When crisis reveals the best life has to offer

By Holly A. Whisler

Chris Schmulbach has been a competitor since he was a boy racing motocross. He liked it so much he turned pro and raced Supercross. After years of risk-taking and sustaining numerous broken bones, he decided to retire from racing and play it safe, especially since he was now a husband and father of two. He opened a CrossFit gym in 2013 and currently owns and operates Fitbodies HIIT Training, 3430 Constitution Dr., a high-intensity interval training program.

Schmulbach has always been dedicated to his workouts and sharing his passion of health and fitness with others; it became clear that this is his life’s work. He described opening the gym as a pivotal time in his life. “Running a gym is a grind, and you don’t earn much money, but I love it. It’s lead me to where I am today,” he said.

Unbeknownst to Schmulbach, he would soon have another life-changing moment. On Christmas morning 2014, Schmulbach was enjoying breakfast when he noticed the right side of his tongue and lip were numb. He admitted, “Like a typical guy, I thought maybe I had a tooth problem or sinus infection, and I let it go for a year, believe it or not.” Over the next several months, the side of his face became numb, and he began losing his hearing. It was when his workouts became difficult because he was struggling to breathe that he decided to get it checked out.

In late 2015, an MRI revealed a large, rare tumor called an acoustic neuroma that was wrapping itself around Schmulbach’s brainstem. Removal of the tumor was urgent and surgery was scheduled for February 2016.

The 11-and-a-half-hour surgery was life-changing. Schmulbach said, “Life is different now. There were lasting side effects following surgery, and there were blessings as well. I’m deaf in my right ear and have tinnitus. I eventually lost sight in my right eye. I’ve had to learn how to walk with no depth perception. I have no feeling on the right side of my head and right shoulder. My face is droopy on that side, especially when I’m tired.”

Recovery wasn’t easy, but Schmulbach is ambitious. After resting for two weeks, he needed a sense of normalcy and he went back to the gym. “I had lost 25 pounds and couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds, so I started with some easy exercises,” he said. He had competed in area CrossFit competitions in 2013 and was in training at the time the tumor was discovered. Schmulbach said he was not going to let the new normal keep him from competing again.

Schmulbach did compete again, and coaches aware of his health situation encouraged him to compete in CrossFit’s adaptive division where modifications are made for athletes with disabilities. Schmulbach admits this was not an easy decision, but after he witnessed these phenomenal athletes compete, he decided to pursue that route.

In 2020, he competed in as many adaptive neuromuscular divisions as he could. He said, “Now, it’s what I do.” He feels a responsibility in sharing his story. He said, “It shows that you can do anything you set your mind to. It doesn’t matter what holds you back, it can be achieved. My coach has one arm, and he’s a world champion three times over.”

When Schmulbach hits the wall and considers quitting, his wife and business partner, Kendra, is there to give him a boost. He said, “She’s behind me 100%. She was a competitive gymnast and understands the tenacity that’s needed to keep going. She’s a big reason why I keep doing what I’m doing.” He also has four kids and a grandchild who motivate him.

It’s in the times when Schmulbach needs to dig deep that he said he tells himself, ‘Nobody cares, work harder.’ He said, “It’s a slogan at the gym, and it’s on our T-shirts.” But Schmulbach said he begins each day with gratitude for all he has, including the ability to compete as an adaptive athlete.

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