Growing up in Collingwood, Ontario, Chris Stoutenburg spent his life in sport – everything from track and field, to basketball, to BMX-ing. When he decided to narrow in on football, the star wide receiver began, like most teenagers, to prepare for university.
Choosing to attend the University of Guelph in Ontario and play football for the Gryphons, the 19-year-old was eager to start school and extend his football career that fall.
But fate intervened on June 18th , 1997 – a day that would change the trajectory of Stoutenburg’s life forever.
As a party was winding down at his friend’s apartment, Stoutenburg stepped outside to the balcony. He sat up against the railing, and suddenly heard a loud snap. The next thing he knew, he was looking at the ground rapidly approaching until everything went black.
Landing on a 6’ x 4’ strip of grass between a cement staircase and a metal bike rack, Stoutenburg was flown to the hospital in critical condition – he had fractured two thoracic vertebrae – T6 and T7 – and was paralyzed from the waist down.
When he woke up three days later with metal rods inserted in his spine and more than 70 staples in his back, doctors told him he would never walk again.
The next day, Stoutenburg decided to take his fate into his own hands.
Released from the hospital two weeks after the accident and out of rehabilitation within a month, he returned to school in September without skipping a beat. In rapid succession, he was introduced to wheelchair basketball, made the Canadian junior team, earned a Division 1 scholarship to the University of Illinois, made the Canadian men’s national team, and became a two-time Paralympic gold medalist, nine-time Canadian all-star and world champion.
Along the way, he met and married his wife, Sara, had a son, Quintyn, became a CrossFit athlete, coach, and gym owner and full-time events coordinator for the Town of Collingwood, started an international following for adaptive CrossFit athletes called WheelWOD, became the coach of an able-bodied basketball team, and partnered with MaraFun Canada to bring a running program to every elementary school student in Collingwood.
We touched base with ‘Stouty’ this week for our Athlete Spotlight series to ask him some questions about his mindset, facing challenges, his experiences with basketball and CrossFit, and embodying leadership.
(PHOTO CREDIT: JENNIFER NICHOL)
Heddoko: Can you tell me a little bit about what life was like growing up for you and as a teenager?
Chris: My father owned a sports store so I had a natural association with sports right off the bat and played pretty much every sport through high school – from track and field to BMX biking, to badminton and golf, football, basketball, and was on the snowboarding team. It was pretty much, if there was a sport there, I’d play whatever I could. I was really focused on football for most of my high school career. I really like competition, and football was the goal for me. Grades were always second (he said, laughing). I passed – I never failed anything, but it was never my focal point – it was always, ‘Just get enough school in so I can go play football somewhere.’
Heddoko: Can you tell me about what happened after you were selected to play football at Guelph?
Chris: I was in football summer camp at Guelph and came home to Collingwood for the weekend – the railing from a balcony collapsed out from behind me and I fell two stories down and broke T6 and T7 of my spinal column. From there I was into emergency, flown down to Toronto and then within a few weeks basically I wanted out and so they sent me directly into rehab which was fantastic – that was like a month an a half and I was out of that and back in school.
Heddoko: Immediately after your injury, I know you took one day to feel sorry for yourself and then you flipped the switch and immediately changed your mindset. How did you do that?
Chris: For me, I think it’s just in my personality. I’ve come across different situations where it can be easy to cry and not want to keep moving forward, but I haven’t encountered something large enough yet to make me want to do that.
Heddoko: What does an injury to T6-T7 usually result in, in terms of functionality?
Chris: The T6-T7 level is basically just above the bottom of your ribcage, right at your sternum. They actually identified my injury in my medical records as complete, which means cutting right through the spinal cord, but there were some pieces of my spine still attached because of the way my back broke – usually your back breaks and it’s severed, but my spinal column exploded from the impact and there were thousands of pieces of bone that they had to take out. As they were taking them out, the spinal cord kind of fell apart. In terms of functionality, you’re basically paralyzed from your sternum down. There are two different capacities that get affected – your movement vs. your feeling. I can feel more than I can function, and have since, in the last few years, been able to develop a lot more function.
Heddoko: After your accident, you climbed the basketball ranks and were at the top of your game and then lost your mother, and more recently, your father?
Chris: We won the World Championships in Amsterdam in 2006 and she passed away in early 2007 from cancer. Just over two years ago now, my dad – he was a super athletic, very fit guy, and he had a one-in-a-couple-hundred-thousand thing go wrong – the doctors figured even if it had happened on an operating table it would have been hard to save him. One of the valves in his heart ripped open. He was out golfing, he laughed, felt a sharp pain in his chest, and that was it.
Heddoko: With everything that has happened to you that has been out of your control, how did take all of this external stuff going on and channel it internally in a positive way, focusing it to do all of the things that you want to get done?
Chris: You don’t know anybody’s story until you actually talk to them, but very rarely do you ever come across somebody that hasn’t had to deal with anything tragic in their life. For me, I realized that these are things that I can’t control, but the things I can control have a very positive effect. I can take this situation that’s been given to me and I can give up, or use it to show people that there’s life beyond a tragic moment. You can recover, you can prevail, you can push, and you can control these aspects by keeping a positive mindset and wanting to share. Why would I not try things because someone said I couldn’t do it? I’ll figure it out on my own, and if I can’t I find ways to do things similarly, or adapt the situation so I can do them – like finding a piece of equipment I can build or buy. Life’s too short to hang around worrying about all the things that have gone bad. Once that situation has occurred, it’s ‘What’s the next step?’ not, ‘Oh, I wish that didn’t happen.’ You can wish all you want, but as far as I know, there’s no way to travel back in time.
(PHOTO CREDIT: WHEELCHAIR BASKETBALL CANADA)
Heddoko: You went from the injury to a D1 scholarship at the University of Illinois, to making the senior national wheelchair basketball team, becoming a nine-time Canadian all-star, six-time national champion, Paralympic gold and silver medalist, to being voted the MVP at the World Championships in Amsterdam. What do you attribute all of this success to?
Chris: That’s a really tough question – I love the game of basketball, so for me it never really felt like work. I had a lot of fun doing it, which made it easy to train for. I’d just keep working on getting better. I’ve always been very, very competitive and have a drive to win so I tend to find myself in situations where if I have a chance in a game to positively affect the outcome I have a pretty good track record of being able to do that.
Heddoko: What is your best sports moment and why?
Chris: One of the ones that sticks in my head all the time when I think back is the gold medal game at the Paralympics in Sydney in 2000, being a rookie, and coming into what was a two-point game. I just came in and it was that very first shot in front of 10-15,000 people – everything went silent for me. That’s where I used to go in football – the ball would be thrown to me, the crowd would be screaming, and all of sudden the ball would be in the air and everything was blocked out – like, I could hear the laces turn on the ball. Everything would kind of slow down for me. That was the first time I had that same feeling since being hurt. You’re at the pinnacle. The ball came over to the top of the key, they kicked it over to me, everything went silent and all I could see was the basket. I couldn’t hear anybody, I couldn’t see anybody. I hit the shot and then heard the crowd roar and I was back in the game. It kind of opened my eyes to the fact that it didn’t matter if I was standing or sitting – I still had the ability to control the game.
Heddoko: You’re still involved with the national basketball program, but have also gotten really into CrossFit – how did that happen and where are you at now?
Chris: It’s been close to four years now – Scott Thornton (a former NHL-player who opened CrossFit Indestri in Collingwood) and Tyson Hornby (a former football player at the University of Guelph and CrossFit coach) gave me a chance to come work out at Indestri and I fell in love with it right away. We’ve been adapting it ever since. I did a couple of the Open workouts (a series of competitive CrossFit workouts that are videotaped and validated by judges), and people kind of noticed that so I realized I had a bit of a channel to take what I’m learning and help other people. Since then, Scott and I had been discussing him selling the gym to me – he had retired and opened a small gym that exploded into what Indestri is now. I definitely was into it and I bought Indestri from him and Tyson and I now run it.
Heddoko: Can you tell me a little bit about WheelWOD?
Chris: From the minute I had the gym, I knew I had my platform because I had been working on WheelWOD basically since I started CrossFit, not knowing that’s what I was doing – adapting movements, keeping a journal and recording successes, failures, trials, and errors. I realized once I had Indestri that I had a place that I could now use as a home base to teach this and pass on what I’ve learned. I created WheelWOD in Januaray of this year and it blew up very fast! We have quite a few people hitting the workouts we post daily.
Heddoko: In basketball, you’re known as an outstanding shooter and ball-handler, and in CrossFit you keep setting new PRs and keep getting better and better. In both sports, how important is technique?
Chris: Oh, it’s HUGE! I’ll stay at a lower weight in CrossFit until my technique is flawless. Within three years my clean and jerk has only jumped about 20-lbs. (considering where I started in the beginning, it would be 60-lbs. but from where I hit a good spot about three years ago, I’ve only jumped 20-lbs) because I refuse to pull the weight and reverse curl it. I want to unweight that bar. If I can’t unweight the bar enough to snap through then I don’t do that weight. I could reverse curl 140-lbs., but what’s the point? That’s not a clean. For me to clean it, I want to be able to pull the bar with a really aggressive shrug and then snap my elbows underneath it, so I need to be able to pull that bar high and then have the speed to come through. For me, the technique is more important than anything.
Heddoko: You’re such a leader in everything that you’re doing – what are some of your goals for the future?
Chris: We’re looking at a competition that we’ll do online for WheelWOD, so that’s a big goal of mine right now – an online series that will happen in five competitions over the next year, coming through into 2016 around this time again. We want to take the top-10 males and females and have them actually compete in person. There’s lots of, “Hey we’ve got an adaptive division in our competition”, but no one I don’t think has the ability yet to isolate it for different physical abilities. We can change the workouts, but we need to get it to a point where we want it to be competitive and fair – we have to come up with a classification system by injury and what that affords you – is it time, is it a different rep count? We’ve been working hard on this for the past year. We haven’t released anything yet, but I think what we have is going to be enough. We’ll test it through this online series and then hopefully be able to take that and put it into an actual face-to-face competition. If we’re able to do that, then we can get some of these guys and girls that really want to compete in CrossFit to start training across the board to compete.
If you’d like to learn more about Chris, you can follow him on YouTube and Twitter, and learn more about his story from Dai Manuel, SweatRX Magazine and the CrossFit Games.