Zach Kotecki – @ZachKoteckiFitness
My passion for fitness and impacting others ignited after a life threatening injury that should have left me paralyzed. On August 23, 2010 at 16 years old I suffered a broken neck (C3 fracture) after losing my footing while running sprints and hitting the gym wall headfirst at full speed. I heard 2 cracks when I made impact with the wall and when I opened my eyes I was lying on the gym floor unable to move. I was taken to the school office to lie down and take in what had just happened. I regained feeling rather quickly, only a few short seconds I was in doubt of my body’s capabilities. I was moved from the gym to the nurses office because of a volleyball practice happening soon. I walked on my own to the front of the school, feeling somewhat normal but still white, as my body was still in shock. Everyone thought that I had just suffered a stinger and would be fine. I was asked if I wanted to go home or go to the hospital and like every 16 year old kid would do, I opted to go home. Throughout this whole time I am just laying motionless, flat on my back being told not to move much. One person telling me to relax and close my eyes and sleep if I needed to and another demanding I stay awake, which frightened me more. What if I was to fall asleep? Would I not wake up? Being 16 and clueless, I had no idea so they just kept asking me questions about anything and everything making sure I stayed awake. My mom, who works at the school, was there at the time and pulled the car around to the front of the school for me so I didn’t have to walk as far. I leaned forward off the bed and set my feet on the ground, getting help to the upright position. I took one step and my legs couldn’t hold up my body. I couldn’t walk. Instantly the mood in that room changed quicker than I could process what was happening. I was held up and placed back down ever so carefully on the nurses bed. An ambulance was called and I was transported to the local hospital for X-rays. Now is when I started to wonder just what had happened, remembering the sounds I heard when I hit the wall and putting some pieces together. When I got the X-rays back I was lying on the stretcher, still strapped in tight and was ordered to not move anything but my hands and only if I needed to. The next words I heard changed my life forever. The doctor says that I have severely fractured my c3 vertebrae in my neck into several pieces. Immediately tears started rolling down my face. What does this mean? Am I going to die? Am I going to have surgery or be paralyzed? The only thing on my mind was that this would not stop me from stepping onto the baseball field one last time. As silly as that sounds, it’s true. I wasn’t ready to accept that I had played my last game. This is the game that I love and has helped mold me into the person I am today. After all, this had happened because I was working out and training after school for the season coming up. Baseball taught me how to interact with people, respect others and most of all, it built character. I was sent to the ICU at the University of Chicago, in downtown Chicago, where I would spend the next couple days having tests and treatments done. I wasn’t told this until a year or so after it had happened but it turns out that when my call was put it at the ICU no one really wanted me as their patient. They didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. They fully had expected a 16 year old kid paralyzed from the neck down to show up in roughy an hour because well thats what should’ve happened. Luckily one lady volunteered to take me and she was an absolute angel, I wish I could remember her name and thank her even more for the amazing attitude and care she provided 24/7 to make sure I was comfortable. I still get emotional today thinking back at just how lucky I was in the grand scheme of things. After the time in the ICU I was sent down to the main floor for 2 days before being released back home.
While at the hospital I was fitted for my neck brace, otherwise known as a Miami J, and I wasn’t allowed to move until they had physical therapists come help and show me how to walk all over again like I had forgotten. Even though I knew in my mind how to walk, they had to make sure I could relay it from my mind to my body. I spent 4 straight months in the neck brace, 24 hours a day, meaning I couldn’t shower so I had to adapt to baby wipes, which my amazing parents had to help me with. I also didn’t get much sleep for the first few weeks because it was beyond uncomfortable to sleep totally still and I was also scared of rolling over in my sleep so I had to have pillows encasing me in on my sides to stop me from rolling. I was pretty much a pity case which I did not like one bit. I wanted to do everything myself. I was very stubborn and wanted to feed myself or change myself but I couldn’t. I had one of my friends at school help carry my books for me from class to class. I hated the fact that I had to let this “incident” define my abilities. I couldn’t be in the halls at the same time as everyone else either so I was always the last one out and the last one there. This was kind of cool because I got to come to class late and for lunch I was always the first. The lunch lady who was also a family friend would hook me up with extra food from time to time so that was awesome. After those 4 months I was able to take the brace off while I was sleeping as long as I was on a big enough surface where I wouldn’t roll off and fall in the middle of the night, risking the healing process. Later, I was given a special brace to wear so I could ditch the baby wipes and shower again, something I was very happy about for obvious reasons.
After a long time of healing and getting my body back to as normal as it could be, I was able to recover to my fullest ability and fulfilled my goal of playing baseball again for one more year. This adversity in my life has shaped me into the person I am today. From this unfortunate event I’ve found my true passion in life, to impact lives and train others in all areas of fitness and sports. I’ve learned to not take daily abilities for granted such as walking, being able to exercise or playing a sport you love, because you never know when that can be taken from you especially at such a young age.
Fast forward 7 years to date and I’ve obtained my Bachelors Degree in Exercise Science from Concordia University and my national certified personal training certificate through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. I have coached both Varsity basketball and baseball at the high school I attended, Illinois Lutheran High School, and worked with several of the athletes there. I am now the head trainer at Iron Valley Barbell, a worldwide destination gym and play a huge part in Iron Valley Barbell. The reason I am telling my story like this is to show you that truly anything is possible. You can be at the lowest moment in your life, which for me was this injury, and turn it into one of the biggest blessings in life. For years I was asking myself why had this happened? Praying to God for an answer believing that everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t until years later I found out what my purpose in life was for, why this exact incident had happened to me. Not a day goes by that I’m not thankful for what I still can physically do, and I hope I can use this experience and adversity I’ve dealt with to help impact, motivate, train and get the most out of my others.