ahead. Step one would be learning to get out of my wheelchair and simply stand up in my stubbies. Next, I’d progress to moving around the house using a walker; then, navigating from room to room unassisted; and finally, leaving my house and walking in public. Each milestone would bring me closer to the overall goal of full-size prosthetic legs. I just needed to build up the strength, stamina, and balance to use them.

I was highly motivated to succeed, and I spent every hour of every day either putting in the physical work to achieve my goal or doing the mental work of focusing my mindset and temperament. I practiced standing and stretching. I visualized good outcomes. I stopped worrying about how people viewed me in my stubbies; I let go of embarrassment and saw that I could stand tall in my stubbies, even at 4’5″. I tapped into my decades of experience as an athlete, as someone who doesn’t admit defeat easily and never stops competing at maximum effort.

I had the right attitude, a great team behind me, and access to outstanding technology. But ultimately, the hurdles proved too great to overcome. It took two people to help me get my legs on and stand me up. I needed the same support to sit back down. It was incredibly frustrating. I told myself, “You’re strong enough; you can do this.” But whether because of my age, my size, or sheer physical and emotional exhaustion, I started running out of gas—and I couldn’t replenish the tank. 

One day, one of the nurses from my rehab team found me with a discouraged look on my face. Not everyone can find a prosthetic solution, she said. Some people are better off using a wheelchair. Maybe it’s time to adapt. 

It wasn’t easy to hear those words. I always find it difficult to let go of a goal once I train my sights on it. At the same time, I felt a definite sense of relief, because I have other goals I want to pursue, and I can reach them just as well from a wheelchair as with two bionic legs. But I was investing so much of my energy and my identity in the quest to adapt to prostheses that I didn’t have anything left over just to live my life. 

That’s when it dawned on me: Adapting to life in a wheelchair doesn’t equal defeat. The wheelchair is the vehicle that’s going to allow me to reach a whole bucket list of new goals.

What Winning Really Looks Like

Adapting to wheelchair life is quite different than adapting to prostheses. Instead of modifying my body so it could mesh with my legs, I needed to modify my environment so it meshed well with my chair. My wife and I set about adapting our home for full-time wheelchair usage. With support from our church and the state’s vocational rehabilitation program, we got rid of all our carpets and installed solid oak flooring everywhere. We modified doorways, bathroom fixtures, and other features to accommodate the chair’s width and height. We put a lift in the stairwell so I could move between the first and second floor. And we made alterations to my workout and training room.

All these changes will help me pursue a whole new set of goals. First and most important, I want to get back into rowing competitions. Sports have always played a pivotal role in my life. Some might say they’re what landed me in the physical situation I’m in today, but I see it differently. I’m still motivated by sports, still hungry for the excitement they provide, and still driven to experience more thrills. In addition to returning to indoor rowing, I would like to try some other adaptive sports.

 My second set of goals revolves around teaching. I received my doctorate shortly after my bilateral amputations, and my experience with adaptive athletics played a large role in my studies: I wrote my dissertation about the health and well-being of adaptive rowers. I’m excited about sharing my expertise not only in the classroom, but also as a motivational speaker. While technology allows me to connect with other people electronically, I thirst for face-to-face interaction.

Finally, I want to learn to drive a hand-controlled vehicle. This would give me the freedom of leaving my home and moving freely through the world. One of the main things I’ve lost through my amputations is independence. Getting behind the wheel, turning the key, rolling down the windows (hair blowing in the wind), and singing with the radio at the top of my lungs is something I’ve always enjoyed—and I look forward to doing it again. 

Eric Gabriel holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Grand Canyon University. A three-time competitor in the World Indoor Rowing Adaptive Championships, he supports programs that emphasize education, leadership, and physical exercise.

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