A young man pays homage to the daughter he never met, and in doing so, moved twenty thousand lives. So far.

The young man with the powerful body, conditioned to perfection and with a slight neurological wobble to his walk, had a medal around his neck. Fourth place in the Men’s Open Bodybuilding Competition. Cecil Phillips Classic, June 24th, 2021.

Zack has Cerebral Palsy. Unless you saw him walk, unless you heard him speak, if all you saw was his incredibly conditioned body, you would never know. That is the whole point for him. Zack wants to compete and win against everyday folks. Not be isolated into a “special category.”

Zack bringing it on. Photo Zack Childers

A young man pays homage to the daughter he never met, and in doing so, moved twenty thousand lives. So far.

The young man with the powerful body, conditioned to perfection and with a slight neurological wobble to his walk, had a medal around his neck. Fourth place in the Men’s Open Bodybuilding Competition. Cecil Phillips Classic, June 24th, 2021.

Zack has Cerebral Palsy. Unless you saw him walk, unless you heard him speak, if all you saw was his incredibly conditioned body, you would never know. That is the whole point for him. Zack wants to compete and win against everyday folks. Not be isolated into a “special category.”

This day was special, however.

Aaron Orton, owner of Genuine Fitness here in Eugene and promoter of the Classic, walked across the stage to hand Zack an Award of Recognition. Zack had put in endless hours getting to peak condition, came in fourth against what he called a “muscle mass” of equally-talented everyday guys not dealing with a severe disability, and along the way moved an awful lot of folks. The journey to this moment was extraordinary.

As the audience leapt to its feet, Zack pointed skyward.

“This one’s for you, Lillie Renae.”

Zack and his wife Hannah, whom he met online in 2012 and married eight months later, had lost their baby girl to a miscarriage in December of 2020. It almost did him in. For ten weeks he could barely function. After all the battles he’d already won, all the challenges he’d already mastered, he wanted badly to be a father. That ended in tragedy. Zack plunged into despair.

However, as Zack has done all his life with the sometimes-terrible obstacles life has put in his path, he returned to his training. He would do this for Lillie Renae, the baby he never met.

Zack Childers, who is part Cherokee, was born thirty-one years ago and immediately diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy (CP). Almost right away the doctor told his mother he would never walk. He was given up for adoption, and Carol Childers adopted him at age six. That brave mom, who had already been diagnosed with cancer, would set Zack on a new path.

Zack’s kindergarten years were spent wearing a helmet, braces and pushing a walker. It’s a prime invitation to be bullied. But he persevered. At one point his mother put him on the floor and and said, Zack, you will walk. He couldn’t yet, but he would.

“It was cruel, but at the same time it was the right thing to do,” Zack says in the careful, measured way he speaks to be better understood.

He was also frequently confined to a wheelchair or crutches. But that wasn’t for Zack. Zack want “up.” And not just up, up and forward, and into the world under his own speed.

“It was fucking awesome”

Zack doesn’t quite remember the day, only that he was fifteen. That was the day he threw away his leg braces for good.

He grins with the memory.

“It was fucking AWESOME,” he says, beaming. It must have been. For a kid armed with a helmet, a walker and braces, often in a wheelchair, and imprisoned by all the expectations- except for his mother and a cadre of exceptional people who expected otherwise of him- he might have pushed that walker for life.

Instead, Zack chose life. A life nobody might have expected. Except, perhaps, Zack’s adoptive mom.

Zack’s lat spread. Photo courtesy Zack Childers

This is Zack’s story.

“ A bitter pill to swallow”

If Zack and his mother, who died of cancer seven years after he was adopted (and adopted him knowing her diagnosis), had bought into the typical Cerebral Palsy story, there is no way he would ever have graduated out of braces. His adoptive mother was able to discover that he had septic arthritis in his hip. Had she not, he might have been confined to a wheelchair for life.

Zack possesses an intense competitive drive, one that allowed him to argue to play football with his next adoptive mom, Bonnie Teeman. She said no. However, when he then wanted to pursue wrestling, she at first again said no. Then Bonnie saw a documentary about a young man who had one leg who successfully wrestled, and even beat a top-ranked competitor for the championship. She changed her mind.

Zack threw himself into wrestling. When he began training he was 112 lbs. at 5'4." In truth, he won only one contest in his entire high school career. That match was against a previous assistant coach, which meant he finished his wrestling career with a win. Still, he learned a lot about conditioning and strength, and had put on 23 pounds. He was no longer skin and bones. He was on his way.

Zack had also begun taking Tae Kwon Do at ten years old. Balance, body awareness.

In 2003, he had taken up weightlifting to help him deal with the pain of his mother’s passing. He was thirteen, and working with a Big Brother. His first experience with weights was at a local YMCA. Zack was “seriously underweight,” he said. Weightlifting was the beginning of a process which would help him transform his body and his understanding of what he could do to master his condition.

“Disability is a bitter pill to swallow,” Zack says as one of his cats insists on getting his attention. While on one hand, his CP is a fundamental part of his story, and it’s also part of why he feels so strongly about competing with everyday folks. He wants to be judged against people without disabilities, which for him is a far greater test of how far he’s come along.

Bonnie oversaw what was to become the beginning of his true transformation. He lived with her for five years. The world of sports, where Zack would learn to shine, was about to open up his life.

Zack in the men’s open bodybuilding

Around 2012–2013, Zack signed up for Special Olympic swimming. That’s one of the first areas where Zack got a real taste for competition. He was given a chance to sign up for a variety of sports.

“ I can’t run worth a damn,” he grins. “ My feet are really flat. Swimming was the only sport on the Special Olympics list that interested me.”

He competed in both the breast stroke and back stroke at 135 lbs, and according to him, “No muscle. Swimming helped me get stronger.”

During the years he swam, he won gold a lot. However he learned a terrific lesson when he was at the Special Olympic Nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska, his first year, he won two bronzes and a silver. “There was a blind kid who kicked my butt,” he says, remembering. For Zack, having his butt kicked was a powerful lesson to never, ever underestimate your competition.

That motivated him even more. Ultimately, even though he won plenty of accolades, he wasn’t happy with the merit system that was in place in Special Olympics.

“If everyone gets a medal, then there’s no self-esteem,” he says. He wanted to compete on a level playing field, even if that playing field, for his CP, was anything but level.

To better understand Zack’s challenge, this article explains what happens to the muscles when someone has CP:

Spastic Cerebral Palsy | Cerebral Palsy Alliance
Spastic cerebral palsy is the most common type of cerebral palsy. The muscles of people with spastic cerebral palsy…

From the article:

  • Muscles appear stiff because the messages to the muscles are sent incorrectly through the injured part of the brain
  • When a muscle is affected by spasticity, the faster the limb is moved, the stiffer it seems

Body control for someone with CP is hugely challenging. Depending on the severity of the condition, it can be impossible. However, Zack was designed for impossible. He wanted a sport where he could excel. Not just against special needs people. Against anyone.

As a result of being introduced to weight training, Zack became fascinated with power lifting. The more he lifted, the stronger he got, the more he trained. He slowly gained weight and power.

Here is Zack early in his powerlifting career at twenty:

Photo courtesy Zack Childers

“I lifted weights to lose the pain after my mother died,” he says. It suited him. As he got stronger, so did his determination to see how far he could go with the sport. “My fitness trainer was a stand-in dad for me.”

By the time he was eighteen, Zack noticed that his body had begun to change.

“I was sick of losing,” he said. He had tried horse riding, a variety of sports. Somehow the discipline of powerlifting provided him with the focus that he needed, as well as increased body control.

When he was around 23, he hurt his back lifting 315 pounds. The resulting twisted pelvic injury kept him out for seven months. He was eager to get back to hard training. The injury gave him serious sciatica but that didn’t stop him.

At one point, in his weight class, he powerlifted 400 lbs. Zack ended up as one of the three strongest people in his gym. Then, after he had put on a total of fifty-three pounds from where he had started, he powerlifted 465, with a body weight of 165.

He was done. But not with weights. He refocused on bodybuilding, where he was far less likely to suffer a serious injury.

Danielle Cerullo for Unsplash

Bodybuilding, using trainers, and focusing on lifting free weights instead of machines forced Zack to build his coordination. As a person living on Social Security and food stamps, he’s had to rely on others for support, for their generosity to help him pay for the sometimes strikingly expensive supplies that any competitive bodybuilder needs.

While you and I might not think that $20 is very much for a posing lesson, Zack lives on Social Security and food stamps (SNAP). He has no car, and depends on either public transportation or friends to get around during the day while Hannah works. Managing all this, making it to the gym regularly and engendering both moral and financial support are a lot to ask, but he’s done it.

Zack invested his time in posing lessons and training, until such time as he knew enough that he could become his own coach. At times he was able to get the posing lessons for free, which allowed him to perfect the kinds of poses you see in these photos. All bodybuilders have to master the same moves, and know how to choreograph themselves on stage in front of a bank of judges.

After losing one personal training relationship to what was likely a misunderstanding, Aaron Orton picked up where that trainer left off. Orton has a particular commitment to folks who are interested in personal development, and who see bodybuilding as a way to build strength and confidence. Zack was a perfect mentee for him.

Then Zack found out that Hannah was pregnant in 2020. It was an enormous gift. He couldn’t wait to be a dad. But that wasn’t to be.

Zack and Hannah lost Lillie Renae in December 2020. It was just after Valentine’s Day of 2021 that Zack was able to concentrate on the weights again. “ I was so full of rage and hate after Lillie left us,” he remembers, going quiet for a moment.

Aaron delivered a beautiful needlepoint of purple flowers and green leaves, stitched with great care, with Lillie’s name on it, to the couple. Zack showed it to me proudly.

Zack at posing practice. Julia Hubbel

Aaron and other bodybuilders in the small but tight non-drug competitive scene around Eugene provided Zack with moral support. I first saw Zack putting his clothing into a locker at Genuine Fitness, where I had showed up to write stories about the posing sessions. I watched him walk, his powerful body glimmering with health, a slight neurological twitch in his gait. I thought nothing of it until we spoke. That’s when I first learned his story.

Like many I was inspired. So I was part of the audience which stood to cheer until we were hoarse when Zack came in fourth in the men’s open bodybuilding. Aaron had convinced him, Zack told me. Finally, finally, Zack Childers was taking on the competitors he had always wanted to compete against. He dedicated his first two shows to Lillie Renae.

Zack told me that he wants to be a motivational speaker. He wants other people, especially disabled people, to know what’s possible. As he likes to say,

“Just goddamned do it.”

He sounds like a Nike commercial. In fact, he should probably BE a Nike commercial.

He grins again. He’s had a rough road, and it isn’t over yet. He and Hannah will try again for another baby. And he’ll keep bodybuilding, and competing with the regular guys, until he finds a brand new sport that captures his imagination.

My first story about Zack ran in a local online news site. Within two days, Zack’s tale had gotten nearly twenty thousand views.

He’s already changing lives, and he’s just getting started.

Zack in beast mode. Photo Zack Childers