Trust & Exercise: Chelsi Figley

Trust & Exercise: Chelsi Figley

“I would watch the Olympics when I was little and I always wanted to be a part of that,” says Chelsi Figley, a competitive power-lifter who currently holds the national record for her weight class and division in the bench press. “I always had it [the desire to compete], but I needed someone to say I’m willing to do this with you or even to say hey… you can do this.”

For Figley, her childhood attraction to the Olympic Games wasn’t based on a singular performance or the flash of medal glory, but rather seeing the culmination of a long journey, watching athletes and coaches working together in pursuit of a shared dream. In her case, the search for that steadfast partnership—the trusted voice to say “I’m willing to do this with you” —proved particularly challenging. Born with Spina Bifida (leaving her without the use of her legs), Figley was raised in an area of Ohio that she refers to as “a small town surrounded by even more small towns.” After walking with braces as a child, Figley exclusively used a wheelchair after elementary school, and not only were there no adaptive sports or athletic opportunities available, within her small community she was “most people’s [only] exposure to wheelchairs and disability.”

“Growing up, I never knew about the Paralympics,” she says, adding that even when she finally learned about the elite international competition (which runs parallel with the Olympic Games), she assumed that only athletes who had spent their entire lives competing in adaptive sports would have the ability to qualify.

At that time—in her early twenties—Figley had joined a gym for a far more common reason: she wanted to lose 15 or 20 pounds, and perhaps get a bit more fit in the process. Thus began a fourteen-month odyssey during which she demonstrated an early ability to excel in the bench press while transitioning from her first personal trainer to a second and then a third, each setting progressively-higher goals but none making for a long-term fit: one treated her too delicately, one changed jobs, and another never completely grasped the dynamic challenges presented by lifting heavier and heavier weights without being able to rely on leg drive as a countering force.

“Every action needs an equal and opposite reaction,” Figley says. “If I do an upright row, sitting in my chair and pulling [the weight] to my face, I have both of my hands taken away from me. So, if I’m pulling upward with both of my hands… what’s keeping me in my chair?”

Enter trainer number four: Brian Raneri.

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For over five years, Raneri (who owns and operates The Workout Center in Columbiana, Ohio) has found creative and effective ways to provide a balancing force as he develops Figley’s training program. He drapes a chain across her lap and holds his hands on her shoulders while she performs upright rows; he places a knee on her back to stabilize her prone body while she lifts face-down on a bench; he utilizes Velcro straps, stretching techniques, and far more than he ever thought he’d need to know about fulcrums and leverage.

All the while, those practical methods may be the least of what Raneri provides.

“The night before I went to meet Brian for the first time, I sat with my Mom and I cried and cried and I said if he doesn’t keep me around, I’m not training,” Figley says. “Because switching trainers over and over was more emotionally exhausting than having ten surgeries in twelve years like I did as a kid.”

Figley came to Raneri at a pivotal time in her athletic development. She’d already participated in her first two competitive meets, which she could choose to view as either the fulfillment of a worthwhile goal or the beginning of a much longer journey. In addition to needing to shift her mindset from that of a novice participant to a regular competitor, she needed a coach willing to engage in a relationship she calls “much more in-depth, not just physically but emotionally. Because I need so much help, I really have to trust you.”

 Chelsi Figley lifting while Brian Raneri spots (Photo by Paul Arbogast, Arbogast Photography)

“I have a lack of control of my bowel and bladder,” Figley says. “If it was just that I could go in and train like any normal human being, that would be fine. If the biggest deal was that Brian had to put his hands on my shoulders when I do upright rows, then it wouldn’t matter. But there’s different positions to stretch me… he’ll have to have a knee on my leg and an arm on my shoulder. The different vulnerable positions I put myself in with him—I have to trust not only that someone’s not going to hurt me, but they’ll pay enough attention to know when to stop. I also need to trust that they’re going to have manners and etiquette and not be inappropriate whenever we’re in positions where we’re only in that position because I can’t help it. Brian and I joke around a lot now, but it wasn’t like that in the beginning, because I had to trust him—he had to show me he was comfortable and that it wasn’t a problem for him.”

During the past five years, with hard work, talent, and dedication, Figley has progressed from the tentative performance of her debut meet and gone on to compete in the 2010 Paralympic World Championships in Malaysia, the 2011 Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, and the 2014 World Championships in Dubai. Last fall, competing in Oklahoma, Figley matched her national record (173.8lbs) in the bench press; and, as Raneri has watched his athlete gain strength and confidence, she in turn has witnessed the changes in her coach.

“This is what was amazing to me—to watch him transform too,” she says. “The first night I went in to meet him he wanted to do everything for me. He said I’ll take you up the steps if you need to go to the bathroom and we’ll get a handicap parking spot for you outside and I’ll make sure this and I’ll make sure that. And I came home and cried, because I said to my mom he’s going to smother me. And I was going to hate it, because I’m independent and I just wanted him to treat me like normal.

“So I gave myself a couple days and then I called him and said hey, listen, this is how this is gonna go: you’re gonna smother me, I’m gonna hate it, I’m gonna leave. You can’t do that—I cannot plan that you’re going to be there every time and bail me out of every jam, because the day is going to come when you’re not going to be there and I’m going to be in a jam and I’m not going to be able to emotionally handle that. Because I’m not going to trust anyone else and I’m not going to know what to do. But it’s not hard for me—it’s just different. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s hard. Hard is a relative word—I’ve done this all my life.

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“I’m a very habit-oriented person and it stresses me out to leave and go on trips,” Figley says, “So even though I really like competing, when I have to leave to travel to competitions it takes my body a while to adjust back to an even keel.”

In order to manage Figley’s stress, fatigue, and recovery—both from her competition schedule and her normal training loads—Raneri regularly monitors her with Omegawave. Figley’s resting heart rate and stress indexes tend to be elevated above the athletic norm, largely a result of the extra effort she expends in the normal course of motion, both in and out of her wheelchair (not to mention dismantling, stowing, and reassembling that chair’s 20lb frame every time she drives). But, knowing her established baseline levels, Raneri is able to track fluctuations in her Overall Readiness as well as each individual index, adapting his training accordingly.

Figley 2“He really takes my Adaptation Reserves into consideration and how well I’m going to be able to cope with new or different stressors,” Figley says. “My body and brain really thrive on routine, so he doesn’t introduce a lot of new things unless I’ve had a good run of stable scores and that shows him that I can handle it. Usually, Omegawave is pretty spot-on—if I don’t feel good, it generally gives me a pretty low score.”

Following her meet in Oklahoma this past October, Figley’s Omegawave results gave her reason to pause. Upon returning to Ohio, her Overall Readiness scores were at a diminished level, which she expected after the stress of the competition. Rather than climbing back to their baseline norm, however, in early November her Readiness scores continued to drop while her resting heart rate began to increase. Although she had a nagging cough, she couldn’t pin her low index scores on that—her physician had prescribed Prednisone for the cough, a medication that typically causes her Readiness scores to spike.

“I’ve coined a term with Brian where I’m ‘Prednisone Perfect,’” Figley says. “If I need the medication, I’m usually dandy and he can do whatever he wants because I’m going to recover based on the effects of the medication. But my scores weren’t evening out, and about halfway through my second run of Prednisone, I said something’s just wrong and I don’t know what it is or what to do.”

She began to have trouble breathing, but was at a loss for what might be the cause, since she wasn’t experiencing any corresponding pain.

“Then, one night I had real bad acid reflux and I could breathe better the next day and my heart rate was lower,” Figley says. “But the following day, [my heart rate] was back up again. And I said to Brian I bet I have a bowel obstruction. The only reason I knew was the acid reflux and knowing my normal resting heart rate versus how high it was; that, and watching it go down and then rise back up. The next day I went to a massage therapist and she worked on my stomach for an hour and I was able to breathe better, and the following day my heart rate was lower.”

“I texted Brian and said that Omegawave saved me. I have had at least four disabled friends die of bowel ruptures, and I always thought it was because they didn’t take care of themselves. But I had no pain at all, and would not have even considered that I had a bowel obstruction had I not been watching my heart rate on Omegawave and matched it up with what I was feeling.”

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Though that medical issue slowed Figley for several weeks, she is back on track and training for the Americas Open Championship this April in Mexico, during which she hopes to qualify for the Parapan American Games in Toronto this coming August. In addition, if she can add another 25lbs to the 190lb personal-best she’s benched in the gym, she’ll qualify for funding from the Paralympic Committee and be one notch closer to her goal of competing in Rio in 2016.

In the ongoing pursuit of that competitive slot in Rio, Figley is already living out her original Olympic dream: an athlete and a coach working together, day-in and day-out as they strive for a common goal.

“I love training—it’s my favorite part,” Figley says. “I really like to compete and I really like to go the places I get to go and do the things I get to do, but I love training. I love habit. I love my trainer. I love to be in that zone where I’m comfortable.”

As Figley talks about training with Raneri, her voice glows as she ties that experience to an all-around improved quality of life. She knows she can count on her trainer to keep a professional eye on her Readiness scores and prepare her for upcoming competitions, but more importantly, she can rely on him to do countless other things that have made her life better each day. Over the course of two years, Raneri slowly massaged away an uncomfortable hump that had developed in her ribcage as a result of spending so much time in the chair; he goes through a daily process of stretching her; he has steadily encouraged her to occasionally try walking with braces, which has alleviated spasms in one hip.

All of these changes began with trust, earned and paid back over time.

“My feelings are real, the issues I deal with are real, and maybe everyone has their own thing that they deal with, but not everyone feels the way I do because not everyone else is in a wheelchair,” Figley says. “And he doesn’t try to minimize it and he lets me be human. It’s amazing.

“Less than sixth months after starting with Brian, I came in and he wanted me to start a new exercise and I was afraid. And he said Chelsi, I did it without my legs last night. He actually took the time and conscious effort to go through the exercise himself and consciously keep himself from using his legs. And he said I know it still isn’t the same because I could have caught myself, but I’m not going to let you fall. I need you to get used to that feeling—I’m not going to let you fall.’

“And so I laid down and did the exercise—because how can I have any argument now?”

Find more about Chelsi Figley on her Facebook page, Power From Within