By Jeff Keeling
His face a mask of effort, Dennis Clemons strains to complete one more pull up in East Tennessee State University’s U.S. Olympic Training Site weight facility. The Endeavor Games at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond are barely two months away, and a good performance in the bench press there could qualify Clemons for the Pan-American Games.
For Clemons – an exercise science major coached by power lifter and ETSU exercise science masters candidate Derek Wilcox – Oklahoma could be the first step in a road the Church Hill native hopes will take him to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
More than that, though, an immersion in sport and exercise science has provided a new outlook on life for Clemons, 32, who was born with spina bifida. The condition, which has left his right leg paralyzed from mid-thigh down and his left leg compromised, has necessitated several surgeries over the years.
It also qualifies Clemons for disability benefits. But after an earlier spell at university petered out for him, Clemons is motivated to scale new heights athletically, educationally, and eventually professionally.
“I was working out with Cody Haun (a local trainer), and somebody said, ‘you should go into exercise science,’” Clemons, who began lifting weights in high school, says of his decision to return to the classroom. “They said I’d be able to relate well to people who are dealing with difficult physical conditions.”
Clemons certainly has had plenty of those to deal with himself. In fact, a surgeon told Clemons last year he would probably need three surgeries to try and forestall what is almost certain to be an eventual need for a wheelchair. Clemons, who currently walks with the help of braces, asked the doctor how long he could expect to be walking without a chair, and without surgery, and was told 10 to 15 years. He opted to delay the surgery, which would have precluded him from athletic competition or much else aside from months of rehab, for that matter.
“I decided I want to do as much as I can in the next 10 to 15 years,” Clemons says.
So on this sunny spring weekday, Clemons is in the bowels of ETSU’s mini dome, being put through his paces by Wilcox, who holds a weight-division world record in the squat. After the pull ups and several sets of shoulder shrugs, Clemons reclines on the lifting bench, but his feet don’t come to rest evenly on the floor. Instead, Wilcox straps Clemons’ legs to the bench using a large leather belt, cinching it tight to stabilize him for the coming work.
Coach, lifter, bench and loaded barbell seem to harmonize as Clemons – who’s already done his bench work for the day – cranks out several reps for the photographer’s benefit.
“We have to improvise as far as how training goes,” Wilcox says. “We have to be very creative to get the proper training effects.”
It seems to be working so far.
Clemons, who will compete in the 80-kilogram (176-pound) weight class in Oklahoma, has brought his bench press from 93 kilos to 120 since he began working with Wilcox last year. They began collaborating at the urging of Chris Tabor, a doctoral student in the sport science program and assistant weightlifting coach.
“They really didn’t know what to do with me at the time,” Clemons recalls. Then they realized Wilcox and his background in power lifting, which differs from regular Olympic weightlifting, might be a good fit.
Clemons, who says he’d like to put his exercise science skills to work with football players after graduation, reckons he will need to continue improving between now and June if he is to qualify for the Pan Ams. He will need to bench about 135 kilos (297 pounds) to move to the next stage in his competitive journey. The Endeavor Games are June 11-14. Clemons and Wilcox’s trip is self-funded. To help, visit gofundme.com/clemonswilcoxtaber.