Biogen-backed CrossFit athlete Darren Thomas is paralysed from the chest down after a shooting incident that took place at his parent’s home in October 2007 nearly ended his life.

However, his indomitable spirit and unconquerable mindset means he refuses to let his disability dampen his passion for competition.

In fact, he has become an inspiration to many after becoming the first male adaptive CrossFit athlete from South Africa to compete at an international competition after qualifying for the 2024 TYR Wodapalooza, which took place in Miami in January, where he placed third. 

“It is the biggest events where able-bodied and adaptive athletes compete in the same arena. All the elite athletes compete there, and it gave me the opportunity to compete against the best athletes in the world,” says Darren.

Darren says it is a massive achievement because he wasn’t sure he could compete at that level, against athletes who have more physical function and abilities, performing the same workouts with the same loads and requirements. It was also a long road to get to the competition.

READ MORE | Unbreakable: The Indomitable Spirit Of Ironman Alwyn Uys

A miraculous recovery

Darren was rushed to hospital after the shooting and placed in ICU as he suffered a collapsed lung and damage to his spine. He endured multiple medical procedures, including the partial removal of his damaged lung.

As Darren’s condition improved, he moved to a general ward, where his gruelling rehabilitation could begin.

I lost all core strength and balance. Simple things like sitting up became a mission and sometimes I’d faint from exhaustion.”

Darren spent three months in rehab rebuilding his strength and re-learning how to do most basic tasks from a wheelchair. Through his tenacity and grit, and support from his family and girlfriend Lauren (who is now his wife), he regained these capabilities.

READ MORE | Biogen Athlete Craig Sevell Finds Bodybuilding Success In Sustainable Dieting

Reigniting his competitive spirit

Settling into his new life was a massive transition for Darren, who before the incident lead an extremely active lifestyle.

I was a provincial rugby player, representing the Lions 7s team, and achieved national colours in kickboxing. With my sporting background, I have always been competitive and desperately wanted to find something to keep the fire alive.

While he initially played some wheelchair basketball, Darren felt he needed something more. In his search for a bigger physical challenge, he discovered that the CrossFit Games added an adaptive division in 2021.

The adaptive division caters to various categories including: Upper Extremity, Lower Extremity, Seated with Hip Function, Seated without Hip Function, Vision, Multi Extremity, Short Stature, and Intellectual.

While I had trained in the gym, I had never done any CrossFit. But I was intrigued and decided to enter the CrossFit Open.”

Darren started working with a CrossFit coach to prepare for the weekly workouts. “I wasn’t sure what to expect and eagerly waited for CrossFit HQ to release the workouts online. We then had a week to do the workout and submit the results.”

While Darren says that some of the exercises were crazy, he still managed to get them all done.

While the workouts themselves were extremely challenging, the ability to compare my results against those from other adaptive athletes from around the world delivered the competitive element I was looking for,” explains Darren.

READ MORE | Jack Of All Trades Phetogo Blends Brains, Brawn And Biogen Supplements

Doing more with less

Despite competing at a disadvantage to other adaptive athletes who had more upper body function and physical capabilities, Darren regularly placed in the top 20-30.

A T12 athlete has full core activation whereas I am a T2 athlete who is paralysed from the chest down, which means I cannot activate my chest or core muscles,” explains Darren.

Darren thoroughly enjoyed the Open experience and wanted to do more to get better, so he started training at CrossFit Juggernaut in Cape Town and progressed from there.

I like the fact that you can always work on some aspect of your performance, whether it is your technique or overall strength. I also enjoy the challenge of finding ways to get better and compete on the same level as other adaptive athletes in my category.”

Darren typically trains twice a day, hitting the Concept Rower or SkiErg for 30 minutes or so in the morning, with a full CrossFit session at 5pm.

I do extra session when I can from Monday to Friday, with a lighter session on Saturday. I try to have 1-2 rest days a week based on my recovery requirements, which are higher than the average athlete as I can only train my arms.”

READ MORE | Preventing Injuries During High-Intensity Training

Taking it to the next level

To take his training to the next level, Darren wanted to go beyond the Open and compete with the best athletes in the world.

While his initial attempt to qualify for the TYR Wodapalooza ended prematurely after he tore a tendon in his arm, Darren regrouped and structured his 2023 season to focus solely on his qualification attempt.

I saved myself by limiting how many other competitions I competed in during the year. This meant I made it to the six-week qualifier injury-free and ready to perform. I gave every workout my best to see where it got me.”

Darren powered through every workout, performing each with a certified CrossFit judge present to confirm his results. After submitting his results, Darren got the email confirming that he had met the standard to compete in the Rx Seated Men’s division.

READ MORE | Biogen First SA Brand To Launch Informed-Sport Certified Premium Pre-Workout For Athletes

Biggest sporting achievement

It’s the biggest accolade I have ever achieved as an athlete because of the challenges and adversity I faced in getting to that point. After I was shot, I thought my competitive sporting days were over but I worked 10 times harder than I ever did when playing provincial rugby and national kickboxing to get to where I am today.”

Darren credits his journey to the unwavering support he gets from his family, especially his wife Lauren, and his sponsors, which include Biogen.

I have a long history with the Biogen team. I initially became an ambassador for the brand’s inspiring #NoExcuses campaign to encourage healthy living by getting people active.”

Since sharing his inspirational story via the platform, Biogen has continued to support Darren as his supplement sponsor.

I hope my journey shows people that thy can achieve anything. I survived a shooting and multiple surgeries. It wasn’t easy, but hopefully my success shows that you don’t have to give up on life when bad things happen.”

Darren’s Biogen supplement stack