During a seventh-grade trip to a water park, personal trainer Michael Conol was bullied by his classmates for his weight.
“I became very self-conscious about image after that, so my goal was to lose weight and get a six-pack for eighth-grade graduation,” Conol recalls.
His training paid off, and he lost the weight, but Conol says he didn’t get serious about bodybuilding until he turned 19. He entered his first competition in 2012, at 21.
“After that, I got hooked. Everything I did pretty much revolved around fitness and staying healthy,” he says.
Conol started his career in personal training at Bally’s, but when he took on two more jobs, he says, “My wife saw how burnt out I was from training and pushing myself and working three jobs and averaging three hours of sleep daily, so she told me to start pursuing what I enjoy most for a career while I’m still young,” Conol says, laughing. “It didn’t take a lot of convincing on my end.”
The couple moved to San Francisco and Conol took another fitness job and was promoted to fitness manager. The role required more desk work than Conol wanted, so after a year, he became an independent personal trainer.
But then a major accident halted his fitness and his business in its tracks—and almost cost him a limb.
On February 10, 2018, Conol was heading to work early on his motorcycle.
“I was crossing the San Mateo Bridge, and at 6:30 in the morning, there’s barely any cars,” he says. “I noticed a car was pulled over on the left-hand side with its hazard lights on, so I figured the car broke down or something. I didn’t think anything of it until I got close to the car and the driver pulled into my lane.”
Conol managed to swerve and avoid hitting the car, but his foot wasn’t so lucky. “The car’s front right bumper caught my foot—I was going about 65, and I thought I was for sure going to go down,” Conol recalls. “I was screaming in my helmet. I managed to get control of the bike, but I couldn’t downshift because of my foot, so I waited until the bike completely slowed to a stop.”
Just looking at his shoe, Conol knew it was bad. The car’s driver stopped and called 911 while Conol called his wife and unlaced his shoe. All of Conol’s toes were dislocated, and his foot was in pieces. Two weeks in the hospital and three surgeries later, Conol was shocked at how much pain medication the doctors prescribed. He chose to use CBD to manage his pain and to taper off of the pharmaceutical medication prescribed in half the time the doctors had allocated.
Recovery wasn’t easy for Conol, who went from being a very active person to lying in bed all day long. “I was pretty depressed,” he says. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was running out of things to do to keep myself busy. I’m a pretty happy guy, and when I was lying in bed, I felt like I wasn’t myself.”
After spending his 30th birthday confined to a bed, Conol decided he would not accept it as his reality. He started looking for anything that would keep him mentally fit and found himself reading a lot of books (mostly motorcycle books).
When he went in to see the doctor, Conol was told everything was healing faster than expected. The pins in his foot were taken out, and all the nerve pain was gone.
“After the pins were pulled out, I knew it was step one to healing and being able to walk again,” Conol says. “When my wife and I left the doctor’s office, I said, ‘Let’s go by 24 Hour Fitness and sign up.’”
Conol and his wife got gym memberships, and Conol bought himself a knee crutch so he could get to the gym and work out. The next day, he took an Uber to the gym and started training after 36 weeks off. The first order of business was relearning how to walk. Then a friend reached out and gave Conol even more motivation.
“One of my clients sent me an email and saw that I was well back into my recovery, and he said, ‘I’m going to the Tour de France to watch my friend race. I’ll fly you and your wife out to Paris, but you need to be able to walk,’” Conol says.
Conol ordered a boot and a cane, and he began to put more pressure on his foot. After two weeks, he ditched the cane and limped all over the gym, practicing walking with help from the TRX suspension training equipment.
“I was actually starting to feel happy again,” he says. “For the longest time, I felt like a piece of me was missing; working out gave me a sense of purpose again. I had a reason to wake up and get back up again.”
A glass half-full perspective
All in all, Conol considers himself pretty lucky—saying he’s no stranger to hard work.
“I still had my foot, so my glass was still half full. As long as I was able to rebuild, I was happy,” Conol says. “I enjoy putting in the work. This whole experience has taught me a lot about myself and what I’m truly made out of; it literally tested how resilient a person’s mind is. It’s easy to stay positive when things are going great, but staying positive when things are going downhill is a little bit scary.”
Conol says that the mental—not physical—aspect is the most difficult part of making a comeback from a setback. Self-talk plays the largest role in whether you’re successful or unsuccessful.
“You can pretty much talk yourself into anything,” he says. “In my journey, it was about keeping a good, positive mindset and reminding myself that after all this time, I’m still lucky.”
While he’s not yet back to 100 percent (he still has a slight limp and is tight on the right side of his body), Conol is still working out, doing physical and home therapy and practicing self-care. What motivates him, he says, is not leaving behind any “what ifs.”
“I’m gonna die one day,” Conol says, laughing, “and I’m interested in a lot of things, and whatever I’m interested in, I go all in just because I don’t want to go through life thinking what if.”
Photo credit: Courtesy of Michael Conol