Imagine being born with Spina Bifida, a birth defect that disables the spine and causes detrimental mobility problems. Life as you'd planned no longer an option. You cannot drive. You rely on others for transportation. Day in and day out, you must survive. Go to a job that allows you little freedom. Something is missing from fulfilling your life completely. You long to do more, be more. You feel weak, yet you know you are strong.
Matt DeMatteo has been living this life, in a wheelchair, full time, for 16 years. That is, until one fated day, when Drew Whitted, owner/head coach at Be Strong, came into DeMatteo's work at Walmart. They gradually built a friendship. Each time Whitted was in, he'd take time to talk with DeMatteo, getting to know him a little bit better. Finally, Whitted invited DeMatteo to come hang out with him at his gym, Be Strong. Since that February day, DeMatteo's life has not been the same.
Be Strong gym, located in the Crossroads Center at 470 Wylie Drive in Normal, has been a part of the community for a few years now. Whitted, a military veteran, has all the accolades of a fitness guru. Upon entering the gym, DeMatteo says it has changed his life in many ways, specifically in the area of feeling much stronger. “I can actually do more daily activities, without fear of getting hurt. Another way it has impacted my lifestyle is by giving me a huge confidence boost. Drew has shown me that I can do anything I set my mind to”. DeMatteo was use to little mobility, little confidence, and little support in the aspect of hitting the gym to “work out”. Be Strong has given him all these things back and more. DeMatteo says, “I feel like I had set limits on myself over the years of what I could or could not do physically. Safety had always been a factor. I know now, with the correct training and dedication from Drew and coaches at Be Strong, there is nothing I cannot do. At Be Strong we always say disability isn't inability”.
Be Strong has a group of adapted athletes that train side by side with other class clients and even some of their professional athletes. “It feels amazing to be part of a group”, DeMatteo states.
In the seven months that he has been part of Be Strong, DeMatteo has accomplished some amazing fetes. He competed in his first adapted athlete strongman competition, in which he pushed all the way to a tiebreaker against one of the best adapted athletes around. DeMatteo has also gotten to cross off a few “firsts” from a list he once thought unimaginable. His first tire flip. His first rope climb. His first Mack truck pull. When asked how this makes him feel DeMatteo says, “ It feels amazing. Since coming to this gym, I have felt a lot more happier, inside and out. I feel like I am a part of a group. Everyone here treats me like family, from the moment I roll in to well after I leave. Before I came here I use to have low confidence, but now I feel like I can do anything”.
And by “anything”, DeMatteo means anything. With the help and support of Whitted and fellow clients and athletes, DeMatteo took his first walking steps on Thursday, August 18th, 2016 at Be Strong. Using a walker to assist, DeMatteo said he was, “overcome with emotions, happiness, and pure amazement” at being able to feel ground beneath his feet for the first time in over 16 years. The training he has been doing in the gym with Whitted has been key to giving him the strength and confidence to achieve this goal. The video of DeMatteo walking has been posted on social media and is already picking up lots of attention. For DeMatteo, I think it's safe to say that there are no limits to what he can accomplish in life.