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Experts / December 2016
Natalie Chladek, Global Newsroom

Adaptive Athlete Finds Purpose in Fitness

“Today is leg day,” says Nick Santonastasso, an adaptive athlete with no legs and one arm, who has dedicated his adult life to ignoring his disability and getting fit.

Instinctive chuckles echo in the gym around him.  Santonastasso’s training partner wraps a belt around his torso to strap him to the bench before loading his single arm with three plates.  

Despite the obvious limitations, Santonastasso is pursuing a career in bodybuilding, a continuation of his passion for fitness that began when he was a high school wrestler.  

He was born with Hanhart syndrome, a rare congenital disorder that results in undeveloped limbs.  In high school, as a member of the wrestling team, he opted to have part of his right arm amputated so that he could compete more effectively.  Now, he uses a custom prosthetic limb to help him use traditional weightlifting equipment.

“Fitness has helped me be the best version of myself because I look at being fit, motivating and inspiring as a duty,” he says.

Fitness has helped me be the best version of myself because I look at being fit, motivating and inspiring as a duty.

Santonastasso first garnered internet fame as a prankster who posted videos of his stunts on YouTube and Vine. 

Now, at age 20, he inspires his 157,000 social media followers with daily updates of his quest to become a professional bodybuilder.

“The most important thing about all this is giving value of others and spreading motivation,” he says.  “The fact that I can just post my daily life on a social media platform and impact people all over the world, that’s what I’m most proud of.”

Santonastasso describes his early high school years as rock bottom.  He struggled to understand why he was born with this condition, why he had to work so much harder than everyone else, why he needed help with basic physical tasks while his peers led “normal” teenage lives.

When he joined the wrestling team as a junior, he weighed 20 pounds less than most of his opponents and lost repeatedly.  Despite the losses, he received standing ovations every time he took the mat. At first, he was confused. But eventually he understood the crowd’s reaction.

“I got my ‘why’ answer,” he says. “Fitness.”

I got my 'why' answer. Fitness.

Santonastasso realized that his condition offers him a unique platform to inspire others.

“That’s when I realized fitness was going to be a game changer for me,” he says.  “I finally realized, ‘Nick, just you doing you and doing these physical activities you can have such an impact on people.’”

Santonastasso is dedicated to inspiring those around him, but fitness has allowed him to overcome his own mental and physical struggles. 

“I’m much more comfortable in my body,” he says. 

“I used to go around and I was disgusted with myself, I didn’t want to look in the mirror from just my disability alone, not my physical appearance.  I’ve never had more confidence in my life right now and I have fitness to thank." 

Despite his physical condition, Santonastasso views his situation as an opportunity to help others realize they can overcome their own limitations.

“I do it for the people who can’t,” he says.  

“I do it for the kids in wheelchairs or [those that are] paralyzed, or the kids in hospital beds who would give up anything and everything just to live a physical life.  People would switch with me in an instant.”  

I do it for the people who can’t. I do it for the kids in wheelchairs or [those that are] paralyzed, or the kids in hospital beds who would give up anything and everything just to live a physical life.  People would switch with me in an instant.

“His outlook on life is very different,” says his training partner and best friend Josh Foca.  “He’s thankful for everything he has.”

Santonastasso’s mentality has had a profound effect on Rich Fritz, the owner of Pro Body Fitness in Bayville, N.J., where Santonastasso works out.

“Being a personal trainer, fitness club owner and fitness enthusiast in general, my purpose is to try and inspire people when they come into the gym,” he says.

“But even a motivator needs to go back to the well.  He doesn’t only inspire me, he empowers me, and when other people come in and see that, they feel empowered too.”

Santonastasso’s newfound confidence has spurred him to set his sights on competing in professional bodybuilding in the Men’s Physique category.  He adheres to a rigorous high-protein diet and spends several hours in the gym every day. 

His training regime is the result of several months of trial and error. He and Fuca are constantly experimenting with various pieces of adaptive equipment to make traditional strength machines accessible. 

When Santonastasso is not at the gym, he spends his free time watching YouTube videos searching for new exercise ideas to further his bodybuilding career.  

Professional bodybuilding is a sport that rewards uniformity: Competitors are judged on “proper shape and symmetry,” according to the National Physique Committee, the bodybuilding governing body.

Santonastasso’s body is not symmetric, nor is it like the competitors he will face, but he is undeterred.

Instead, his response is tattooed across his left bicep: “You laugh at me because I’m different, I laugh at you because you’re all the same.”

You laugh at me because I’m different, I laugh at you because you’re all the same.

Experts / December 2016
Natalie Chladek, Global Newsroom