by Andrew Blair
(thanks to Shelley Largo for photos)
By now, Christian Largo is used to being adaptable.
To know Largo, a 19-year-old freshman at Randolph-Macon College, is to appreciate his beginnings. He was born with a spinal condition known as spina bifida. The effect arrested Largo of the independent mobility most take for granted, paralyzing him from the waist down and leaving him basically wheelchair-bound for his entire life. Born Dec. 22, 1998, his first year on planet Earth wasn’t like one that most newborns experience. It entailed enduring four surgeries during infancy.
Largo has never known a normal life. Then again, he is the possessor of uncommon courage and strength. Despite bearing a birth defect, Largo determined early in his journey that his constant companion wasn’t going to define him. He’s made good on that promise—and then some. As early as age 5, growing up in Glen Allen, Va., he dedicated himself to wheelchair sports, especially organized wheelchair basketball. He has engaged in athletics with the same energy, enthusiasm and ferocity that has marked every other part of his life. Largo has also played lacrosse, soccer, softball and tennis, and hasn’t stopped since. He recently took up rowing.
His sporting interests have received a major early assist from an organization called Sportable. The entity offers a gateway to playing fields and facilities, as well as providing equipment to special populations.
With his soul burning as powerfully as his muscles, at age 13, a wheelchair basketball teammate of Largo’s mentioned his experience with strength training at Samaritans Walk at Ashland Athletic Club. The gym and its trainers aid in expert conditioning for those with physical disabilities, specifically spinal cord injuries and neuromuscular disorders. Importantly, he found something big there: a comforting, rather than a confining, environment.
The owner of the second-highest bench press mark at his high school, Trinity Episcopal School, Largo did the only things he’s ever known after deciding to undertake the rigors of powerlifting: Push hard. Train without exceptions. Repeat.
Though it would be easy and convenient for Largo to wonder about life’s sometimes cruel and random roulette wheel, he is seemingly unbound in nearly every way, refusing to relegate himself to victim status. Asked if he thinks he got cheated by chance in some ways, Largo quickly responds.
“No, not at all,” he declares. “If I were given the opportunity to walk, I wouldn’t take it. I like whom I am now.”
Largo initially participated in weightlifting events on a recreational basis and performed so well that it became his passion. He decided to compete in formal powerlifting events throughout the United States over the past few years. At last June’s Endeavor Games, a national competition for people with disabilities held in Edmond, Okla., he bench pressed a personal competitive-best 286 pounds to qualify for the Team USA Para Powerlifting Team.
In June 2017, showing the strength and sturdiness of a sequoia at a tournament in Saginaw, Mich., called Thunder in the Valley, he qualified for the 2017 World Para Powerlifting Championships in Mexico City as if to say to any limits: take that. Then, in the late autumn, his seminal moment entailed taking home a silver medal in his debut at the World Championships after bench pressing 282 pounds. The gold medalist, Malaysia’s Bonnie Gustin, obliterated the world record.
Throughout the process, Largo wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of results, but was imbued with the feeling that he hadn’t come this far in his work and training to give anything less than his best.
“It felt really good. It was very surreal because I really didn’t know how I was going to do. It was a shot in the dark,” Largo says.
Largo’s humility abuts his accomplishments, a welcome relief from the stench that permeates our sometimes narcissistic, look-at-me world.
“I’d like to be an inspiration to others, but I don’t want to be the type an inspiration where it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s in a wheelchair. He’s so inspiring.’ I want to be inspiring because of who I actually am,” Largo says. “If you took away the wheelchair, I would be just as inspiring. That’s what I want to be to people. A lot of people say I’m inspiring, but I think the wheelchair has a lot to do with that.”
Largo and his family—mother and father, Shelley and Ed, and a brother, Nate—have been emboldened by a strong faith. His parents and older brother have always had high hopes for Christian. They’ve been firsthand witnesses to his triumphs and struggles. As an eighth-grader, he had his 13th surgery in the area of his back. This one was known spinal fusion, a procedure intended to stabilize his spine.
For his family, Christian’s showing in Mexico City, while not entirely unexpected, created a semblance of understandable awe—complemented by unrestrained love and indescribable pride.
“I just keep going back to this little infant that we took care of that was in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) for weeks when he was first born,” Shelley says. “I just keep thinking back to that little baby who was so tiny and so fragile—wounded, kind of. Now, he’s this big, strong Paralympian. It really is incredible to have been through all these stages, 13 surgeries and all the obstacles he’s had to overcome. To have that moment of succeeding. It was incredible, very emotional. And to be there for our country—it really was amazing. It was special.”
Christian’s next goal is to qualify for the Summer Paralympic Games in 2020 in Tokyo. Largo estimates that he’ll have to bench press around 400 pounds—in layman’s terms, the equivalent of two manhole covers—to be among only one of eight participants in his weight class to reach The Games. It’ll take plenty of preparation, but Largo isn’t intimidated. If his past performances are any predictor of future successes, don’t bet against him.
“You have to lift a lot—2020 is the foreseeable goal,” says Largo, who will compete in pre-qualifying events starting in 2018 in Cartagena, Colombia and St. Louis. “It’s still a while until then, but I think it is pretty likely.”
Largo is an expert in overcoming barriers. These days, Largo knows he has to rely on an exacting technique to excel at powerlifting. In short, he has to adjust and trust.
Among the many whom he’s impressed are the father-daughter combination of Dave and Caitlin Brown, who co-own Ashland Athletic Club. The two are former Olympic-style weightlifters and are Largo’s coaches. Talk about dedication: Largo is diligent about working out at the facility two to three days a week for two hours during each session.
“He definitely has a lot of desire for the sport. He’s got this excellent drive. He really wants to do well and he is incredibly strong,” Caitlin says. “I think that sets him apart from any other athlete I’ve ever worked with—primarily his strength and drive for wanting to succeed.”
Largo hasn’t forgotten the impact Sportable has had on his well-being since early childhood. Hunter Leemon, an R-MC grad who helped found Sportable and is its executive director, knows the Largo family well and has been a source of guidance, support and aid to Christian, especially when it’s come to athletics.
“I feel like sports participation gave him the confidence to know that he could overcome and accomplish things,” says Leemon, who is quick to point out the importance of a healthy upbringing by Christian’s parents and brother. “He is a young man that is capable of doing great things and it’s been inspirational to watch his path as he’s found powerlifting because he has a pretty high ceiling. As he’s come to realize that, it’s been awesome because he’s really thrown himself into it. Like 110 percent. There is no such thing as ‘no’ to that young man.”
And know this about Largo: He wants to be regarded as just another college student. He’s admittedly found a perfect fit at Randolph-Macon, where he’s excelling in the classroom and making new friends. Some December snowfall gave him a new perspective on the beauty of the campus. Taken as a whole, there are plenty of positives about the college that appeal to Largo.
“I like the small school environment. I wanted to feel comfortable and I like that sort of thing,” Largo says.
Sure, he’s struck by how random life seems at times and a few ‘why-me’ moments visit his consciousness every once in a while. That said, in addition to impressive physical feats, he’s imbued with enviable mental strength.
There hasn’t been a syllabus, PowerPoint presentation or a professor’s lesson yet that has taught him to deal with the unwanted attention and stares that inevitably meet him each day. Largo has learned about the precariousness of one’s position in life. By and large, he routinely has to face down a culture that seemingly waits for no one.
Is he aware that his situation will occasionally give people pause?
“I’m not going to lie: sometimes. A lot of times its little kids and you can’t blame them for that. I just smile and go about my day,” Largo says. “But sometimes its people who I think should know better. That’s not necessarily what bugs me. What bugs me is when people think that I can’t do something and they feel the need to help me when I know it’s OK for me to ask for help.”
Largo hesitates for a moment.
“Sometimes I have conspiracy theories that people don’t want to talk to me because I’m in a wheelchair, but that’s probably not true,” he says.
Largo is giving people ample reason to take notice of him for all the right reasons. After all, he has a perspective that most can’t even imagine.
That trait was on display during mid-afternoon campus traffic one day. While taking a break from his usual non-stop schedule to talk to someone near an elevator at Brock Commons, there was the unmistakable beat of tapping on the floor a few feet away from him. The visitor looked up: It was the sound of a mobility cane directing the path of a visually-impaired student.
Unlike the onlooker, Largo saw the person walking, but her cane didn’t strike him as particularly noteworthy or necessitate interrupting his conversation as much as it did to the visitor.
Largo’s sense of empowerment was made obvious and unmistakable by his presence and reaction that day—all by just being himself. He appreciates that life’s just too short and the path so winding and unpredictable to carve out time to be someone he’s not.
“I think I just accepted it a long time ago: This is my life. Just make the most of it,” Largo says. “I’m not the only person in this situation. It happens to a lot of people—just like a lot of people are on a basketball team. A lot of people are college professors. I’m just in another category. That’s just where I am. I just so happen to be a paralyzed weightlifter.”