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Reclaiming a Dream

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Photo: Joy Quillinan

There are things in life that we often take for granted. Things like genetics, love, parents, traditions –– the list goes on. I was lucky enough to have a special awareness of some of these things growing up. I’m the second son of two immigrant parents who hustled working thirteen hour days, seven days a week. Their sacrifices provided me with a great education, as well as deep roots and values that are difficult to put down on paper, but critical in my life. Though as I got older, stronger, and a little more bold, I lost sight of one of the most basic things in life –– movement.

Movement played an important part in my life, but was not something I necessarily took the time to appreciate. In 2017, I was a national up-and-coming boxer with a bright future in the sport and Olympic dreams ahead of me. I felt unsinkable. But as the saying goes, “pride comes before the fall.” On March 13th that same year, I was shot several times and left for dead in front of the house I grew up in. Less than a week later, I woke up from a coma and learned I was paralyzed, diagnosed as paraplegic.

The heartache of losing everything I was working towards hardly scratched the surface of how physically damaged I was. The dramatic weight loss, scars, and pain was a reminder of all I had lost in an instant. Yet, as time went on I could feel the athlete inside of me wanting to push on.

  • fitness classes Vancouver
    Leo Sammarelli is an adaptive athlete and a boxing coach at Raincity Boxing Studio in Vancouver.
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Leo Sammarelli working out at Raincity Boxing Studio in Vancouver. Photo: Joy Quillinan

Months went by and results from therapy started to show. I began trying many different adaptive sports and eventually got into Para Nordic XC skiing and went on to win medals in the 2019 Canada Winter Games and US nationals in 2020. I regained the athlete’s discipline I thought I had lost the moment those bullets entered my body. I started gaining weight and getting stronger, and found myself pushing new limits. Healing my broken body was affecting my subconscious as well, and even though I’m in a chair now, I still dream of being able to dance in the ring.

My journey has shown me that movement is more than just a mechanical adjustment with the body. It’s about survival and the need to progress towards healing, freedom, and independence. It’s led me to create WWAB (Westcoast Wheelchair Adaptive Boxing), an organization where we host adaptive boxing classes for people wanting to improve their quality of life through movement and perseverance.

As a coach, I’ve gotten to relive my passion by teaching people and encouraging them to include different forms of movement suited to their own unique needs and abilities. And this year, amidst the madness of 2020, I’ve begun teaching boxing through online seminars and classes. This work has allowed me to help other people conquer their own demons through movement, while continuing to support the development of wheelchair boxing to be recognized as a sport.

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Leo Sammarelli is an adaptive athlete and a boxing coach at Raincity Boxing Studio in Vancouver. He brought the first wheelchair adaptive boxing council to British Columbia and now sits on the World Adaptive Boxing Council. He’s also working towards bringing the sport of Adaptive Boxing to the Paralympics and reclaiming his goal of representing Canada in the ring. As a coach, Leo shares his passion for boxing with all levels and abilities of students and is the Boxing BC director of Diversity and Inclusion. Click below to watch a preview of a recent interview we did with Leo.

“My journey has shown me that movement is more than just a mechanical adjustment with the body. It’s about survival and the need to progress towards healing, freedom, and independence.”