K.C. Mitchell shouldn’t be able to do this. He knows this, that there has never been another lifter like him, and perhaps never will be again.
There’s no explanation for how the 240-lb. Mitchell can deadlift 606-lb., beating able-bodied competitors on one leg and with a right hand that won’t fully close. Or how, after eight months of trial and error, he was able to back squat past parallel and now has a 485-lb. lift.
Mitchell, a former Army staff sergeant, is not just an amputee missing his left leg. There are five screws, ruptured meniscus on both sides of his knee and ankle pins in his right leg. He has battled depression and addiction and had nearly 40 surgeries.
And now he’s on a mission: to become the strongest non-adaptive amputee lifter in the world.
“There was a lot of people, who didn’t think I could do it,” said Mitchell, who will compete in his first full powerlifting competition on January 7 looking to post a total that will qualify him for USA Powerlifting Nationals.
“There were times I didn’t think I could. But there was a lot of people who want to see it happen. [Powerlifting legend] Ed [Coan] thinks I’m the most legendary thing walking around now. He said, ‘What you are doing is impossible and you are going to be the first to do it. You’re setting history.’ I never thought about it like that. For me, it’s very hard to quit something. I wanted to find a way.”
It was his last nighttime patrol.
Mitchell, on his second tour, was leaving Afghanistan within the week. But his whole world changed on the fateful night of April 3, 2010 when the vehicle carrying the then-25-year-old struck an explosive device on a routine check.
He was the first one to wake up. The vehicle had flipped and medics had to cut stuff off of Mitchell just to drag him out. His right leg was flapping and he reached down for his thigh. There was blood everywhere. It was 2 a.m and he knew he was in really bad shape.
The next time Mitchell woke up he was in Germany. And then the main entrance at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C. where he spent a month in the intensive care unit (ICU). After countless surgeries, Mitchell elected to amputee his left leg in November 2010.
He was in and out hospital for the next three years, a vicious cycle in which he’d try to get to the gym only to face another surgery and months of inactivity. It messed with mentally.
Mitchell took up golf and even played on a U.S. wounded solider team. But the lifestyle of drinking beer and playing golf was a toxic environment for him, and he used narcotics to cope. After he was released from the military (his injuries too much for another tour) Mitchell moved home with his wife and daughter to Bakersfield, Calif. and spiraled deeper into depression.
He had no job, no income, was addicted to pills and would spend the entire day eating junk food and playing video games. The turning point came when his family went to Disneyland for his daughter’s two-year-old birthday. He couldn’t walk a block without stopping.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to change my life.’ It killed me to do that to my daughter,” Mitchell said. “My goal was to be a very athletic guy when I amputated my leg, I had lost track of that and let myself get to a point where I couldn’t adapt to my injuries.”
He flushed his pills down the toilet and joined the gym. It had taken him three years since the accident, but Mitchell was finally on the right track.
The carries came first. Mitchell would walk around with dumbbells in an effort to get him to stand straighter and improve his gait. First it was 50-lb. in each hand, then 80 and 100.
He had always liked lifting heavy, so he gradually starting working that in. When he saw raw powerlifting Brandon Allen compete in Vegas, Mitchell was hooked: he had found his new addiction.
“There are things that are physically impossible for me, but when it came to powerlifting, I felt like I could compete,” Mitchell said.
“Will I be the best that ever competes? Probably not. I don’t know how long my body will hold up training, but I set out a goal to compete against able-bodied athletes and beat them. Whether I’m going to be the best is not my point. My point is even as an amputee you can still compete, you just have to train a little harder.”
He did exactly that, taking eight months, countless rehab exercises and lots of expert help to find a way to squat to the correct depth. In January he competed in a “push-pull” competition of bench press and deadlift.
Gone are the days when Mitchell would wear long pants to cover up being an amputee. After a friend begged him to let him video him lifting in shorts, the post’s incredible reaction convinced Mitchell to start his own social media account: that1leg monster.
Presently more than 104,000 people follow Mitchell’s journey on Instagram. He has slowly, hesitantly opened up, sharing the full gauntlet of what he’s been through.
“How can I be motivational or inspirational if I’m hiding things?,” he said. “I hid the drug addiction for a long time because I was embarrassed by it. I didn’t know what was going to come if I put it out there [on social media]. I remember one day some person talking about depression, and I said, ‘I can truly relate’. The persona I had put out was just beast. Now it’s ‘he’s been through hell and look at him’.
“I’ve given access to people to see my struggles and triumphs every day and every month. it started to give people hope and it started to motivate people. What people don’t realize if they motivate me so much more to keep doing what I’m doing. It would be hard to keep doing this if I wasn’t changing peoples lives. If I wasn’t doing something positive.”
It was that positive reaction that got Mitchell into motivational speaking. He has done seminars, and meet and greets everywhere from jails to elementary schools, for free, with the hope of reaching others who are struggling.
“I’ve seen my friends get killed, I’ve seen things happen overseas that nobody should have to see, I’ve done things no one should have to do,” he said.
“I’ve been through depression, drug addiction and at the very bottom of the scum bucket. I feel like I can relate to anybody, not just in fitness, but life. What I’ve been through in my life, I’ve grown from all those hardships.”
Just a few weeks out from his first full powerlifting meet, Mitchell is ready to inspire again. He has wanted this since he first saw Allen compete on the platform years ago. The hype, the intensity. A real, full powerlifting meet.
“There is nothing more exciting than beating some able-bodied athletes,” he said. “When I watch guys I don’t say, ‘I could do that if I had two legs’. I’m like ‘I need to be doing that’. I don’t think I’m at a disadvantage. I just think I need to work harder to get there.”