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This Bodybuilder Was Paralyzed—So She Became a Super-Competitive Para-Athlete

Tanelle Bolt, 31, is quickly becoming a professional Canadian athlete in surfing and skiing. She attends global golfing competitions, lifts weights, practices yoga, kayaks, and is an official High Fives Foundation athlete—all while paralyzed from the T6 vertebrae and down.

A complete spinal cord injury in 2014 left Bolt with no feeling, sensation, or movement below the nipple line, but she continues to test the physical and mental limits of being both a para-athlete and a woman who refuses to take a day off. (Just like this woman who became a professional dancer after becoming paralyzed.)

Fitness Model Goals

Bolt's fitness journey began in 2013 (13 months before her injury) when she hired a personal trainer. "I always liked going to the gym. It was a place where my anxiety subsided," Bolt tells Shape. "But before my trainer, I wasn't really making progress." Together with her trainer, Bolt decided to set an end goal. "I wanted to compete in a bodybuilding competition and appear in a fitness magazine."

Bolt's wish came true when she competed in her first competition. She scheduled a photoshoot and started an Instagram to market herself. After only 11 posts on the social media site, her purpose changed.

On a hot Sunday afternoon in British Colombia, Bolt and her friends were headed to the river to cool down with a swim. They went to a common bridge-jumping spot, and jumped—but the next day, Bolt woke up in the hospital, paralyzed. She had broken her back from the impact, and now had two 11-inch metal rods screwed between her T3 and T9 vertebrae.

Relearning Her Body

Instead of sinking to a dark mental space following the accident, Bolt sprang into action, taking the concepts she learned during her year of diligent fitness training and applying them to rehabilitation. "In the year before I was hurt, I was hyper-aware of everything going on in my body, especially coming up to the competition. In rehab, I became very aware of how all the muscles are connected and what I should and shouldn't feel," she says.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Day 5 into a wheelchair :) #roadtorecovery #tanellesjourney

A post shared by Tanelle Bolt (@tanellebolt) on

She also found inspiration in Rick Hansen, the famous paraplegic athlete and philanthropist who wheeled around the world, who plays a large role in spinal cord research at the hospital where Bolt was being treated. He was at her bedside to talk with her just three days after the accident.

After two weeks in the hospital, Bolt was moved to a rehab facility for 12 weeks—a process she compares to "moving into an old folk's home." Bolt says she tried doing as much as possible. Experts recommended exercising one day a week and she'd say, "I want five." The same went for learning about the new functions of her muscular system. Because she was already so aware of her body, Bolt felt extreme frustration at the slow pace of rehab.

"I wanted to swim and be in an electric bike to power my legs into moving," says Bolt. "But the doctors didn't want to do that because there was no hope of my legs working."

Once she got out of rehab, Bolt wouldn't let anyone tell her what she could and couldn't do with her body. She got a van and drove down to California where she convinced a group of para-surfers to teach her how to rip.

The Art of Slowing Down

Bolt says that one of the biggest shifts since her accident has been learning to slow down. (A lesson that might actually improve your fitness too.)

"I went from being the fittest I had ever been to lying in the hospital bed, waiting for clarity and help," says Bolt. "I used to be overly capable of doing everything by myself. I was two steps ahead of anyone opening a door for me. I didn't care to let people help because their help was too slow. Now, I let people help."

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

My Monday evening looked like this It wasn’t too long ago that a good friend of mine showed me that I could fully weight bare on my own :) this yoga pose allows all my weight to be transferred through my ankles and feet; and at the same time offloading my sacrum and pelvis. This is the only position that I have found so far that allows me to weight bare fully independently. • • • Speaking of independence... I am doing yoga in the living room because, after a phone call to a studio here in Invermere , I was fully discriminated against and told the ‘gentle yoga’ class could not be modified for me (with a 5 hour heads up to my arrival). Anyone/everyone else with mobility issues encounter this problem when trying your best to keep pushing forward with rehabilitation?! • • • #spinalcordinjury #recovery #rehab #rehabilitation #notfordrugs #yoga #adaptiveyoga #thanksJD #tanellesjourney #tellmeyourstory #discrimination #noADA #canadianproblem @big.fish.creative @nora.moll

A post shared by Tanelle Bolt (@tanellebolt) on

Now, she looks to the world of para-athletes and experts to hold her accountable and provide her not only with essential sports skills but a whole new level of support and therapy. "The journey has restored my faith in humanity," she says.

"I'm only four years old in the adaptive world. I don't need to sit and struggle by myself. Someone who has fallen off their skis can teach me how to stay on," Bolt adds.

An Elite Athlete In the Making

Bolt has found her tribe among elite-level adaptive athletes who push the limits and "make themselves nervous and a little scared," she says with a giggle. "I like adrenaline, I like hard work, and I see there's a large gap in sports and outdoor rec for people with disabilities." Often, people with disabilities are forced to be a tourist outdoors, rather than an adventurer. (Related: Losing a Leg Taught Snowboarder Brenna Huckaby to Appreciate Her Body for What It Can Do)

Bolt has no problem spearheading the inclusivity of adaptive athletes into everyday sports and active lifestyles. She single-handedly shook down a local yoga studio to allow para-athletes to be included in classes and spearheaded an (unsponsored) adaptive surf trip. The High Fives Foundation, a nonprofit providing support and inspo to athletes who suffer life-altering injuries, caught wind of Bolt's passion and grit and made her one of their athletes.

Today, Bolt is a pillar of strength, humor, and compassion. She openly jokes about wearing camo and rainbow diapers from the kids' section because they're cooler than Depends, brainstorms epic adaptive events for her charity, RAD Society, and is prepping for an upcoming golf competition in Spain—proving time and time again that you can crush lofty fitness goals, no matter your ability.

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