Strength, the quality or state of being strong; bodily or muscular power; vigor.
Viewing through several dictionaries and the Internet, the definitions of strength are similar, but they don’t appear to define strength. At least not as I would expect. Strength is a word many people use but are unable to grasp the concept of. True strength is not only a physical feature; true strength can be emotional, mental, and spiritual. Strength is a willful act that not only defines a person’s character but also their determination and desire to want. I learned the definition of strength, but mine comes from much more than a numbered page in a dictionary.
Let's Start at The Beginning
For a long time I was the typical high school jock. I felt I knew the definition of strength and that I was that definition. From an early age I loved playing sports; there was no greater joy than that of competition. You could say that competition and sports is what kept me focused and was the major component that helped me finish high school. Sometimes I think if I wouldn’t have had sports in my life I may have done horribly in school.
I grew up being taught good morals and ethics and my parents and coaches used sports to engrave them in my mind. I was addicted to sports; therefore, it was important that I avoid any type of negative involvement with alcohol or drugs, in order to achieve an athletic scholarship and be the best athlete I could be. Although this worked for me during my high school years, I swayed a bit in my first year of college. I was introduced to the party scene. I found alcohol.
This first year in college began a slow space beginning to grow between my belief system and the person I was becoming. I didn’t notice it, but any outsider could see me slowly drifting away from football and becoming a guy that preferred booze and parties. I stopped attending practices, team gatherings, and became a better partier than a football player. This had a major impact on my personality. I was become someone different, even to the extent of lying and finding excuses to miss my football events and engagements.
Alcohol — 1, Caleb — 0
Alcohol was winning the battle of my soul. The transformation was making its way and totally changing who I really was. I was blind and couldn’t see the many red flags being thrown up time and time again. They started to appear everywhere: my brother was wasting away from alcohol and experiencing legal trouble while I broke my jaw and foot while intoxicated. After each one of these events I would step back and evaluate my life and said, “I quit, I’m not drinking ever again.” This commitment was always short lived.
I changed my thinking and made exceptions for myself to rationalize my behavior by setting restrictions like, “I’ll only drink one day a week” or, “I won’t drink as much when I go out.” I thought these restrictions would allow me to regain control. By changing my thought process and limiting myself to alcohol's effects I started to find my motivation and the incentive to push myself again. It just so happened to be my last year of football at this time, giving me the opportunity to do something great. Unfortunately, the opportunity didn't turn out.
Despite my efforts, the restrictions and standards wouldn’t be enough and would bring me to an event to haunt me the rest of my life.
On the night of August 3, 2013, I was drinking with some friends. Heavily. That night I became so intoxicated that my only memory is vague glimpses of it. The only thing I know is that I woke up in a hospital two weeks later. The police report stated I was doing a speed of approximately three digits; I swerved off the right side of the road, overcorrected, and went into the ditch on the left hand side of the road, missing a telephone pole by inches. The police report stated when I hit the ditch it had flipped the back of the car over the front and launched it into a vicious cartwheel style roll; at some point during the roll I was ejected out the sunroof. There was a person that had been driving down the road a short distance behind me and just so happened to be a registered nurse who ran out into the field and started working on me while the squad was on its way.
They brought a helicopter in because time was not in my favor; that night I died in the helicopter on the way to the hospital and was drowning in my own blood. I was revived after a few minutes and was taken into ICU where they tried to stabilize me. Once in ICU my heart stopped and they had to revive me again. I was inching towards death, moment by moment. From here on out my life was in the hands of the doctors and God. I was on a rollercoaster ride of hell and it was only getting worse.
From the words from my family, every second was being counted and my life was on almost like a pendulum, one minute I would start stabilizing and the next minute I would start slipping away again. During this time I was unconscious due to the medically induced coma. The doctors told my parents that because of the mass trauma my body needed to be put in a coma to heal. During this process the doctors continued to work on me to stabilize my levels and body, but I took a turn for the worse — my body started rejecting oxygen.
When a muscle is torn or damaged it produces lactic acid which is filtered out through the blood stream. Since my body had such mass trauma the muscle tissues produced so much lactic acid that it was turning my blood acidic which ultimately was shutting my body down. They were able to start stabilizing me by putting tubes in my lungs, a swan scope in my heart to better monitor the acid levels, and a ventilator to do the breathing for me. The doctors were extremely challenged; due to the lacerations in my kidneys, a clot in my leg, my collapsed lung, and broken bones, they had to mix and match my medications and operations very carefully to not counteract one affect over another. Everything at this time was being weighed by the pros and cons and a risk was calculated on every step. The doctor later admitted to my parents that after the days of the accident, he didn’t’ think I would make it due to the magnitude of trauma to my body because it was so difficult to repair so much vital components of the body at the same time.
After several weeks, my body started accepting things again and took a major upturn. At this point they felt it was time to wake me up. This was a crucial point ,because only then would they know if I sustained brain damage or to what extent. The scans showed blood on my brain but they wouldn’t know the severity of it until I was awake. They had to wake me in stages because I was in such severe pain and confused, I would have likely panicked and tried to break my restraints to pull the tubes out of my throat.
During this time I was in a version of wonderland but this version was closer to hell; I was having hallucinations and terrible thoughts. At one point I remember waking up in a dungeon in a tremendous amount of pain, the floors were cold concrete and I was trapped and no matter where I laid, I just couldn’t stop the pain. It was unbearable. This went on for days and finally on the fourth week after the accident, I was finally awake and could comprehend what was happening. hat’s when the doctor came to talk to me. I finally found out what happened and why I was there.
The doctors came in and started going down the list, telling me all the injuries I accumulated. All I could do was sit there in shock. I couldn't believe that I was still alive. The list that the doctor started to read off was something like this: I suffered a traumatic brain injury, a stroke that affected my left side, broken wrist, broken elbow, fractured left hip, completely separated pelvis (screws were put in), torn labrum, torn rotator cuff, lacerated kidney, collapsed lungs, fractured spine. Later on, they discovered that I also had a hematoma behind my kidney and my vertebral artery was completely dissected.
I took a deep breath and tried to take in everything the doctor had told me. But then he hit me with one last nightmare: partial paralysis. I would never be able to use my left side again.
What would you have done? What would have you said? Would your mind be complacent or would you be in disagreement?
Failure is Not An Option
All this information to process and all these wondering questions started flooding my brain like a tsunami. Before I could answer any of these questions, the fight or flight part of my body took over and my actions spoke. I looked at my dad who was standing in the room with me and simply said, “I won’t accept this, I’m not going to sit down and give up. I will fight this.”
My family was very motivational but my brother stated a quote that I will keep with me the rest of my life. It came from Sylvester Stallone in Rocky:
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, I, or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it isn’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you got to be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you aren’t where you want to be because of him, or her, or anybody. Cowards do that and that isn’t you. You’re better than that!”
A war was about to be waged and I was on the frontlines; it was my heart and spirit versus pain, suffering, and giving up. I had loved competition and I was a fighter, but this time there was no other team. There was no scoreboard, no practice, no second chances, and no trophies. Fighting was the only option I had; I had to embrace it and make the fight more a part of me then it ever was.
According to a study initiated by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, there are nearly 1 in 50 people living with paralysis — approximately 6 million people. With those six million people, there are very few that have recovered and regained the movement once lost. I was given these statistics and best-case scenarios on a daily basis; I never believed or listened to them. As I sat in that hospital bed day in, day out, the only thing on my mind was my recovery. At this point it could’ve been very easy to just give up, the thought may have crossed my mind but it never stuck. I knew giving up was not an option. It was time to tighten those laces, plant my feet and show the doctors, my family, and myself just how strong I really am.
A new mindset came over me. I forced myself to stay positive and do everything in my power to move the left side of my body and get better. My mind was in a different place and my goals were set to a new standard, the doctors didn’t believe I could reach the goals I had set and recover like I told them I would. My bones ached, my muscles were tight, and everything was in a great deal of pain. I told myself to keep pushing, keep driving, because one day I would look back and see how far I came and how hard I fought to get there. I wasn't doing this for the glory; I was doing this to prove to myself that I am stronger than I thought I was, that I still had fire and determination, that I could show who I really am.
The weeks went by, the days grew longer, the minutes felt like hours, the hours felt like days, the days felt like weeks. But as I woke up every morning, I had one thing on my mind: to prove the doctors and doubters wrong. There were many people, whether they own up to it or not, that didn’t believe I would recover and reach the goals I had set for myself. This drove me more than anything. Go ahead and say I can’t do it and I will. Tell me it will never happen and I will show you it will.
This ongoing battle took place for over a month and they started to slowly get me rehabbing and working on the basic day-to-day functions that I never thought I would have to relearn. I had to relearn brushing my teeth, washing my hands, bathing, and walking. I got stronger and better but all of a sudden when things started to look hopeful I got really sick. They realized I had an infection in my body but they couldn’t find it. They put me on every antibody under the sun but nothing was working. I went for scan after scan on a daily basis; my body literally was glowing from all the radiation. I couldn’t eat and had actually dropped close to 100l pounds by this point.
They put me back in Intensive Care, my skin turned yellow and my face sunk in. I had fevers and my body was starting to shutdown. The rehab came to a halt and all the progress I was making was disappearing quickly. They had to put me back on machines and I became septic; the infection was poisoning my body and was essentially killing me.
After a couple weeks went by and things were at the worst they finally found the infection: behind my kidney was a hematoma the size of a grapefruit. They drained almost a gallon or more over the next few days and realized my bodily fluids were leaking back in to my body and that there was a tear in my kidneys. After another surgery we were back to square one.
After another two months in the hospital I was released. I didn’t get all the rehab I needed due to the infection but I was so happy to be home. The happiness was strangled by sadness because I couldn’t do anything, the simplest daily task was a struggle. The doctors believed I shouldn’t do any kind of physical activity that strained my body, that I should always use my walker if I was to try and walk. Well, I rebelled: the first thing I did when I got home was tell my dad to get his ultimate gym out so I could start using it. I was going to prove those doctors wrong.
I started trying to work out first day I got home. The pain was unbearable, but I pushed myself. I made myself at least workout a couple times a week and made it so I walked on my own every day. I was determined to recover and get stronger; I’ve trained my whole life so I knew just how to push myself. Days went by and I got stronger and was able to do more on my own. With the help of my therapist at OSU Martha Morehouse, I learned new stretches to help me get my mobility back. She also had to show me how to remember things again and strengthen my brain with my body. I was on my way and nothing could stop me. After a month of their rehab. I was released and was able to drive, but still wasn't quite back to my normal self. In my mind I was ready to get back to my normal life, but the doctors said I was not ready. In spite of their direction, I pushed harder.
This is when things really started to change. Jim Wendler contacted me. He heard about my accident through my parents and was very quick to take me back to train.
I have been training with Jim since I was 16. Jim started me out on the 5/3/1 program then, and I saw a lot of success, even when I stopped training with Jim the progress still came through his program. When I was 21 I had a bench of 465, and squat 550. You can tell I loved my bench press. I was stronger than I had ever been and then it all changed over one night. When I was in my accident I lost 100 pounds and was all bones and skin; my muscle was non-existent. When Jim took me back he saw how weak I really was. He observed my bad flexibility and got me back to training. It was almost like taking a racing corvette that you’ve seen at a 150mph and getting it from the local scrap yard wrecked and missing all the parts but the frame. He had to rebuild me from the ground up, with no shortcuts and no tricks.
Jim started me out by training two days a week and setting my training maxes (1RM x .9) very low. After all my previous strength, these were my new starting points:
Bench — 95 pounds
Squat — 100 pounds
Overhead Press — 65 pounds
Deadlift — 135 pounds
Monday I would squat and overhead press. My accessory work was limited to rows, pushups off the bench, and curls. Wednesdays I deadlifted and benched. My accessory work would be rows, and ab work. On my main lifts I only did seven sets of five and on the last set I made a set goal of reps (five or more) and stopped at my goal. I never went to failure. After a few cycles of this, I started doing 10 sets of five for each main lift. I started seeing some progress after going through multiple cycles and then Jim started me out doing five sets of five with my work sets and five sets of five with my supplemental lifts.
My first cycle went like this:
Set 1 x 5 (Training Max x .70)
Set 2 x 5 (Training Max x .80)
Set 3 x 5 (Training Max x .90)
Supplemental Work 5x5 (Training Max x .70)
Set 1 x 5 (Training Max x .65)
Set 2 x 5 (Training Max x .75)
Set 3 x 5 (Training Max x .85
Supplemental Work 5x5 (Training Max x .65)
Set 1 x 5 (Training Max x .75)
Set 2 x 5 (Training Max x .85)
Set 3 x 5 (Training Max x .95)
Supplemental Work 5x5 (Training Max x .75)
Once I went through the first cycle I bumped my training max on squat and deadlift by 10 pounds, and my bench and overhead by five pounds. Then I started a new cycle. Once I finished my fifth cycle I bumped it back three, then I would go five more cycles and bump it back three again.
Jim told me by going five cycles and then bumping back three every time that I won't fail and will hit more PRS by going through this process. The process is slow but by sticking to it I have seen huge gains. What I have written out for you is not the whole program and doesn't show you the percentage changes, or the progression of the program. If you want to see the rest of the program check out Jim Wendlers 5/3/1 book.
Will Overcomes any Obstacle
Many people through this long and hard journey have approached me and said; “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” My response is always the same. I was blessed to have gone through this experience; the lessons I’ve learned through this can’t be purchased or taught in a class. Somewhere along the line I lost sight of who I was, I strayed so far from everything I believe in and all I lived for. I became someone else and for the worse.
Now I stand here today on my own two legs, I breath my own breath, I speak my own words, and I live my own life. I have no regrets in getting into my accident. It was painful but through it, I found myself. I feel like the story of the phoenix: the old me died that night and risen from the ashes is the person I am today. I now live everyday with my eyes open and a full heart, because there is no other way to live. I was placed here by God, I was woken up by God, and now I live through God and all his creations. I not only received an opportunity for a new life but I received knowledge — something I can pass down for years and years to come. Every time I wake up I feel gifted to be able to breath, to be able to see, to be able to have another day with my family, and to be able to change my life.
What a lot of people don’t understand is that we only live one life; we are not here forever. How do you want to be remembered? What kind of person do you want to be remembered as? What kind of impact do you want to leave on this world?
If you ask me if I'd want to go through it all again, I won't hesitate. If you ask me if I regret that actions that led to the accident, I'd tell you. If I had to go through it all again I would, because I am able to have a different look on life that many other people won’t get a chance to have. This accident changed me and helped me focus on what’s important and what’s real. This accident helped to find the real me and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
My best friend left me with a quote that I always keep in the back of my mind. This is how I will always remember my accident.
"Things get messed up because our world is messed up, and unfortunately nothing ever gets done unless we trip and slide on our face across the ground, forever holding the feeling of shame upon our face as we walk through life. Best part? Things heal, scabs peal, and blood replenishes the tissue, bringing about growth and prosperity for new things to come. The scars are a reminder, a blessing and testament of what we have been through, forever showing those who look upon your face the seriousness of the bargain you have made with life. A 'screw you' to perfection and the faith you have put in failure."
You can ask me about strength. Today I know what strength means and it comes from my soul, not a dictionary. Is your excuse relevant now?
Caleb Sexton is a senior at Urbana University studying Sport's Management. Currently an intern at elitefts, Caleb works at Fed Ex Freight and trains for powerlifting.