Successful doesn’t even begin to describe the saga of Denny Chipollini, a man who overcame life-threatening injury, disease, and obesity to inspire thousands across the country to reassess their own odds. This is his story-you won’t believe it!
In the fall of 1989, the then-36-year-old Chipollini, from Conshohocken, Penn., was driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike on a rainy day. Losing control of the car on the wet road, he slid violently into a guardrail. “It came right up through the driver-side wheel well and went through to the passenger-side door,” Chipollini says. “Then I saw my left lower leg on the dashboard-it had been completely severed below the knee. My right foot was on the passenger side, attached by just an artery.”
As he began to panic, Chipollini saw the blood start to rush out of his open wounds even faster. “Right then and there, I learned the power of visualization. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was in the hospital with doctors who were patching me up, and that everything was going to be all right.” Almost immediately, the blood loss slowed down. Chipollini willed himself into such a composed state that he was even able to assist the paramedics when they arrived-it was his idea to use the car’s turn-signal lever as part of a tourniquet.
Although it took three and a half months of hospitalization and 15 operations, doctors were able to save his right foot-but his left leg was lost. “They told me that, most likely, I would never walk again. And I said, ‘Wanna bet?'” In the spring of 1990, while still laid up in his hospital bed, Chipollini began lifting weights. Though he could do no work for his lower body and doctors said rehab would be pointless, he worked out what muscles he could to stay active, and he visualized walking again.
Upon his return home, and for the next three years thereafter, Chipollini continued his regimen as best he could, literally crawling to the third floor of his house to use his home gym while his wife worked to support the family. “I kept repeating this one phrase to myself: ‘No excuses, no limits.'” As his overall strength improved, he pushed himself in his wheelchair around his neighborhood, working up to eight miles a day and later making the trip on crutches. Incredibly, with the help of a prosthetic leg, Chipollini gradually regained his mobility. But he wanted to do more than just walk. He trained for a 5K, and in the fall of ’93, he entered one in his hometown. “I finished dead last!” Chipollini says with a laugh. “But an eight-year-old boy came up to me and said, ‘Mister, you’re my hero.'”
At home, however, his own son was in trouble. Diagnosed with neurofibromatosis-a disorder characterized by tumors and the onset of Tourette’s syndrome and autism-the boy needed special schooling and medication. “In 1999, I ran a half-marathon in Philadelphia for him. As the only amputee in the race, I drew attention, and that allowed me to talk about the disorder and the hospital I was supporting with the race.”
His inspiration to do charity work stuck, and by 2001, Chipollini started his own nonprofit organization: Generation Hope, a group that seeks to inspire children and their parents to overcome adversity through positive thinking. Chipollini soon became a wildly popular motivational speaker who was revered for his support of children’s causes. But despite his newfound acclaim, the worst wasn’t all behind him. That year, after participating in a blood drive, Chipollini received a letter from the Red Cross. “They found hepatitis B and C in my blood. It was from a transfusion I’d gotten after my car accident.”
Since his treatment required debilitating drug injections, Chipollini was out of action for a year. His body was so devastated that, despite finally being free of hepatitis in 2003, he slid into a terrible depression. “I lay around feeling sorry for myself, and I pigged out,” he says. As a result, Chipollini ballooned from 170 to 225 pounds.
“That’s when I said to myself, ‘You’re Mr. No Excuses, No Limits-you’ve got a lot of people who rely on you for inspiration.” Cutting out junk food and resuming his cardio and weight training, Chipollini slimmed down to 190 pounds and ran in the Philadelphia half-marathon in 2004. He’s competed in triathlons since and is now considering completing a marathon with a prosthetic leg tied behind his back!
“Ultimately, this isn’t a handicap, it’s a gift,” says Chipollini. “I wouldn’t have done it without having these problems. Adversity gets a bad rap. We need it.”