Devin Johnson took the same approach to his quadriplegia that he once had taken to steeling his body for bouts with other mixed-martial-arts fighters. He relentlessly pushed the bounds of physical endurance.
As he slowly regained limited use of his arms, hands and legs, other people with disabilities began asking him about his workout regimen. He decided to develop an app to connect them to personal trainers like the ones who helped him, and today he’s launching a crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo.com to get the backing to make the software a reality.
“When I thought of creating this company, it wasn’t for the money,” Johnson told me. “There are a lot of people that come to me with questions about how I work out. I decided it would be important to start a whole new market for fitness, a market that isn’t as prominent (now) as I would like it to be. It would target ... the disabled and the elderly. That’s a big change as opposed to your high-intensity cross trainers.”
Johnson suffered a traumatic spinal-cord injury during a training accident in May 2012, four months before he was set to participate in his first professional MMA fight. When he woke from a medically induced coma, doctors told him that he likely never would be able to use his limbs. Johnson, then 22, set out to prove them wrong.
“Everybody’s injury is different,” he said. “There are some people that can do a lot more than me, and there are some who can do a lot less. I attribute a lot of what I can do today – my stamina and things – to the immediate workout regimen, coming right out of rehab and continuing the nonstop intensity.”
Typically, the first year after a spinal-cord injury is when survivors show the most improvement in their condition. Johnson likely owes the function he’s regained to several factors, including his age, his genetic makeup, his fitness level, the treatment he received, where the injury occurred on his spinal cord and his workouts. What’s known for sure is that he never lost the passion for pushing himself.
Three months after his injury, Johnson began to do exercises outside of his prescribed physical therapy regimen.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “My first workout definitely was not standing up. I didn’t know that standing up would become an option. Back when it became an option, I think that was because of the fact that I continued to work out on the off time. I was doing little curls, trying to get my shoulders strong enough to help maintain my body posture so that it wasn’t my legs taking all the weight. I built my upper body so I could feel more confident.”
He said he envisions his app, which he calls FuseFit, as a way for the elderly and people with disabilities to find trainers certified to provide adaptive workouts as well as facilities and proper equipment. Many trainers, Johnson said, may be able to come to clients’ homes. He hopes that, by providing a marketplace, he can help people like himself find affordable pricing.
These devastating injuries, he said, often can leave survivors unemployed and struggling to make ends meet on government aid. Yet, he said, companies circle survivors and their families promising miraculous improvements if they pay outrageous rates for their training regimens.
Johnson is trying to raise at least $31,000 in his Indiegogo campaign. For their pledges, backers will receive workout vouchers. Johnson said the funding is crucial to create the technology for his enterprise, but he is just as eager to show potential investors that there is a market for the FuseFit app. He also wants to have a group of people willing to test out the app and offer feedback during the development phase.
He ultimately hopes to generate a revenue stream by taking a small portion of the training fees. To keep trainers and customers using the network rather than working out side deals, Johnson said, he’s writing contract language that allows him to drop a trainer whose customers show a pattern of disappearing.
Now a junior at Sacramento State, Johnson said his professors have been supportive as he tries to get his app off the ground. Despite the function he’s regained in his limbs, Johnson uses a motorized wheelchair and said he doesn’t know if he will ever be able to walk on his own again.
“I have a hard time going from sit to stand, and even when I do stand, I’m not really comfortable with moving from side to side laterally,” Johnson said. “I don’t feel very comfortable even with a walker. My legs give out. I’m not sure if it’s fatigue or what.”