Adam Gorlitsky was not always bound to a wheelchair, growing up he was just an average kid. He had friends, he was social and driven, and super active in his day-to-day life. He thought he had a normal college experience ahead of him, with plenty of time to work out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Little did he know that what lay ahead would change the course of his life forever.
At the age of 19, Adam was in a car accident, which left him paralyzed from the belly button down. Not long after, Adam wanted to go back to living his life, although Adam’s family were hesitant at first, wanting to ensure that he took his recovery slow and took care of himself. But sometimes when life throws you lemons, you find a way to make the best lemonade that anyone ever tasted.
Blink of an Eye
Growing up, Adam liked to play around and climb trees with his brothers, just like any other kid. It was definitely bittersweet leaving the family home to head off to college. In 2005 he was now a sophomore at the University of South Carolina. On December 30th, while he was moving into a new apartment in Columbia, Adam realized he had forgotten some boxes and last minute things at his parents.
Later that evening, he decided to drive back to his parents’ house where he had grown up. Just like it could happen to anyone who has ever driven tired, Adam fell asleep at the wheel of his father’s Chevy Tahoe for less than a second. Adam had not been at a party and had zero alcohol in his system. This unfortunate accident changed his life forever.
Waking up to a New Life
Adam woke up in the hospital to his new life. After many tests, the doctors told him that he was paralyzed from the waist down and that he would never be able to walk again. Adam had to adjust to his new reality. He did nine weeks of rehab, physical therapy and practice with his new wheelchair, and went back to living a relatively normal college life at USC.
Luckily, Adam was able to earn his degree only a year behind schedule. He managed to keep his social life alive and continued to go out with his friends to bars, restaurants, and parties on campus. With the help of his incredible resilience and spirit, Adam was not about to let his wheelchair get in the way. He did not let his disability keep him from achieving his dreams and living a normal life.
The Show Must Go On
While studying, Adam was involved in theatre production and was the producer of a small-scale theatre production titled If Your Return. Adam was very passionate about the play. He enjoyed getting involved in numerous extracurriculars, always trying different things and keeping busy.
Adam helped the director in producing and helped on set where he could. He also produced some short films including an emotional music video for a local music group. He even set out to create a feature film but the money that he made from working for his parent’s business was not enough to cover the budget. Adam’s life was full and he did not feel like he was missing out on much, although he greatly missed being physically active.
Same Same but Slightly Different
Adam celebrated his 21st birthday much like any other kid, surrounded by friends and family at home. The group included his friends, parents and both of Adam’s brothers Mikey and Barry, all of them who are pretty close in age. He was close with his family and his parents were really involved in his recovery and life after his accident. Their bond was strengthened by the hard time they had all endured together.
While he was blowing out his candles and knocking back a couple of drinks, we wonder if he was already starting to make great plans and wishes for the future. If only he already knew what was to come! Maybe it is exactly what he was wishing for at the exact moment.
The New Beginning… Again
In August 2015, the 10-year anniversary following the accident that left him paralyzed, Adam went to a different type of session at a spinal-cord-injury clinic in Charleston. This session would change Adam’s future as he knew it. Adam tried out a space-age apparatus—the ReWalk exoskeleton, designed to let paraplegics walk again.
Initially, he was only able to stand up in the ReWalk exoskeleton. Although he was only able to stand, this was huge as it was something he had not done in ten years. We can’t even imagine what this moment must have been like for him, his family and his doctors. Adam says this was the moment that would lend him both agency and self-esteem.
Thanks to the Israeli engineer Amit Goffer, the ReWalk was released in 2011 after years of development. The ReWalk is an ensemble that consists of two heavy black leg braces, each containing a whirring motor. Each motor angles the hip that it is attached to help move forward, bringing the leg along with it. The motor is activated by body weight being thrown forward onto the low crutches, which triggers a sensor helping the full motion.
Goffer got his B.Sc. in electrical and computer engineering from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, his M.Sc. from Tel-Aviv University, and his Ph.D. from Drexel University. Similar to Adam, an accident left Goffer confined to a wheelchair, so he created the ReWalk system, the first commercially available exoskeleton in the U.S.
Adjusting to the New Norm
It took time for Adam’s body to adjust, needing to stabilize the muscles in his core, which hadn’t been used for a decade. His muscles were so worn out from suddenly being used again, that they would ache deeply for days. This caused a pain that he had never experienced, even in the initial weeks following the accident.
Ten weeks passed before Adam was able to walk even a full city block. Still, in just doing this he has regained a part of his old self. “Suddenly,” he says, “I went from a seated four foot nine to a standing six foot one.” A seriously incredible moment! What a happy time for him and his family, now that they could start to see a potentially much brighter future, with more opportunities.
Stepping Into the Future
The ReWalk is slow, rarely much faster than one mile an hour. Soon after Adam took his first few steps he was ready to take on the world, and he already thought of a new career plan. Adam said, “Instead of trying to make a movie about someone else’s life,” he then decided, “I’ll turn my own life into a movie.”
The robotic exoskeleton ReWalk came at a cost of $80,000. When it came to the quality of life and opportunities that it offered Adam, this cost was well worth it. Adam made sure that he used it to its fullest ability and achieved as much as he could, setting his dreams as high as possible.
Setting the Bar High
As soon as Adam felt each of his strides improving, he decided that he was going to walk the Cooper River Bridge Run. The run is 6.2 miles starting at the corner of Simmons and Coleman Blvd in Mt. Pleasant and is the 3rd largest 10km run in America. Adam was setting his goals high, as 6.2 miles is challenging for most able individuals, he was proving that he was no average guy.
Adam’s father had the initial response that most parents would, “No you’re not, what are you kidding” but Adam didn’t take no for an answer. He knew what he was capable of and knew what he wanted to achieve. This exoskeleton had given him a new lease on life and the ability to dream big and dream actively.
The Moment of Success
In April 2016, Adam Gorlitsky completed his historic Cooper River Bridge Run. After achieving this huge goal, Adam said, “I’ll be holding on to this the rest of my life.” After so many years of being wheel chair bound, he never thought he would be able to manage something so challenging and extraordinary. It took Adam 7 hours to complete the race, finishing at a makeshift finish line.
The attention of his achievement quickly grew and with in no time, his dad was receiving calls from different media companies, including the Ellen Show in Los Angeles. Adam was also inundated with praise and support from his community, with everyone from his hometown feeling a sense of pride. Adam celebrated the achievement with his arm tattoo ’17,932’, the exact amount of steps it took him to complete the race.
Smashing It out at the Gym
Adam first heard about Orange Theory Fitness Company at the 2016 Cooper River Bridge race. He decided it would be worth trying out one of their fitness classes and in no time, he was hooked. He felt so comfortable and felt that they treated him like anyone else. He didn’t feel like he was different when he was there, he was just one of the guys.
Adam’s coach SJ at Orange Theory noted that “Adam doesn’t let his disability hold him back at all, it really motivates him, and motivates everyone else he’s around, it’s inspiring to see as a coach and its really fun to coach him”. The gym created a strong community for Adam and a social group beyond what he had expected.
ReEnabled and Pushing Boundaries
Adam describes himself as a ReEnabled athlete, and a storyteller. The term ReEnabled comes from what he identifies as not feeling ‘disabled’ when he is in the Exoskeleton, but also not feeling able-bodied day to day. Adam also believes that through his journey, he has become a storyteller, sharing his experience with those around him to break down stigmas of differently-abled people.
As Adam can’t feel his legs, he has to be hyper focused with every step he takes, especially during a race. Adam said that he has to be so concentrated that he is extremely quiet, much more quiet than when he was in his wheel chair. Adam said he is motivated by his competitive nature. He is not competitive with other people, but he is competitive with himself and that is what drives him to push himself and succeed.
I Got Legs
After completing his first race, Adam launched ‘I Got Legs’, a registered non-for-profit organization. I Got Legs is dedicated to improving the lives of the disabled community. Apart of the I Got Legs organization is ‘I Need Legs;’ which helps differently-abled people who want to create campaigns to raise money for a specific technology or piece of equipment.
I Got Legs provides tools and mentorship for these campaigns to raise funds, using social media networks and other strategies. Once a campaign is accepted by the organization, I Got Legs has a Quality Of Life Grant Fund, which helps partially sponsor these campaigns as well, helping them get off the ground.
What Comes Next?
In 2018, at age of 32, on March 22, Adam decided he wanted to walk 26.2 miles at the Los Angeles Marathon. If Adam had completed the race, he would have become the first American paraplegic to walk a complete full marathon. Adam travelled all over America, entering in different races of different distances. The 2019 Los Angeles Marathon marked his 35th race since the Cooper River Bridge Run.
Logistics were complicated in L.A. In December, Adam received a legal letter from the Los Angeles Marathon approving his participation but also making it clear that they were not going to stop traffic for 30-plus hours, just for him. In other words, Adam needed to travel the first 20 miles on the sidewalk, which was full of cracks in the pavement and patches of sand.
Adam entered the race with one ReWalk technician to help with his batters and few others for support. He was also joined by a filmmaker, Caitlin Weiler, who included Adam’s journey in a documentary on her late father, a quadriplegic. Adam’s crew carried some food and water on the back of his wheelchair for him and were there for physical and moral support.
Adam walked 17.2 miles in 26.5 hours in the Los Angeles Marathon. Can you even imagine walking for this amount of time? It seems crazy, or even impossible. Adam proves to us that we can all do the unimaginable, all types of people, of all abilities, attempting challenges of all kinds, in all places around the world.
Not Slowing Down
Adam has continued to find different races to compete in, as a challenge for him but also as an opportunity to continue to raise money. He also looked to raise money for those in need of robotic assistance like himself, as well as awareness. He organized fundraisers through his gym, and other places including a golf tournament, wrestling tournament and a block party to name a few.
Adam says “I really am taking this perceived weakness, my injury, my legs, not being able to use them, and turning it into a positive. And that’s an amazing feeling knowing that.” With every step he takes and dollar he raises, he knows he is achieving huge strides and making a positive impact in the world.
A Different Kind of Celebrity
Adam has become known in his town, and now the wider American population as he travels around for races, and raising awareness. He has been seen during many of his races, taking photos with participants and supporters who have come down for the events. He has become a hero of sorts, definitely an icon of strength and courage.
His robotic exoskeleton is also definitely an eye catcher with its revolutionary technology. People are really interested in the way it works and the physical ability it allows for paraplegics. The robotic equipment gives a new understanding to high tech, as we know it.
Adam compares what he does to art. He has questioned if exoskeleton walking should be an official sport but he believes he has set up measures that allow people to participate if they want to. He says the “Best way to look at it as an athletic performance art; stories and bodies are the art, the road race is the canvas and legs just happen to be the paintbrush. What are your legs?”
What a beautiful way of understanding and explaining this type of achievement. He understands that everyone is different, just like every artist and every art piece. Each differently-abled person will take strides in their own way, at their own pace, at the their own race. This race may not be a physical race, like a marathon, but everyone’s making their own art.
Have You Got Legs?
Adam has been documenting his journey through Instagram and the I Got Legs website. Adam shows videos of other people who through his work have been able to get access to the ReWalk. Adam has shown footage of a young girl named Sydney after 2 weeks of walking in her ReWalk. Sydney is absolutely killing it!
Adam’s journey has encouraged so many people in similar positions to him. Not only has he demonstrated to differently-abled people that anything really is possible, but he is also providing access to the equipment that helps makes things possible or easier.
Thinking Outside the Box
Adam sees his adversity as a super power as it makes him think outside the box. He now takes this mindset and applies it to everything he does in his life on a daily basis, especially work-wise. By taking this approach and mindset, it allows him to roll with the punches more and achieve things he hadn’t even set as a goal.
This led him to being invited to the SHRM conference. Society for Human Resource Management is a non-for-profit organisation that aims to improve better workplaces. It was the biggest audience that Adam would’ve addressed. The purpose of his talk was to discuss diversity and inclusion in the workplace and the positive effect it can have on a company.
Lionel Richie Is on Board
In June 2019 Adam went to Las Vegas for the SHRM conference. Adam was invited to be apart of the opening keynote address. Unfortunately, Adam’s flight was cancelled and he missed out on speaking during the opening address. Adam’s segment was going to reinforce the importance of thinking outside the box and how it should be used to improve productivity and culture.
Luckily, he was given the opportunity to make up for it when he attended Lionel Richie’s concert. Adam handed an I Got Legs t-shirt to Lionel Richie on stage and spoke into the microphone directly to the crowd, “Lionel Richie has legs, do you?” Richie then took back the microphone and praised Adam for the work he does, and his passion and humour in everything he does.
Spreading the Word
Through the amazing work he does, Adam has been invited to speak at different locations and organizations including schools and children’s camps. More and more organizations want to bridge the gap between people of different abilities. Adam speaks about his story and often does demonstrations of how his ReWalk works.
One organization that Adam has worked with is Bitty and Beau’s coffee, which help offer opportunities to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Adam likes to support all organizations that have these missions of inclusivity and diversity. These organizations are the reason he was so passionate about speaking at the SHRM conference.
Who Is Betty Carlton?
Adam has also arranged an annual race called the Betty Carlton Beer Mile. 2020 was the third annual race celebrating Adam completing the Charleston Marathon using his exoskeleton. Betty Carlton is the name that Adam gave his ReWalk robotic exoskeleton. Adam named it Betty after his late grandmother, and Carlton after Carlton Banks from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Participants are invited to run a total of four quarter-mile laps and drink a total of four beers. If participants do not want to run/walk 4 laps or drink 4 four beers, they can look into the 2-Person Relay Team, 4-Person Relay Team or Spectator options. Adam has made sure there is an option for everyone to get involved in some way!
One Million Steps Tour
We’ve all checked our daily step count on a Fitbit or even Apple health app but have you ever even thought of what one million steps would be like? Adam is currently on his One-Million Steps Tour. He has set the goal of walking one million steps in various different road races throughout the country using his ReWalk robotic exoskeleton.
Towards the end of 2019, Adam had already completed over 40 races throughout America. Adam’s achievements have always seemed slightly out of reach or dangerous to those around him. With time, he has proven that there is no such thing and hard work and determination can get him, and people like him, wherever they want to go. So far, Adam is up to 314,627 steps, and there’s nothing holding him back from achieving this huge goal.