Relentless Recovery

Training for fitness competitions lets brain-injured B.C. athlete Shawn McCallum shine on centre stage

Shawn McCallum
Photo: Michele Mateus

With every pound of iron he pumps, the weight of a serious brain injury gets a little lighter for Shawn McCallum.

McCallum, 35, is an emerging bodybuilding competitor from Langley, B.C. And while many would break into a cold sweat at the prospect of stripping down for a fitness competition, that pressure pales compared to what McCallum has overcome to regain his life.

The R.E. Mountain Secondary School graduate suffered a near fatal skateboard accident when he was 18, falling back on his head while hitching a joyride behind a friend’s car. He fell into a coma that lasted six weeks and surgeons had to remove a piece of his brain to ease the pressure of a swelling cerebellum.

McCallum’s parents were told their son might not survive and that if by some miracle he did, he’d never walk, speak or eat on his own. When he did wake, McCallum couldn’t walk, talk or eat. He spent nine months between hospital and a rehab centre with a tracheal tube in his throat for the first five months and a feeding tube for the next 18 months.

But from his first rehab sessions 15 years ago to his current daily gym routine, McCallum has worked relentlessly to regain what he lost. Not a miracle really, just hard work. The brain injury impaired his balance, coordination and speech. He still suffers double vision, can’t feel temperature fluctuations on his left side and his gait is slightly off.

“I don’t know where I’d be without the gym,” he says. “I learned that I won’t give up – that I’m a fighter — just trying to be the best me. I’ve accepted what happened and just try to better myself every day.”

With guidance from physical therapists and kinesiologists, McCallum was finally able to pull himself up, then he regained movement in his legs. He had to relearn how to write and speak. His speech may be slow, but his brain isn’t and he gets frustrated when people speak louder or slower, thinking it will help him understand them better.

He is in the gym at least five times a week, improving his health and fitness, sculpting and shaping his body. His tightly cropped hairstyle reveals a roadmap of scars over his left ear and temple and at the back of his head. They are reminders of the striving steps he must take every day — like stepping on stage at the VanCity Showdown, a bodybuilding competition, last October in New Westminster.

“I wasn’t scared. I was excited and nervous,” he says about the Showdown where he placed eighth. “You have all these people looking at you and judging you – you’re supposed to smile, but I was so focused on what I had to do posing, I was too serious. But going on stage — that’s how you win.”

McCallum is grateful for his coach, Tamara Knight of T Zone Fitness, who has been training him for about four years. McCallum’s next competition will be in Surrey, B.C. in July.

“As a coach who has trained hundreds of athletes, Shawn was a dream come true. He never missed training or cardio. He practiced posing every single day,” says Knight. “Shawn has accepted what has happened and looks only at the positive.”

Posing, not poser. Lifting, not lagging. Smiling, not sour. That’s Shawn.

“I just enjoy working out so much that I want to keep going back in the gym – trying to prove everyone wrong. People think ‘he’s this or that’ – I don’t let anything stop me or get in my way.”

Lead image by Michele Mateus