Imagine hearing the news your three-year-old daughter has just been struck by a vehicle. She is airlifted to emergency care, and upon examination, the doctor says she will never walk again.
Imagine partaking in a passion in speedboat racing, and during competition, the boat flips, the seatbelt breaks, and after a 150-mile per hour collision, you are paralyzed from the chest down.
Imagine slight shoulder pain turning severe, yet incurable by medication. Upon examination, the doctor says the pain is from a spinal infection, which will soon limit the ability to walk.
These are the real-life stories of three Tucson residents whose lives changed drastically from one moment to the next. While each story is different, these individuals have found a similar rebirth of hope when hope seemed lost. They continue to look forward instead of back, and credit the staff at the Mobility Fitness Institute as playing a voluminous role in their journeys towards independence.
Willie Caldwell, founder of Mobility Fitness, had a longstanding history with fitness before opening the facility seven years ago. As a former track star at Baylor University, Caldwell held the world record in the 500-meter dash, was an NCAA national champion in the 500-meter dash, 400-meter dash, and 1,600-meter relay, and was a member of many U.S. National track and field teams.
Following his success in track, Caldwell joined the U.S. Army where he served for four years and served in Operation Desert Storm.
After serving his country, Caldwell began working as a personal trainer, where he realized that amidst training able-bodied individuals, there was a problem. Due to lack of proper equipment, Caldwell could not train wheelchair-bound individuals who entered his studios.
Caldwell took action immediately by designing special workout equipment to accommodate disabled individuals. Eventually, the idea developed into something bigger, and the end result was the creation of Mobility Fitness Institute, an entire gym full of Caldwell’s equipment, and specifically geared towards promoting health, fitness, and recovery for disabled individuals.
It was there Olivia Curcuru, Frank Nagore, and Norm Martenson found a staff who lives by the same standards they do: “Never, never, never give up.”
Olivia was riding her bike near her home when she was struck by a large delivery vehicle, resulting in a T4 spinal injury. Doctors gave Olivia’s mother, Carolyn Curcuru, the bad news. Short of unforeseen future technology, Olivia would never walk again.
“You become absolutely numb,” Carolyn said. The life you knew before is gone. It doesn’t exist anymore.”
Shock was eventually replaced by hope when the Curcurus family met Caldwell at a spinal cord injury group meeting. Now, three years after Olivia’s injury, Carolyn said she has seen tremendous results thanks to Caldwell and staff’s recovery training and specialized equipment.
In her first year at Mobility Fitness, after training with Caldwell, Olivia was able to ride three miles in El Tour de Tucson on her hand cycle, and has continued to do so the subsequent two years. At only six years old, Olivia is now able to hand cycle four miles in 45 minutes. Last September, Olivia was recognized as Little Miss Wheelchair Arizona, and Caldwell gladly offered Mobility Fitness as the place to host Olivia’s ceremony. Manager Chris Towns said the staff is lucky to have gotten to know Olivia.
“We just love how she comes in everyday with the biggest and brightest smile on her face regardless of what has happened during her day,” he said. “She’s constantly bouncing up and down in her chair and has the most adorable little laugh you’ve ever heard.”
Not only has Olivia built strength in the wheelchair, but she has shown signs of improvement in her favorite hobby, which is swimming.
“This past weekend we saw huge growth,” said Carolyn. “Willie has been working with her in the pool. She was able to do the backstroke with a life jacket on and no support. By the end of the session, she took off her lifejacket and did the breaststroke without it. We really owe a lot to Willie. He does so much behind the scenes that he doesn’t talk about.”
Carolyn said despite the traumatic circumstances, there is a lot to look forward to for Olivia and family.
“Our situation was that she survived,” she said. “Life goes on, it doesn’t just end. We have met amazing people along the way, and while devastating, it is a life that can be fulfilling. Physical activity will play a key role in keeping Olivia healthy.”
Nagore, a Marana resident, was traveling 150 miles-per-hour while racing his speedboat in a legal competition. The boat caught air, flipped, and Nagore, inside the boat’s capsule, was launched. The capsule’s defective seatbelt broke, and Nagore’s head slammed into the roll bar, crushing his spine.
“I knew immediately. I was paralyzed,” said Nagore.
Unfortunately, Nagore’s instincts were later verified by doctors, who at first didn’t expect Nagore to survive. Still, just seconds after the crash, he remained positive.
“When I saw that I could move my arms, I thought, I’m going to do this. I’m going to make this work.”
In his path to recovery, Nagore ran into a lot of negative medical feedback from doctors. As a positive and persistent person, Nagore refused to listen, and began researching various recovery options. Very close to moving to Florida, Nagore heard about Mobility Fitness through his chiropractor, and decided to give it a try.
“I worked out one time and was sold,” he said. “I knew it was where I needed to be. I knew I needed to get stronger if I was ever going to recover at all.”
When Nagore first enrolled at Mobility Fitness, he relied on his wife to drive him to the facility and help him transfer from the vehicle to his wheelchair. About four months into his training with Caldwell and staff, Nagore was not only able to transfer himself from his vehicle to his wheelchair, but he was driving himself to and from the gym.
Every time someone tells me I can’t do something, they don’t know what they are talking about,” said Nagore. “18 months ago, doctors told me I was at my peak potential,” he added, smiling, as he moved himself along one of Caldwell’s prototype workout machines.
Nagore said Caldwell has been one of the few who have remained optimistic and truly helped him through the difficult time.
“It’s been a life-changing experience,” he said. “When you get someone like Willie, who is as motivated as me to get me better, it helps out even more. I have a really good relationship with Willie. We’ll work out, talk about the world, and share some laughs.”
Martenson, of Oro Valley, visited a doctor after his shoulder pain continued growing worse, despite medications. The doctor told Martenson he had a bone infection that was damaging his spinal cord. While searching for a recovery facility, Martenson was referred to Mobility Fitness, where he has been a member for the last two years.
Since joining, Martenson has noticed a great increase in his mobile abilities.
“The biggest benefit so far has been an ability to transfer to and from my wheelchair,” he said.
Martenson has also noticed more function in his legs, and is hopeful his progress will lead him to walking again in the future.
“We’re putting a little more emphasis on making my legs strong enough and mobile enough to walk,” he said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re heading that direction. Strength will come first, and mobility is next.”
Martenson said in his training, he has developed a strong personal relationship with the staff at Mobility Fitness.
“They’re a good group to work with,” he said. “Willie pushes you gently. It’s always a competition to get your workout done and enjoy it at the same time.”
Referring to Manager Chris Towns standing nearby, Martenson joked, “And Chris, we’ll have to talk about when he’s not around.”
Despite his tragedy, it appears Martenson never lost his sense of humor.
The Mobility Fitness Institute is located at 2502 N. Dragoon, Suite 100.
Mobility Fitness founder gives hope
In his 25 years as a personal trainer, Willie Caldwell noticed a theme in each of the private studio gyms he worked for in the past; whenever a wheelchair-bound individual would enter for a workout, he had no way to work with them.
The situation didn’t sit well with Caldwell, who soon began developing equipment to compensate for people with disablements.
Caldwell’s ideas continued to develop until eventually he opened the Mobility Fitness Institute, an entire gym dedicated to helping disabled individuals recover and build strength. Mobility Fitness, which has now been in business for seven years, initially catered to individuals recovering from spinal cord injuries, but has since expanded to accommodate amputees, victims of stroke, Parkinson’s disease, eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome, and more.
“We cover the board when it comes to people with disabilities,” said Caldwell. “You really can’t limit what a person’s disability is when it comes to recovery.”
Mobility Fitness now has about 30 regular clients, each of which Caldwell and Manager Chris Towns have gotten to know on a personal level. With each client allotted a certain timeframe, Caldwell and Towns are able to dedicate an ample amount of time and attention to each of their clients, all of which have specific needs and goals for recovery.
Caldwell said from beginning to end, the results have been significant.
“When we get them, they don’t have a lot of strength or confidence,” he said. “We get them working on setting goals they can obtain immediately, so they start getting immediate satisfaction. Then, we start working on the long term goals.”
One client, Frank Nagore, needed the assistance of his wife and a slide board to get from his vehicle, and into Mobility Fitness. Within about four months, not only was Nagore able to transfer himself from the vehicle with no assistance, he was driving himself to Mobility Fitness.
“Everybody seems to have a really cool story,” said Towns. “It’s inspirational. People take for granted what they have.”
Along with years of experience, the institute offers a wide variety of unique machinery, all developed by Caldwell. Some of the equipment was recently patented, and is now being used in other parts of the country.
As a result of Caldwell’s unique fitness vision, Mobility Fitness is able to work with anyone from able-bodied individuals to individuals in wheelchairs, scooters, or other mobile devices.
“The goal is to improve quality of life,” said Caldwell. “We want to make them more independent and more mobile. We are very much a recovery program, but everyone needs fitness to be strong and get around.”
Mobility Fitness also has recovery programs where members of the family can work out alongside the disabled client. Caldwell said he recognizes the impact that life-changing injuries can have on loved ones.
“It’s a real promising way to bring them together,” he said. “When you have someone with a disability, that other person without the disability is all of a sudden thrown in the fire. We play the part of recovering together, because it’s both of your injury- that’s how I look at it.”
Mobility Fitness is located at 2502 N. Dragoon St. For more information, visit Mobilityfitnessinstitute.com.