EAST PALESTINE-Physical disability has confined Chelsi Figley mostly to a wheelchair, but it has not limited her desire or diminished her potential.
Paralyzed since birth with spina bifida, Figley-a 2001 graduate of East Palestine high school-has developed into a world-class weightlifter. This Friday she will begin a path that she hopes will lead to the 2016 Paralympic games when she competes in the International Paralympic Committee Powerlifting World Championships in Dubai.
"I've always had the dream of being an Olympian," Figley said. "For a long time it was just a matter of me finding a sport I could compete in and comitting to it."
Spina bifida is a birth defect in which the spine fails to form properly. Figley-who lives in Columbiana-walked with the aid of braces until she was 12 before moving primarily to a wheelchair. She grew up in a sports-loving family without ever being able to compete herself.
"Sports were a big part of my life," Figley said. "I was always helping out with the high school teams."
Figley began weightlifting in 2008 as a means to stay fit, but it quickly evolved into much more than that. One of her trainers-noting how skilled she was at bench pressing-suggested she make a push for the Paralympic.
"I transfer myself in and out of the wheelchair," Figley said. "My upper body has always been strong because of the challanges getting around in a wheelchair. From the beginning I knew I was pretty good at the bench press and thought it was something I could go far with."
After going through three trainers in her first year-and-a-half of lifting, Figley finally hooked up with Brian Raneri who runs The Workout Center in Columbiana. Raneri was, in Figley's words, a life-saver. While other trainers judgments were tinged by her disability, Raneri saw right through it. Early on in her training, when Figley would encounter a bad day, Raneri was always right there to offer encouragement and remind her it wasn't the end of the world.
"Brian has meant everything to me," Figley said. "He has never been awkward about my being in a wheelchair. It was never an issue for him. I felt that other trainers were afraid to push me and afraid to introduce hard workouts. He trusts that I know what I can handle and what I can't."
Outside of competitions, what really drives Figley is the act of getting up each day to train and stay in shape. She estimates she spends 15 hours a week working out. Four days are devoted to weightlifting and three to cardio workouts.
"Training is my whole world," Figley said. "It's what I live for. I love pushing myself every day and setting new challenges."
Figley-whose lone event is the bench press-is making her second trip to the World Championships after a 10th place finish in 2010. She fell short of qualifying for the 2012 London Paralympics, but was very satisfied considering she had only been lifting for four years, was very satisfied.
"Many of my competitors had been training hard for 10-12 years," Figley said. "I was steadily getting better and felt I could make a good run at qualifying the next time around."
To qualify for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, Figley must be ranked sixth in her weight class (61 kg) at the beginning of that year while also being the highest ranked American. No two athletes from the same country are allowed to qualify. She has this weekend's competition, next year's Pan-Am games plus a few national competitions to improve her rank. She is currently 19th in the pecking order.
"The sixth ranked lift in 2012 was 224 pounds," Figley said. "My goal for this weekend in 190 pounds. If I can get that then I think making up 30 pounds in two years is very doable."
In addition to international events, Figley competes in three to four national competitions per year. They are not cheap. She has to pay for her plane tickets and hotel to Dubai this weekend, the total cost of which will be around $2,000. To help cover most of her travel costs, as well as the cost of gym memberships and her trainer, Figley sells sponsorship to local businesses. Those who can lift 200 pounds or more are elegible for funding from the International Paralympic Committee but Figley has yet to pass that barrier.
"The competion is worth the cost," Figley said. "I love getting to travel and meeting all kinds of different people."
While Dubai has developed into an exotic tourist locale, Figley thinks of it more as a business trip than vacation.
"We usually have time to explore a little bit, but my primary concern is lifting," Figley said. "That's what I'm there for."
In between travel and training, Figley has been pursuing a college education. She is currently taking distance learning courses online from Liberty University. She is currently closing in on her bachelors degree in counseling, with plans to go after a masters after that. Figley eventually wishes to counsel people with disabilities.
"Just because people are disabled, that should not define who they are," Figley said. "Once people get past what a person looks like, they will discover how much potential there is."