This Amputee Reclaimed His Active Life with Elev8d Fitness
Photographer and athlete Joel Caldwell doesn’t believe in limitations. Learn how Elev8d Fitness gave this new amputee strength and balance.
On a warm evening in early June of 2017, I walked onto a plane at New York’s JFK International Airport, bound for Frankfurt Germany. The previous summer I had ridden my motorcycle around Europe and left the bike in in Heidelberg. Now I was coming back to collect it and ride south, across the Alps, to my wedding in Tuscany. Friends and family were on their way from all over. I could hardly believe it was happening.
What I couldn’t know walking down the jetway to board that flight was that I would return approximately a month later, without ever having made it to Italy. On the first day’s ride south I had a terrible accident, which resulted in; a helicopter ride, a broken arm, a badly bruised brain, shattered foot and ankle, nearly a month in the hospital—and ultimately a below-knee amputation. How’s that for an extreme case of “best laid plans”?
I was shocked. My greatest fear was not so much losing my leg, but losing my mobility and independence.
I write this now, seven months later, sitting on my couch at home in New York. My legs are propped on the coffee table in front of me. My right, “good leg”, is cozy in corduroys and a thick wool sock. The left leg, my prosthesis—a combination of carbon fiber, steel, neoprene, polyurethane, and rubber—is held on by vacuum and I can feel my heart, with each beat, down in my residual limb.
Movement defines me and the work that I love. Through movement I deal with stress, purify my body, and quiet my mind. It’s my expression of happiness and the way I celebrate success. It’s what gives me peace. After the amputation, the questions raced continuously through my head: How will I ski again? Ride a bike? Run? Get back to work? But wait. First I had to simply learn to walk. For months I maintained tunnel vision—get my prosthetic and walk. Think no further. If I allowed myself to entertain all the questions, all the possible scenarios and potential outcomes of my future life, I would become overwhelmed. So I maintained focus, kept faith—one step at a time, pun intended. And things improved steadily. What was incremental progress in the beginning became real change and improved quality of life. Two months after having received my first prosthesis I ran for the first time in many months. It was an inelegant, staggering run that resembled a series of falls forward but nevertheless: progress!
Slowly, I let myself think about the future. I got back to work. The realization dawned that I was only temporarily limited. With time to build back the muscle I’d lost in my left leg and access to right equipment, I would once again do nearly everything I had done before the accident. I watched videos of amputee skiers, paralympians, and people from all over the world who’d overcome injuries far worse than my own. I walked three to seven miles a day and continued to run on the turf field. At night and first thing in the morning, without my prosthesis, I hopped around my apartment. The balance on my right leg becoming superhuman.
It felt okay, until it didn’t. My right side, my “good side”, worked so hard to make up for the weakened left that I developed imbalances. My lower back and achilles became inflamed. It hurt to sit up and hopping, literally, out of bed in the morning was murder.
Enter Brian Bradley and Elev8d Fitness. I had a couple of conversations with Brian over the phone. He designed a specialized workout for me, avoiding jumping and a few other maneuvers that weren’t possible for me anymore. I did the exercises religiously, four times a week. In the beginning weeks, attempting a Bear Crawl or the Stork Walks seemed ludicrous, but it proved possible, though slow. I tried to be patient and focus on my form. Just as my walking had improved, so did my overall fitness as a function of time spent with the exercises, improved form, and simply getting stronger.
On an afternoon in December, a month after I’d begun my Elev8d Fitness routine, I had the opportunity to meet Brian in San Diego. He watched me run through a few exercises and adjusted my posture. A few of the movements that were still giving me trouble quickly became easier. Take the Squat to Walkout Pushup, for example. I’ve never been great at squats, even before the accident. But Brian adjusted my posture in a way that freed up my hips and the exercise became much more fluid. And the seemingly simple Da Vincis became much more challenging with a few adjustments to form. What’s so amazing is that after the workout, I felt strangely energized—almost like the exercises put my body back into working order again and I could move like I used to.
When I returned home to New York, I met my workout partner at the gym in our neighborhood. Arriving early, I got on an exercise bike to warm up. I’d been pedaling for a minute or two before I realized that I had swung my leg over the bike and into the strap of the pedal without thinking, and was pedaling naturally. Just one month ago, I had been riding the bike regularly, but it was always a process getting started, using my hands to guide my prosthetic foot in place and then strap it down hard to avoid it slipping from the pedal. That night I measured my left quadricep. It was still atrophied, but what had been until recently a drastic difference in circumference between my two legs had begun to normalize. Strength and muscle mass were returning!
What I’ve liked most about Elev8d Fitness is the focus on form and alignment and natural movements. My past several months have been entirely dedicated to getting back on my feet, learning to walk, and a return to normal life. An exercise regimen that focuses on doing things correctly is exactly what I needed in order to build back the strength I’d lost and rebalance a body in the process of adapting to a “new normal.” It’s amazing what is possible on a prosthesis today and I’m happy to report that the body, with the proper training, is completely able to adapt.
At the end of January I returned to Durango, Colorado, my old stomping grounds. I’d applied for an adaptive sports scholarship and had been selected to ski for a week at Purgatory, just north of town. My first morning on the mountain the instructors were literally cutting pieces of a foam pool noodle and stuffing them around the steel rod of my prosthesis. It took three of us to get my prosthetic foot into a ski boot. More foam was added, then two of us wrenched the buckles of the boot as tight as possible. I was feeling pretty skeptical about this prosthesis/pool noodle/ski combination but on my first run down the bunny slope it was as if my left ski had a mind of its own. I fell. Oh man, I found myself thinking, this is going to be a long few days. But, eventually, things began to click. My first couple of runs of the season are always shaky and this year was definitely no exception. But a few hours later, my first day skiing on my prosthetic, my brain somehow somehow adapted to the pool-noodle-fake-leg-ski-boot contraption and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t skiing groomers about as well as I ever had! It was the first truly athletic thing I’d done since the accident and I couldn’t get enough. I skied six days in all before leaving Colorado, each day the process becoming easier, more automatic.
And I have Elev8d Fitness to thank. If I hadn’t re-established balance, muscle mass, and postural integrity with my daily workouts, I’m not sure I’d be where I am today.
Also a big thank you to Prosthetics in Motion and Adaptive Sports Durango! Means the world to be able to be active again.