PHOTO: Thomas and Abby Stephenson at a hospital immediately following the fatal crash in 2014.
BY ALEXANDER WILLIS
Thompson’s Station resident Thomas Stephenson, 25, is gearing up to bike the Natchez Trace Parkway for a solid 24 hours later this month, all to raise awareness of the launch of his nonprofit organization, TENNACITY.
TENNACITY’s mission is to facilitate access to physical therapy and strength training for trauma survivors who don’t have the financial resources to do so themselves.
While biking nonstop for a 24-hour period would be a substantial achievement for anyone, to Stephenson, it goes far beyond a mere physical feat.
In December of 2014, Stephenson was involved in a fatal wreck in Smyrna while traveling on SR 840, and was later told by doctors that he would never be able to do anything physically strenuous again.
“I was driving in the left lane on the interstate, had my cruise control set, listening to a SuperFreakonomics audiobook… and the next thing I remember is looking down the hood of my truck as it was vertical in the air,” Stephenson said. “The next 30 seconds was pretty blurry, but I kind of came to when the truck was laying on its passenger side door.”
Shortly after he regained consciousness, Stephenson said he heard a voice shouting, yelling for him to get out of his vehicle as it was quickly becoming engulfed in flames. With the truck still lying on its side, Stephenson removed his seat belt and fell to the ground, realizing that he could no longer walk.
“I don’t really remember how I got out, but the next thing I vividly remember is him carrying me in his arms away from the accident,” Stephenson said. “At that point I looked back and my truck was fully engulfed. It was completely gone.”
The driver in the vehicle that had collided with Stephenson’s, 38 year-old Phillip McGuff, was killed in the accident.
Later in the hospital, Stephenson had discovered he had suffered a shattered spinal column, snapped femur, broken collarbone, broken sternum, and had completely crushed his feet and ankles. Doctors told him that he would likely always walk with a limp, and that he would never be able to run, bike, swim, play sports, or do anything remotely physically demanding again.
“I wasn’t thinking about [that] I’m never going to be able to go to the rec center and play basketball again,” Stephenson said. “What you begin thinking about is, if I have kids, am I going to be able to run and play in the yard with them? Am I going to be able to carry my kids?”
At first, everything doctors had told Stephenson seemed to be accurate; walking was painful, standing was painful, even sitting was painful. He depended on a wheelchair for months, but Stephenson eventually managed to begin walking again.
While Stephenson had insurance at the time of the accident, his health coverage only covered a limited number of physical therapy sessions a month – far less than what he needed. Thankfully, Stephenson and his family were financially stable enough to pay for the additional therapy sessions out of pocket. Stephenson’s good fortune and financial stability would later play a huge role in the development of TENNACITY.
After two years of physical therapy, Stephenson decided it was time to kick it up a notch, and began walking every morning, gradually increasing his goals.
“The first day I walked, I walked to the end of our street and back, and I was in tears walking back to our house,” Stephenson said. “It was so painful, and it began to sink in that this is going to be really hard. But I kept getting up, and I kept walking, and I kept walking, and I kept walking. I eventually started to jog.”
Through months, then years of perseverance and continued physical therapy, Stephenson was eventually able to swim, bike, and even hit the basketball court. It wasn’t until late 2016 that Stephenson set an even more ambitious goal for himself, something he had wanted to accomplish since high school: complete an Ironman competition.
Known as Ironman 70.3 or a half Ironman, this long-distance triathlon sees thousands of participants every year, all undergoing a 1.2 mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a half-marathon – which all must be competed within eight and a half hours.
Through 11 months of training, consisting of 15 hours a week of running, swimming and bicycling, Stephenson was able to complete the half Ironman in six hours and 20 minutes.
“That whole process was really what changed my whole mindset,” Stephenson said. “For so long, I had been defined by my accident, that was all anyone ever asked me about. That’s when I really felt that I gained a new identity. Now, I’m this endurance athlete.”
From this point, Stephenson went on to continue to compete in athletic competitions, play sports, and generally live a life that he thought he might never have lived again. It was just a few months ago that Stephenson came to the realization that were his family not as financially stable as it was, his story could have been very different.
“Most insurance companies pay for about 15 physical therapy visits a year,” Stephenson said. “I realized I need more than this, so that’s when I started doing strength and athletic training. That’s what’s completely changed my life, and it’s because my family had the resources to pay for physical therapy and strength training out of pocket.”
Stephenson said his family has easily paid in excess of $10,000 out-of-pocket for physical therapy and strength training through the years.
“It’s what’s allowed me to live a normal life,” Stephenson said. “So we just recognized that a lot of people don’t have that ability, and when they hit that point when insurance stops paying, that’s where their story ends.”
It was from this revelation that Stephenson decided to launch a new venture: TENNACITY. With its mission of helping trauma survivors lead active and fulfilling lives, the nonprofit organization will partner with physical therapy clinics and specialized athletic and strength training facilities across the state.
In order to help launch this venture, Stephenson and his wife have planned a few things; first, they recently launched the TENNACITY website and social media pages. Second, a GoFundMe page has been set up to aid in the successful launch. Third, Stephenson has planned a nonstop, 24-hour bike ride along Natchez Trace for October 26. The bike ride will end the next day on October 27, where Stephenson will ride into Fieldstone Park on Hillsboro Road in Franklin for the official launch party, featuring food, drinks, and likely lots of sweat from Stephenson.
“I had, for some time, that mentality of ‘why me,’” Stephenson said. “At some point, I had to wake up and go, ‘my situation’s not any worse than anybody else’s, people have been through worse things than I have, and I have the ability to get past this.’ I’m not going to be defined by what happened to me, I’m going to be defined by what I do, and what I can do.”
For further donation, volunteer or general information on TENNACITY, visit the TENNACITY website by clicking here.