Tuesday, March 18, 2008
It's a Wednesday morning at Ottawa Nautilus Family Fitness Center, a furniture store-turned-gym on Main Street in Ottawa, and, like usual for a weekday morning, Nick Scott is one of the few people inside.
Tomorrow, Scott is boarding a plane for the National Wheelchair Bodybuilding Championships in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Two days later, after shaving his body bare and smothering himself in pro-tan and body oil, it'll be time to wheel onto the stage of William T. Dwyer High School Auditorium and parade a year's worth of iron and egg whites before a panel judges.
Today, Scott's bulging muscles compete for attention with his fidgety wheeling back and forth as he talks about the upcoming weekend, which, if he wins, will be maybe the biggest weekend of his 25-year-old life. "This is it," he says. A woman walks by and says, "See you after you win."
This will be Scott's third annual trip to the big show, and in the two years since a lumpier version of himself entered his first competition, he has become consumed by wheelchair bodybuilding.
In some ways, the sport has also been consumed by him. He's competed in more shows in the past year than anyone else in the country, he's created a website, wheelchair-bodybuilding.com, that has become the dominant network for the sport, and he's fought to get a wheelchair division in the pro bodybuilding ranks.
What he hasn't done in two years is become the champ. Not in his first year, by a longshot. Not last year. He's heaped a lot of pressure onto himself. "If I win overall," he says, "this is gonna be legendary."
* * *
To tell Nick Scott's story, you have to go back nine-and-a-half years, to the Marais des Cygnes River bridge on K-68 Highway, where he injured his spine one week before his junior year at Pomona High School (now West Franklin High).
He was 16 years old, driving from Country Kitchen in Ottawa, where he worked full time as a cook, to preseason football practice. He was a returning varsity lineman, offensive and defensive. Football was his thing.
As he was crossing the bridge, the left front tire of his 1984 Buick Skylark blew out, pulling his car hard to the right. He countered by yanking the steering wheel to the left, but a vehicle was coming in the other lane, so he served back to the right to avoid a collision.
He made it over the bridge when his car turned sideways, skidding across the road and into the left ditch. He was ejected from the car as it started to roll five-and-a-half times, and in midair the car caught him in the back, breaking it and damaging his lower spine.
He was taken to Ransom Memorial Hospital in Ottawa, and after a painful blur of tubes up his nose and X-rays, he was flown to KU Medical Center. Doctors bolted titanium rods to his lower spine and shaved some bone from his left hip to add to the damaged vertebra.
After surgery, he was given a talk about how his football days were over and he'd never walk again. "Why me?" he remembers asking, "like a broken record in my head. I had visions I was gonna be this big football star and this and that." He put on a happy face for friends and family, but quickly sank into depression.
"Sometimes it was real difficult to tell he was struggling or having problems," says Lucus Johnson, his best buddy since sixth grade. "Immediately after the accident, he was always working on walking. You could see the frustration on his face sometimes when he was doing his rehab, but he'd never complain about it."
Check out an audio slideshow about Nick Scott (watch slideshow)
A machine in his room allowed him to inject pain medicine every 30 minutes at the press of a button. He pressed the button as often as he could until someone at the hospital told him he'd heal faster if he got off it. He stopped altogether. "I'd rather suffer and heal quicker than delay it," he says. "I felt like that was an even trade."
The first stage of his rehabilitation began days after the surgery, when doctors fitted a brace around his torso that straightened his spine and allowed him to sit up, a simple act that made him nauseous and lightheaded.
After a week, he was transferred to a rehab center in Topeka for physical and occupational therapy. "It was like a freakin' nursing home," he says. "There was nobody around my age-like 40-to-60-to-70 range. And they were all depressed and miserable. It was a horrible atmosphere."
He could move his legs a tiny bit, but couldn't move his feet or wiggle his toes. He progressed slowly, trying to thaw various body parts, then adding resistance and learning to keep his balance sitting up, as well as practicing new skills, like how to dress himself, and open kitchen cabinets using a gripping hook.
One day, a friend came to visit and brought along a good-looking girl Scott had a crush on. After the visit, he caught sight of himself in a mirror for the first time since the accident. He'd ballooned from 175 pounds to nearly 300.
"I was devastated. I'd gained so much weight, I had a mini-afro, a spotted beard, these little bottle-cap glasses," he says. He was miserable, but he had a goal. He was going to transform his body, even if, at the moment, he was limited to lifting five pounds.
He was released from the rehab center after a month and started living at home again and going to rehab at Ransom Memorial. His family, including one older brother who was still in high school (he's the youngest of four boys and one girl), moved from Pomona to Ottawa to be closer to the hospital.
His classmates were weeks into their junior year at Pomona High, and he was given a choice: either be tutored and catch up with his class, or take a year off. After three weeks of tutoring, he started going to school until noon, with his teachers working with him to make up for the lost hours, and then going to rehab in the afternoon.
The class he was most excited about was gym, with the opportunity to get back into the weight room. "But that killed me the most, because the one thing that I loved to do, now I couldn't do," he says. "I couldn't take it. I didn't do nothing for a couple weeks, and then, finally, I said, 'To hell with it. I don't care. I'm gonna start lifting.'"
Lying to his coach that he had permission from Ransom Memorial to lift weights, he started bench pressing. "I made up my mind," he says. "If I can't do everything like everybody else, the one thing I can be is stronger than everybody."
As he grew stronger and leaner, he wanted to enter powerlifting competitions, but his family was adamantly opposed. He aimed for a high school weight meet in Williamsburg in December of 1999, which would be a year-and-a-half after the accident.
"I wanted to make my mark," he says. "Not just go in there and be like, 'Oh, he won.' It's like, 'I want to dominate.'" The meet bench press record was 275 pounds. He pressed 350.
The next month, he finished rehab. The last thing he did was learn to walk using crutches that cuff him around the forearm. His calves were (and still are) pencil-thin, and his hamstrings and inner and outer thighs were weak, but his quadriceps were powerful enough to lead the unresponsive parts.
"My quad just overpowers my whole leg, and that's what gives me the strength to be able to walk," he says. "If you see me walk, I look like Frankenstein, but at least I do it."
In May of 2000, he hobbled across the Pomona High stage without his crutches and received his diploma with the rest of his class. He was a great success story and all that. The comeback was a miracle, and everyone in town was proud of him.
But after graduating, he didn't know what he was gonna do next. The football scholarship he'd hoped to land before the accident obviously was out of the picture, and as his classmates went off to various colleges, he stayed at home, not knowing if he'd be able to make it through college without having to take time off to deal with physical problems.
And his medical bills had pushed his family deep into debt, about $750,000 worth, he says. This is a subject he doesn't like to discuss. "You gotta do what you gotta do, but that's our problem," he says.
"A lot of people think, 'Oh, it's great. Nick has a great life,'" he says. "I've been through hell. People don't realize what sacrifices I gave up, what stuff I had to do to get there. When everybody went out for parties and drinks, I focused on walking, I focused on training, I focused on my education, because I wanted to be successful. This whole thing is just," he pauses, "I don't want to fail."
* * *
When Scott entered his first National Wheelchair Bodybuilding Championships two years ago, he didn't know what the hell he was doing.
After that first high school powerlifting meet in Williamsburg, he'd kept winning competitions, setting Natural Athlete Strength Association state records (among all lifters) in the bench press and curl, and racking up first-place trophies on a national level. When he heard about wheelchair bodybuilding, he thought it could be the next thing to conquer.
Without entering any smaller shows first, he flew to Palm Beach Gardens for nationals. "I was thinking I was just gonna dominate because I was just used to winning," he says.
As it turned out, there were a few other guys in the nation whose bodies were harder, leaner, more ripped and better proportioned than his-he'd just never seen them before. He placed second out of three in the heavyweight division, losing to Josh Dillaberry, of Orange Park, Fla., who had been competing at nationals since 1994.
And he didn't come close to winning the overall title among the 10 competitors, which went to a light-heavyweight from Marietta, Ohio, named Colt Wynn. "The first year, to be honest, he didn't look that good," recalls Wynn, 22.
Here's how a bodybuilding show works: In the morning, the competitors stand before the panel of judges, each striking seven mandatory poses and performing a 60-second routine, after which they line up and pose together. This is when the judges decide who will win.
At night, the entertainment part of the show, each competitor performs a 90-second routine set to music, and the winners are announced. At wheelchair nationals, which is part of a larger competition called the Sunshine Classic, the nearly 1,000-seat auditorium typically sells out.
Scott's brute strength didn't count for much in bodybuilding, but in one area-the routine-he outshined everybody. "One of the things that comes across right off the bat is personality and showmanship, because Nick has a flair," says Peter Potter, vice president of the National Physique Committee (NPC), which holds the national competition.
At the time, there was hardly anything about the sport on the internet, so-despite the fact that he had only entered one competition, done poorly, and knew nothing about building a website-Scott created the site that's now the key place to go for wheelchair bodybuilding information. "Even though I was pissed losing," he says, "I felt like the world should know about this sport."
On the site, he created bios of every active wheelchair bodybuilder, message boards, information on upcoming shows, results from shows dating back to 1994, pictures, videos, news and links.
On the athletic side of things, Scott started sticking to a strict diet of egg whites, oatmeal, grilled chicken and protein shakes, and transitioned from training as a weightlifter to training as a bodybuilder. He entered his second bodybuilding show, the Rocky Mountain Championships in Denver, at the end of the year.
This time, he brought with him some accessories for his chair that have become his trademark: neon and LED lights and oversized tires (at the next show he added spinning rims). His best buddy, Johnson, who flies with him to every show, remembers that the day before the competition, a Christmas parade passed by their hotel.
Before Johnson knew it, Scott had gone outside to join in. "It's like 16 degrees outside, and he whips off his shirt, and he's posing in the middle of the parade in downtown Denver with his lights on," Johnson says. "I was sure security was gonna haul him off, but they let him stay out there."
The next day, Scott placed first out of four in the wheelchair division of the show. Two-and-a-half months later, he entered his second national wheelchair championship. The competition was much stiffer than the year before, with five of the six past overall champions returning, and a much-improved "Beast" placed third out of six in heavyweight, getting nudged out of second but defeating Dillaberry, the 2006 heavyweight champ.
* * *
All of the wheelchair bodybuilders, like Scott, have a story.
Kelsey Eisenhour of El Reno, Okla., injured her spinal cord in a car wreck a year-and-a-half ago, at the age of 17. After her injury, she didn't know anyone else in a wheelchair, so she started looking around on MySpace.
She found Scott's page, watched a homemade video he'd posted telling his story, and sent him a message telling him how inspiring it was. She received a strange response: Are you interested in wheelchair bodybuilding?
"I was like, 'I've never even heard of that,'" she says. "He told me, 'You would be perfect to do a routine with me.'"
Despite the fact that Eisenhour is skinny and, by her own admission, not a bodybuilder, and that there's not a women's division in wheelchair bodybuilding, Scott convinced her to travel to St. Louis in July, eight months after her accident, to perform a guest routine with him at the Caveman Classic. They called it "Beauty and the Beast," and performed again last weekend at wheelchair nationals.
Patrick Laugerude, a 32-year-old man from Colorado Springs with cerebral palsy, has competed in 10 shows over the past few years. He says Scott and Johnson have made themselves indispensable for the other wheelchair bodybuilders at the shows.
If he has a problem, he says, they're the guys to go to. They've helped him put on his pro-tan and oil, given him wheelchair bodybuilding DVDs, and once saved his ass by burning him a CD when his music didn't work at nationals. Scott even put a plug for Laugerude's illustrated children's book, "I'm a Big Beluga Whale," on wheelchair-bodybuilding.com. "He is Wheelchair Bodybuilding," Laugerude says.
Walker Runnels, a 20-year-old man from Effingham, Ill., with cerebral palsy who Scott encouraged to compete in his first show last year, literally compares Scott to Alexander the Great. Like Eisenhour, he was introduced to Scott through his video.
"You know how you can kind of get a feel for somebody before you even meet 'em? I said, 'Man, there's not a dang thing in this whole world that stops him.' I mean, that is like true iron grit, buddy. That is, 'I don't care what I gotta do, nothing on this planet is gonna stop me,'" he says. "And that's the same approach he takes to the sport, man. I mean, it's unreal. For a kid his age, it's almost unheard of. It's like Alexander the Great or something."
Such praise, lavish as it may be, isn't unusual for Scott. Through his website, he says he receives daily e-mails from people who say they're interested in the sport or inspired by him. During the middle of the interview at Ottawa Nautilus, his phone rings, showing a number with an area code he doesn't recognize. Probably somebody wanting to know about wheelchair bodybuilding, he says. Since he put his number on the website, he says he's received calls from as far away as Poland and Sweden.
In 2007, his first full year competing, he entered six shows-a heavy load considering the diet, workout regimen and money required for nutritional supplements, travel and lodging. Sometimes, the wheelchair division (always part of a larger bodybuilding show) consists only of him.
Despite not having a victory in Palm Beach Gardens to his name, he's had so much exposure, being written up in bodybuilding magazines, newspapers, and shown on TV, that there's even been a small Nick Scott backlash.
Dillaberry says he wonders whether Scott is more concerned with the promotion of the sport or the promotion of himself. Currently, on wheelchair-bodybuilding.com, the first things you see on the homepage, after the results of wheelchair nationals, are three videos of TV news stories about Scott and an MTV promo from when he was the nextornot.com "Hottie of the Day" in December.
"It's 'I this, I that,' and to me, that just kind of rubs me the wrong way, in that aspect," says Dillaberry, 35. "But him as a guy, he's a great guy, and I'm glad to see what he's done."
Ken Ray, another bodybuilder who Scott encouraged to get into the sport in the past year, says he noticed a few quiet naysayers among the wheelchair bodybuilding clique during Scott and Eisenhour's routine at nationals.
"He got a lot of flak from some of the guys backstage who were talking about him, and whispering, and that sort of thing," he says. "But Nick doesn't care. Nick only cares about one thing: the promotion of the sport. When he tells people that, it's genuine."
Colt Wynn says he's just glad someone's promoting the sport. "From a champion's point of view, or from a beginner's point of view, I think somebody's gotta do it, and he decided to step up and take that role," he says.
Scott's goals are lofty. His main one is getting a wheelchair division in professional shows. For able-bodied competitors, winning amateur meets means moving up to the pro division and getting paid. But wheelchair bodybuilding is all amateur, meaning past champions come back to compete against beginners.
Overall winners of the national wheelchair championships have received pro cards from the elite International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB), but because there's not a wheelchair division at pro shows, the cards are merely symbolic.
"When wheelchair bodybuilding started, we were sort of the division that was, 'Aww, look at them trying to be bodybuilders,'" Ray says. "I don't want to say the word 'pity,' but it kind of is a pity thing. Unfortunately for us, sometimes there's still that stigma when it comes to wheelchair bodybuilding. We're having a really hard time getting past that."
Potter, the NPC vice president, says the sport has a lot more growing to do before there are enough competitors to consistently fill a pro wheelchair division. "Really, in truth, for his dream to come true we need more wheelchair divisions and more local shows feeding into the national wheelchair," he says.
When the same group of guys win the title every year, it both discourages new competitors and can make the pros feel like they're competing in the minor leagues.
Five-time national champion Victor Konovalov, the first to receive an IFBB pro card and the only wheelchair bodybuilder to ever be fully sponsored, briefly, has been fighting for a pro division for a long time. Konovalov, 46, of Corona, Calif., has heard a lot of no's in the more than two decades he's been bodybuilding.
"It's just frustrating to me that we work just as hard, if not harder, and we're not given that same opportunity," he says. "The rewards aren't there. : People always want to say, 'Great, job, great job.' But a 'great job' doesn't pay my bills. It doesn't allow me to continue to do this."
But Scott holds out hope for a professional wheelchair division. He says he recently got the IFBB president on the phone. He thinks something can happen. "Can you speak with enough confidence and enough vision for him to actually do that? That's the situation I am in," he says. "You can't be second-guessing yourself."
* * *
For most of the competitors, the fact that there's no money to be made in wheelchair bodybuilding necessitates that it's a hobby you do on the side, like running marathons. But for Scott, this is it.
He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Ottawa University in 2005, but doesn't plan on looking for a desk job. Wheelchair bodybuilding is his focus. Through money as a personal trainer-he earned his certification a few years ago-some sponsors helping out here and there, and help from his family, he's able to manage the expenses of the sport.
Back at Ottawa Nautilus, on the Wednesday after nationals, his nervous energy has given way to an air of disappointment. He placed fourth out of six in the heavyweight division. Colt Wynn, for the third time, won the overall title.
"I was shocked," Scott says. "I was thinking I was gonna win the damn thing. People were telling me I was gonna win the show. I don't know. I was just shocked."
Potter, who was one of the judges, says he looked good, just not good enough. "From a physique point of view, he has improved every year," he says.
Scott says it doesn't matter too much. Winning isn't what drives him, he says, but entertaining the fans, supporting the sport and all that. He and Eisenhour performed their routine as guest posers-an honor usually bestowed upon pros-and it was a hit. He does, of course, want to win. But he wants something more.
"The fans will determine if you're a name or you're a number," he says. "If you just win a show and you don't have nothin', you're just a number. What's gonna make you stick out, to be remembered? I try to go for people to remember me." Â»