Local man builds character while building muscle

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Arnold Schwartznegger once remarked that he used iron and steel to sculpt his body much as Michelangelo's chisel and hammer fashioned marble to create the "Pieta". Jeremy Hunt has done the same thing, most remarkably without the use of his legs.
   "I'm not a professional yet, but I'm on my way to being," said Hunt, who suffered paralysis of his legs following an automobile accident eight years ago.
   You can find Hunt at Franklin Health and Fitness Center during most afternoons. Six days a week, four hours a day, the 26-year-old Kentucky native pumps iron preparing to compete in a bodybuilding contest for wheelchair-bound athletes next month.
   In less than one month, Hunt's hard work will be put to the test when he competes in the Wheelchair Nationals held in Palm Beach, Fla. on March 15, an event that could catapult him into the world of professional bodybuilding for physically-challenged athletes.
   The contest is the culmination of years of physical recovery and renewal that began with simply learning how to stand.
   Born and raised in eastern Kentucky, Hunt and his family moved to Elizabethton in 1997 where he completed his associates degree at the Tennessee Technology Center. He spent his high school days playing high school sports, including football. He also raced competitively in Motorcross dirt bike and jet ski competitions.
   In 1994, Hunt was involved in an automobile accident resulting in a fracture of the vertebrae in his lower back. He suffered bilateral paralysis and was almost unable to move at all.
   "It took me about two and one-half to three years to be able to walk on forearm crutches for 20 to 30 feet," he said.
   The months after the accident were a blur of doctors and medication. Months of rehabilitation turned into years. After the injuries healed, he underwent intense physical rehabilitation for three years to restore his ability to stand with assistance.
   "I worked all of 1997 and 1998 getting back to where I could stand with a walker and graduated up to forearm crutches," said Hunt. He said he experienced his share of ups and downs during rehab, but never thought about giving up.
   "I definitely had good days and bad days, but I feel I have been very fortunate," he said. "When I was in rehab I saw a lot of little kids who had their necks broken and weren't able to move anything but their head."
   After his release from the hospital, Hunt faced the reality of his situation: a young man in his early 20's facing a long road to recovery.
   "The reality part of it hit when I got to come home," Hunt recalled. "Some people told me I wouldn't walk again; some people made me feel once I got out everything was going to be fine, but I really realized the deal once I got to the house. Everything wasn't the same as what it used to be."
   Physical therapy began with exercises to build his arms muscles, allowing him to walk with assistance from crutches. Hunt was also fitted with two knee, ankle and foot orthodic braces used to stabilize his legs.
   Hunt began weight training at his high school in Kentucky to further his therapy and ability to walk. After moving to Elizabethton, he joined Franklin Health and Fitness Center in late 1998. He ended up doing a 12-week "body for life" challenge, in which participants strive to build muscle and lose body fat. He repeated the challenge again in 2000.
   Hunt said his weight dropped to 118 pounds following months of recovery. Since late 1997, he's gained 62 pounds of muscle - a growth that has replaced looks of pity with respect and awe.
   Hunt explains the difference between normal strength training and bodybuilding consists of lifestyle.
   "Bodybuilding is eating a real strict diet, counting the calorie uptake, fat and proteins, training twice as long and twice as hard," he said.
   Hunt performs a variety of weightlifting exercises that concentrate on specific muscle groups in his upper body. He also spends three mornings swimming for one-half hour to build his cardiovascular endurance.
   The upcoming competition is part of a national bodybuilding/fitness event among male bodybuilders and a women's fitness contest. The wheelchair competition breaks into lightweight, middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight class divisions. The winners of each division compete in a final "pose down" to determine the national champion.
   Winning the competition means a physically-challenged bodybuilder can become a professional athlete and embark on a bodybuilding career that means endorsements and contracts. Hunt knows the competition he will face in Palm Beach will be, like any bodybuilding event, intense.
   "I'm not saying I'm going to Nationals and take everything," said Hunt, "but there's not another competitor that is going to show up that will have trained any harder than I have."
   A bodybuilder's training goes into high gear 10 to 12 weeks before a competition. That includes a strict diet to pick up muscle mass while keeping excess body fat to a minimum.
   Hunt sticks to a high-protein and fatty diet during the week and enters a physical state termed "ketosis". The process requires a person to eat less than 20 grams of carbohydrates a day. On the weekend, Hunt consumes simple sugars such as fruit and cereals and also eats more complex carbohydrates such as bread and pasta.
   Hunt said he avoids sodas but consumes fruit juices to store glycogen to get him through the rest of the week. Glycogen is a carbohydrate that is released in the muscles by its direct conversion into lactic acid.
   Hunt's presence at the Franklin Health and Fitness Center is hard to ignore. Fellow weightlifters talk and spot Hunt while he does repetitions of the heaviest weight possible. Others watch out of the corner of their eyes, awed as Hunt lifts iron a shade under what their cars weigh.
   After a particularly grueling set of lifts, Hunt flexes in front of the wall of mirrors that line one wall of the weight room. Flexing is not a sign of vanity, but, instead, functions as a part of training.
   "People who see it might think it's a showy thing, but you can't get a feel of where you are at unless you flex and pose," Hunt said.
   When not in the gym, Hunt works restoring and customizing vehicles. He says he doesn't spend much time clubbing with his friends on the weekends due to his commitment to what could become a full-time career.
   "There's nothing wrong with going out and having a good time, but the priority of this dictates otherwise," he said.
   The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities. It guarantees equal opportunity for those individuals in terms of public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.
   Hunt said professional opportunities for the disabled population have "improved, but it could be a lot better. It is hard for disabled people to get a job because of a preexisting injury, and a lot of insurance companies won't pick up on a preexisting injury," he said.
   However, Hunt added that regardless of anyone's disability or situation, success depends on attitude and work ethic. "It's mostly what you make out of it," he said. "You aren't going to get any free rides on this planet."
   Hunt has gotten a bigger lift from local sponsors who have assisted him in preparing for the competition. He said friends and a support network at Immanuel Baptist Church had also been a source of inspiration for him during his life.
   As to what his future may hold, Hunt said maintaining his health was a top priority. Success in bodybuilding would have to be measured in months and in terms of progress, he said. Success in life came in finding inner strength.
   "Success," said Hunt, "comes only to those few who have the desire to hold on when all others have let go."