How Adaptive Athlete Jesi Stracham Is Helping the Disabled Community Gain Independence Through Fitness
The creator of the Wheel With Me Fitness app opens up about her relationship with movement and the value of exercise for wheelchair users and other folks.
Though she currently carries the title of Tough Mudder athlete and adaptive CrossFit coach, Jesi Stracham hasn’t always fit the bill of what some might call a “gym rat.”
In fact, she didn’t open herself up to different fitness modalities until 2017, two years after she sustained a T4 spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident that left her paralyzed from the middle of the chest down. She was falling to the floor two to three times a week due to weak core muscles, but she didn’t have the strength to get herself back into her wheelchair, Stracham tells Shape.
“And so after those first two years of just struggling nonstop, I decided to do something about it.”
Growing a Relationship with Fitness
Even while recovering in the intensive care unit after her injury, Stracham knew she wasn’t going to let her disability define her future. During her stay, she joined support groups on Facebook in hopes of seeing a glimpse of what her life could look like as someone with complete paraplegia (meaning there's no feeling or motor function below the injured site). “People posted pictures of them doing adaptive sports and all this stuff,” she remembers. “Looking at that, I was like, ‘Alright, life is going to be okay. I’m going to figure this out.”
So roughly nine months after her accident, Stracham signed up for an adaptive adventure program in Charlotte, North Carolina, through which she tried kayaking, white water rafting, ziplining, and traversing through ropes courses. Her passion for fitness quickly snowballed. She connected with a local Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program to test out various adaptive sports, many of which she dominated.
She competed in national water skiing and national wheelchair motocross competitions in 2016, rock climbed in Colorado, road hand cycles both on- and off-road, and was even on the Paralympic development team for wheelchair curling for three years. Regardless of the activity, Stracham didn’t let fear get in the way. “I thought, ‘I'll just dive in and give it my best go. I mean, what's the worst that can go wrong? I fail and learn something.’”
In 2017, Stracham was also introduced to CrossFit through Charlotte-based Project Momentum Fitness, a sport that quickly stole her heart thanks to the independence she gained from it. “The day that I was able to lift my 50-pound suitcase in the car by myself, I was like, ‘Hell yeah, this is why I lift heavy weights,’” she says. Within five years, Stracham has built up her strength enough to bench press 110 pounds, compete in the 2022 CrossFit Semifinals, and smash 90 wall balls at this year’s WheelWOD games.
Creating the Wheel With Me Fitness App
As Stracham explored various sports and grew passionate about CrossFit, she created the Wheel With Me Fitness group on Facebook, an online gathering place for wheelchair users to connect over, well, fitness, she says. “But I never did anything with it — we just talked to each other every now and then,” she adds.
That changed in 2020, when Stracham visited the headquarters of 1st Phorm, a supplement company based in St. Louis. Through the brand’s Legionnaire Program, which helps fitness and nutrition professionals build their personal brand among other offerings, Stracham learned how to turn her Facebook group into a full-fledged business. And this past May, the Wheel With Me Fitness app, a virtual fitness platform designed for seated athletes, was born.
The goal: to help wheelchair users develop the mobility and strength they need to live independently and support fitness ambitions beyond improved daily function, says Stracham. Along with bodyweight, dumbbell, resistance band, and cardio workouts, the app includes video training sessions users can do right from bed, she adds. “We give them options and tools that remove every excuse they have not to be fit or make an effort towards that,” she adds.
Wheel With Me Fitness members also have access to two group calls a month, as well as a book club. “I think it's really important that we have that community outside of fitness,” says Stracham. “There's so much more to life than just working out and eating — we're still people too. And I think we have to be able to have a mixture of both.” Even folks who aren’t members of the app can join the Wheel With Me Fitness community; the Facebook support group is still up and running, and it’s free and open to anyone looking to connect with adaptive athletes.
"There’s so much more to fitness and nutrition than the aesthetic side of it. As a wheelchair user, it's a necessity. It's literally your independence.” — Jesi Stracham
How Fitness Can Improve Disabled Folks' Wellbeing
Since the launch of the Wheel With Me Fitness app, Stracham has seen firsthand just how impactful fitness can be for folks within the community. For example, Stracham’s roommate, who also uses a wheelchair and has helped film the app’s workouts, is now strong enough that she doesn’t need to use a slide board to transfer from her wheelchair to other surfaces. “She breaks her wheelchair down and gets it in my car,” notes Stracham. “She's gotten herself off the floor. She's more independent and free than she's ever been.”
The same can be said about Stracham herself. “When I first got injured, I couldn't put my hair up without leaning on something” to support her weak core, she adds. “And now I can braid my hair and not lose my balance. I can brush my teeth and not have to hold onto the counter. There’s so much more to fitness and nutrition than the aesthetic side of it. As a wheelchair user, [fitness is] a necessity. It's literally your independence.”
And those monumental rewards are exactly what’s driving Stracham to continue growing her business, which she currently runs on the side of her full-time job as an orthodontic assistant. She’s also studying to earn her personal training certification through the National Academy of Sports Medicine while working on her book, which details her wellness journey and hits shelves next year.
Her life is hectic as ever, but she’ll stop at nothing to fulfill her dreams of impacting others, she says. “Until you become disciplined and realize that nothing’s going to be handed to you — you need to work really hard — that’s when you can make whatever you want happen,” says Stracham. “No one is going to wave a magic wand and life’s going to give it to you. And I think fitness opened the door for me to realize that.”