Asked where his story starts, Matt Helm gazes at the floor. “That’s an interesting question,” he says.
The answer depends on the story. Is it the one about the record-setting Downingtown High School quarterback and second baseman? Or is it the one about the sports dynasty that includes his father, Downingtown Area School District’s athletic director for 44 years, and grandfather, a member of the Chester County Sports Hall of Fame? Does Helm’s story begin when he met his wife, Lindsay, the day their son was born, or when they opened Stand Strong Training Center in Downingtown?
“It begins with the accident,” he says.
In 2014, off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a wave flipped Helm’s kayak and shattered his T-12, the thoracic vertebrae near the middle of his back, leaving him paralyzed below his waist. Pain, surgery, more pain, five months of physical therapy at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital—Helm glosses over all of it with a shrug. “I had excellent doctors, nurses and therapists,” he says, thanking everyone, including the Uwchlan ambulance personnel who transported him back to Philadelphia. “I got the best care available. I’m lucky.”
That depends on how you define lucky. Helm was paralyzed at 29. He needs a chair lift to get around his house and a modified car to get around town. The list of things Helm can’t do is long, but it’s his legs that bother him most. “The muscles are gone,” he says, pulling his shorts lower to cover his quadriceps. “They’re puny.”
In reality, Helm’s legs don’t look all that different from those of an average 33-year-old man. But Helm doesn’t measure himself against average people—he never has. And Helm fully intends to walk.
A friend told him to watch the episode of Say Yes to the Dress featuring Katie Breland Hughes, a paralyzed Louisiana woman who walked down the aisle after months of working with Mike Barwis. “When the show ended, I looked at Lindsay, and we had the same thought,” Helm says. “I needed to train with Barwis.”
Barwis’ facilities are in Michigan, and the fees are pricey. But if working with Barwis could get Helm even a little closer to his goal, it was worth it—though it wouldn’t be easy. With support from family, friends and the Downingtown community, Lindsay organized the Hope for Helm charitable foundation to raise funds for the training. Then she moved herself, her husband, her infant son and her career to Michigan for eight months in 2015, and another eight months in 2016.
Was she concerned that the training would fail? “You don’t start something thinking about what you could lose,” she says. “You focus on what you can gain.”
You could argue that Helm’s story really begins the moment he stepped into Barwis’ gym to begin the intense physical training required for months of grueling work in a neurological reengineering program. Being coddled and treated like a patient was driving him bonkers, anyhow. He wanted to be challenged, inspired and coached. He wanted to be treated like an athlete.
Bit by bit, Helm relearned how to use his body. “This connects to this,” says Helm, pointing from his abdominal muscles to his leg.
It’s counterintuitive and complicated, but it’s completely doable, he maintains. “I never thought about using my muscles that way—because I never had to,” he says.
Under Barwis’ tutelage, Helm made great progress. With leg braces, he can now stand for periods of time—and he can teach. Helm was so inspired that he became a Barwis Methods Certified Applied Coach. This past June, the Helms opened Stand Strong Training Center in Downingtown, where he trains adaptive athletes with a variety of physical limitations—everything from bad backs to paralyzed limbs.
Most Stand Strong clients are able-bodied weekend warriors and high school and college athletes. “I can help everyone achieve their fitness goals or just feel better about their bodies,” says Helm.
That will be Helm’s real legacy—as a coach. And his story is just beginning.