47. A Healthy New Mantra

47. A Healthy New Mantra

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Shaping the New You

A Healthy New Mantra

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.
 ~Winston Churchill

His spare leg slung over his shoulder, Denny saunters into the gym. He flashes his 100-watt smile at my husband Bart and me, as we chat idly beside an exercise bike—just a couple of 50-somethings hoping to work off the effects of desk jobs, stress, and our love for food, wine and beer.

I’m no athlete but I like to stay fit. A number of wonderful instructors have inspired me over the years, in my varied program of yoga, Pilates, kettle bells, and cardio.

But for my husband, there has been only one influential trainer: Dennis Chipollini. Before he started working out with Denny a few years ago, my husband was discouraged. Embarrassed about his weak upper body and concerned about his lack of energy, he wanted to tone up and lose weight. As his wife, I agreed, and worried that “I’m tired” was becoming his mantra.

His usual workout regimen, mostly cardiovascular exercises like spinning and walking, wasn’t working. He knew he needed more, so he decided to add weight training with a personal trainer.

But sticking to his commitment was hard. Some mornings I heard Bart groan, “I don’t feel like working out.” But he went anyway. After a while, I noticed the muscles in his shoulders, the way his jeans fit. I liked the changes I saw. Bart explained, “When you exercise with Denny, you can’t get away with excuses, because Denny can do more with one leg than most people can with two.”

So when my husband suggested I join him and Denny for a Saturday morning workout a few months ago, I eagerly agreed. I wanted to meet the man who inspires my husband to keep on exercising.

Denny adjusts the weight on the squat-lift machine, towering over me, his tank top showing off his strong biceps, his gym shorts revealing his prosthetic left leg. This leg, the one with the picture of Betty Boop, is named Betty. “I name all my legs,” Denny says. “I’ve got about nine of them.”

Amid the clanking of weights and whirring of treadmills, Denny puts us through our paces. Twenty squat-lifts, three laps, 20 squat-lifts, three laps. As I circle the track, one foot in front of the other, I think of Denny’s remarkable story, how on a rainy morning in 1989, his car hydroplaned and slammed into a guardrail. “BAM!” Denny supplies the sound effects. “Wow! That was close,” he remembered thinking with relief. Then he looked down. Both of his legs had been severed.

Pain overtook him, but Denny wasn’t ready for death. He was just beginning his life—his wife Sue was expecting their first child. He knew he had to stop the bleeding. “I was pinned under the steering wheel. I couldn’t move—but I could use my mind. I visualized myself in a hospital, doctors working to save me. I willed myself to be calm, and the bleeding slowed down. At that moment I learned the incredible power of the human mind.”

He endured months in the hospital and 15 surgeries to save his legs. In the midst of one operation, in the same hospital, Sue gave birth to their son, Nicholas.

Physicians saved his right foot, but not the left leg. “You’re never going to walk again,” one doctor told him.

“You wanna bet?” Denny said.

The day of his accident, Denny learned the power of the mind. He used that knowledge to create his own rehab. While Sue worked to support them, he dragged himself upstairs to lift weights. Ten months after that doctor’s prediction, Denny was walking with a cane. Three years after that, he ran his first 5K race. “They said I wouldn’t walk again.” That 100-watt grin flashes again. “They didn’t say anything about running.”

With Denny’s coaching, my “new improved” husband lifts weights he thought he’d never even budge. Twenty squat-lifts, three laps, 20 squat-lifts, three laps. My quads burn, but if Denny can run a 5K with a smile on his face, how can I complain?

After that first race, Denny remembers, a young boy told him, “Mister, you’re my hero.” Denny recognized that an amputee who runs marathons gets attention, and that attention could be harnessed. He just didn’t know yet what he was meant to harness it for.

At the gym, my husband and I flail our arms and legs in a clumsy attempt at abdominal exercises on the mat. Denny calls out, “C’mon! What are you guys doing?”

Bart laughs but we try harder.

People call Denny a hero, but Denny’s hero is his son Nicholas, now a fine young man in his 20s, who has neurofibromatosis, which causes tumors on nerve endings, as well as autism and Tourette’s syndrome. When Denny and Sue learned the kids were excluding Nicholas at school, Denny discovered his true calling—to use the attention he attracts to inspire and educate. This part of the story resonates with Bart and me, because we have a son and nephew who also face challenges.

So Denny founded Generation Hope, an organization that raises understanding about disabilities. To publicize his cause, Denny speaks to rapt audiences of all ages, telling his story, repeating his message of acceptance, and his mantra, “No excuses, no limits.” He has competed in triathlons, as well as full and half marathons. He bicycled across Pennsylvania. He became the first person to carry both the Olympic and Paralympic torches. “My amputation is my gift,” I’ve heard Denny say. “I wear it like a badge of courage.”

“Okay,” Denny commands, setting the timer on his watch. “Three-minute plank!” Bart and I drop to a push-up position. “No saggy butts.” Denny falls to the mat and pikes up into a perfect plank.

Denny advocates Positive Psychology, nutrition, chia seed, good wine and Dogfish Head beer. He projects a positive attitude, but admits there have been dark, private moments when the support of his wife and kids got him through, including his ordeal with Hepatitis C, which he contracted from a blood transfusion. “I don’t know how they put up with me!” he laughs, shaking his head. “When you’re down, it’s the little gesture—the ‘human touch’—that gets you back.”

Right about now, my abs burn and my elbows are sweating. I don’t think I can hold the plank one nanosecond longer. But there’s Denny, right beside us, smiling. And maybe that’s what keeps Bart—and now, me—coming back. A positive attitude, the high of overcoming personal obstacles—and the human touch.

“Next time I set the timer!” Bart laughs.

“Whatsa matter? Tired?”

Suddenly I realize—I haven’t heard Bart say, “I’m tired” in months. Now that he’s got more energy, he’s swapped that old mantra for a healthy new one: “No excuses, no limits.” Still in my plank position, I beam with pride.

The timer beeps. Whew! I flop onto the mat. “That’s it, you guys!” Denny sings out, “Go have breakfast!”

~Faith Paulsen

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