Matt Elson never imagined that he would be competing on the world stage as an elite bodybuilder, because he has a condition that impairs his strength and coordination.
The 34-year-old was diagnosed with hemiplegia – a form of cerebral palsy which physically impairs the left side of his body – as a result of complications at birth.
But over the past few years, Matt has qualified for elite disability competitions including BodyPower, PCA Hampshire and the PCA British Finals – even placing 4th in the PCA World Mixed Disability category in October last year.
‘It affects the whole left side of my body, essentially providing a smaller muscle “structure”,’ Matt tells Metro.co.uk.
‘I used the term “weakness” when I was younger, but this changed as I got older. The structure restricts mobility and strength. It’s presented numerous challenges physically growing up and into adulthood.
Matt says he was bullied at school, but his incredible support network of family and friends helped him to stay strong.
‘I owe a huge amount to my parents for nurturing a positive attitude within me in what would have been a challenging time for them,’ he explains.
‘When I was young, they were told I wouldn’t play sports, but they still wanted me to have every opportunity.
‘Today I still encounter challenges, but I just adapt; I drive an automatic car with modifications and found a way to change nappies when I became a dad!
‘I’ve had this all my life, so you find your way. I’m not fearful or embarrassed asking for help anymore.
‘I borrow the mantra of: “A person can achieve anything for which they have unlimited enthusiasm.”’
This condition has presented various physical challenges throughout Matt’s life, but, gradually Matt built his confidence.
He developed a successful career in marketing and in his late 20s he got married, started a family, and now has two children. Becoming a dad triggered a new motivation in Matt to keep fit and healthy.
What is Hemiplegia?
Hemiplegia (sometimes called hemiparesis) is a condition, caused by a brain injury, that results in a varying degree of weakness, stiffness (spasticity) and lack of control in one side of the body.
The definition comes from the Greek ‘hemi’ = half.
Hemiplegia is a relatively rare condition, affecting up to one child in 1,000. About 80% of cases are congenital, and 20% acquired. It’s a lifelong condition, but it doesn’t get worse.
Looking to push his physical and mental agility, Matt attended his local gym, Anytime Fitness Clifton. And working out quickly became an integral part of his life.
‘It has given me confidence, belief, strength – both physically and mentally,’ says Matt.
‘I’m able to train my right and left side, but at different paces, through adapting the equipment at the gym. The competition aspect instils discipline, while nutrition provides a healthy foundation for my life.
‘Hemiplegia will always be a part of me, but I am determined to adapt and find ways to navigate through hurdles and break down barriers.’
Matt loves the challenge of bodybuilding and sticking to a rigorous training programme. He has also been heavily inspired by other disabled athletes that he has watched competing.
‘The togetherness and friendly competitiveness amongst our class is brilliant and I want to help grow it further,’ says Matt. ‘That is what drives me to compete. I’ve done around 15 shows in three years and it gets bigger and better year after year.
This is Matt’s third year of competing and he has travelled all over the UK and competing international, particularly in the US, is a big personal ambition for him.
‘We had our World Championship last year, which was amazing and in May this year I placed 1st at the European Championships in Birmingham.
‘I also competed internationally in Ireland last month. My next competition is the British Finals in Hull.’
But getting to elite level hasn’t been easy for Matt. It has taken an extraordinary amount of hard work and patience.
‘It has taken years to find a way to train that works for my body and programme; I love to gain and learn as much as I can.
‘I use safety straps on my left side to support my motion, but one of the fun parts is testing (safely) how I can incorporate different methods.
‘What I love most is the notion that everyone is in the gym to improve something, so it’s an equal platform.’
Making training sessions part of his daily routine has developed discipline and a level of confidence that Matt never had before.
‘At the beginning of my membership, I didn’t step into the free-weight areas for six months due to a lack of confidence,’ he says.
‘However, my early personal training sessions developed this, and I gradually started building the knowledge and patience to try new sets.
‘Without their friendly and enthusiastic approach of the trainers and members at Anytime Fitness, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I have a lot to thank them for throughout my journey.’
Matt wants his progression to inspire others. He knows how influential seeing role models who reflect your own life experience can be.
‘I want to help, serve and promote disability fitness, through speaking, writing and work,’ says Matt.
‘I’ve been so inspired by friends’ journeys and if I can help others on stage or getting into fitness, that makes it all worth it.
‘I’m planning on competing with the PCA USA, hopefully in 2020. Disability sport really has shown me that the world is our oyster.’
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