JOPLIN, Mo. —
Dakota Vincent, 23, is all too aware of what often happened to those like him who were born prematurely or with disabilities and wound up in a neonatal intensive care unit.
“After I was born, I spent almost a year in the NICU in a hospital in Kansas City, Kan.,” said Vincent, who has cerebral palsy. “My mom and dad said when I left there — and this is the sad part — that there were some parents who just left their kids there. They had disabilities, and maybe no hope.”
But Vincent wasn’t left behind. And incredibly, on Jan. 1, after a life of surgeries and ridicule and the inability to stand up straight, he officially will open his own business as a certified fitness trainer.
For the majority of his life, his parents, Greg and Christina Vincent, raised him in Diamond, where in his early education years he boarded a bus each morning for the Cerebral Palsy Center in Webb City.
There, Vincent was surrounded by other children like him, and he received the physical and speech therapy and support he needed.
Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term that refers to a group of disorders affecting a person’s ability to move because of damage to the developing brain either during pregnancy or shortly after birth.
It can affect body movement, muscle control, muscle coordination, muscle tone, reflex, posture and balance. Those with CP also may have visual, learning, hearing, speech and intellectual impairments.
Vincent said that as he grew older, though, and began attending public school, he quickly realized how cruel others could be.
“It sucked,” he said of his elementary and secondary education years.
“Even now, I go through Wal-Mart and people will just kind of stare. It’s rude.”
He underwent several surgeries as a baby, and several times doctors cast his legs for a few months at a time to stretch his hamstrings in an attempt to straighten them.
At the end of his third- or fourth-grade year, he was denied the chance to go on the end-of-the-year picnic, he recalled, because his condition “would have been too much trouble.”
A call to Jefferson City by his mother resolved the issue quickly, but Vincent said he still felt like the odd kid out for many of those years. He frequently traveled to the Shriners Hospital in St. Louis for checkups and to get fitted as he grew for the next size of plastic leg braces, which often were uncomfortable.
By the time he was a senior at Diamond High School, Vincent still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in his life.
“I had no idea,” he said. “It was just getting through the days. I just didn’t know.”
One thing he did know: He wanted to give back to the CP Center.
“I always remembered my experience as a child there, and I wanted to give back,” he said.
In February of 2008, he sold paper hearts for $1 and raised $5,000.
In 2010, Vincent underwent a nearly nine-hour surgery: Dr. Dan Hoernschemeyer at Children’s Hospital at the University of Missouri in Columbia performed femur extension osteotomies on both of his legs.
“I had intense rehabilitation after that for a year, and I had to learn how to walk all over again,” Vincent said. “ But I got to begin standing upright — or nearly so — for the first time in my life. It’s a pretty big deal for a guy.”
Vincent was determined to continue his progress.
“After my surgery rehabilitation, I thought, ‘Well, I want to keep up my progress.’ I knew if I didn’t, that over several years my legs might get worse,” he said. “So I started at Powerhouse as a member.”
Owner Jason Zurba was not only a mentor to him, he said, but ultimately would change the direction of his life with a career option that to anyone who didn’t know Vincent would seem an unlikely choice.
“I had seen videos of people with CP doing CrossFit workouts across the country, and I suggested it to him,” Zurba said. “I have a background in clinical work, so I spoke to his doctors, looked at his X-rays.
“I knew nothing could hold Dakota back. We have many amazing members, but I can’t think of anyone as positive and motivated as him. Like everything else in his life, he conquered it.”
In October 2012, Vincent drummed up $1,000 in support from area sponsors, began training for the five-mile Pumpkin Run to benefit the CP Center, and with his dad completed the race in 49 minutes.
This summer, doctors removed the metal plates in Vincent’s legs. Eight weeks ago, he completed his certification online as a fitness trainer through the International Sports Sciences Association. He will start accepting clients on Jan. 1 for his business, Rise Above Fitness, at Powerhouse Gym.
“I love people, I really want to help them, and I’m really into working out and exercising,” he said. “So I guess it is a perfect fit.”
He also inspires other members, Zurba said.
“I know they’re inspired because they’ve approached me,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Wow. I didn’t want to finish my workout, or I’m having a rough day, but Dakota inspired me to keep going.’”
Gary Stubblefield, of Carl Junction, who sought fitness advice from Vincent as he begins his own personal wellness program, was one.
“How can you whine to him and say it can’t be done?” Stubblefield said. “I need that encouragement, and it’s great coming from him.”
Vincent said he isn’t done setting goals.
“This time next year, Jan. 1, 2015, I want to have a full list of clients,” he said. “I want to be all booked up.”
DAKOTA VINCENT continues working out five mornings a week, and six weeks ago he began a CrossFit program at Powerhouse Gym. The short, fast-paced, high-intensity workout uses a combination of squatting, pull-ups, work with an iron kettle ball and other equipment.