Intrinsic Drive™

A Fearless Life with Zach Stinson

January 12, 2022 Phil Wharton - Wharton Health Season 2 Episode 10
Intrinsic Drive™
A Fearless Life with Zach Stinson
Show Notes Transcript

Stepping on a bomb was the last thing Sargent Zach Stinson remembered after insisting on leading his Marine Battalion while serving in Afghanistan. Six days later, Zach woke up at the Bethesda Navy Hospital - both legs were amputated above the knee, his right thumb, and parts of other fingers were also severed.   Zach stopped counting surgeries after the thirty-fifth.  He then came to realize his attitude and mindset were the only things in his control, the rest was in God’s hands. After two grueling years of rehabilitation, he returned home. 

An eighth-place finish in his first Marine Corps Marathon without serious training showed Zach’s tremendous talent. Fast forward to a birthday challenge where he won his first Ironman in Lake Placid in 2019. This Chambersburg Pennsylvania native began to devour Marathons, and Paratriathlons—leaving the competition in his wake.  Zach is the 2021 Paratriathlon National Champion; 2021 World Cup Triathlon Para Cup Champion contested in Alhandra, Portugal; and the 2021 Boston Marathon Handcycling Champion. It was an honor to host this fearless competitor on this episode of Intrinsic Drive™. 

We encourage those who would like to support Zach in his quest to represent team USA at the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris to visit his website. This inspirational athlete is grateful for the continued support of the Semper Fi & America’s Fund.

Intrinsic Drive™ is produced by Ellen Strickler and Phil Wharton. Special thanks to Andrew Hollingworth, our sound engineer and technical editor.  For more information on this and other episodes visit us at www.whartonhealth.com/intrinsicdrive. Follow us on socials (links below) including Instagram  @intrinsicdrivelive

Phil Wharton:

A lifetime of training, practice, study, hard work through discipline, some achieve excellence, mastery, fulfillment, self actualization. What can we learn from their beginnings, discoveries, motivations, and falls? How do they dust themselves off and resume their journey? During these interviews, stories and conversations, we reveal their intrinsic drive. Stepping on a bomb was the last thing Sergeant Zach Stinson remembered after insisting on leading his marine battalion while serving in Afghanistan. Six days later, Zack woke up at the VISTA Navy hospital both legs were amputated above the knee. His right thumb and parts of other fingers were also severed. Zach realized his attitude mindset were the only things in his control. The rest was in God's hands. After two grueling years of rehabilitation, he returned home, Zach stopped counting surgeries at 35. An eighth place finish in his first Marine Corps Marathon without serious training showed Zach's tremendous talent. Fast forward to a birthday challenge where he won his first Ironman in Lake Placid 2019. This Chambersburg Pennsylvania native began to devour marathons and paratriathlons, leaving the competition in his wake. Zach is the 2021 paratriathlon national champion 2021 World Cup triathlon Para Cup Champion, and the 2021 Boston Marathon hand cycling champion. It was an honor to host his fearless competitor on this episode of intrinsic drive. Zach, it's great to meet you today. And I just want to welcome you to intrinsic drive. Thanks so much for coming.

Zach Stinson:

Thank you for having me.

Phil Wharton:

Let's go right into it and go to your Genesis kind of the beginning of your journey here. Take us back to being there may be the moment where you first step down on that IED and and go from there if you if you wish.

Zach Stinson:

Okay. Yeah. So for for that incident. We were doing a battle damage assessment on this village after we got shot out from it. And I was leading my squad I was in charge at that time. I think it was 10 Guys, plus a corpsman. And yeah, we there's a wall that ran north to south along the village. And yeah, I jumped the wall took lead and stepped down with my left leg still remember it. And just boom, back in the air. And from there, I mean, I thought I was dead. 100% the dust is still kicking up. I I'm kind of alone in my thoughts for a little bit longer than what actually happened. But uh, yeah, I just figured it was it was kind of done. So I'm laying in the ground, I can't move. And I just made my peace with God and figured I mean, this is it and just kind of waited to die, honestly. And that just never happened.

Phil Wharton:

And that's when you you know. So now you're you're kind of coming back first, everything just kind of went white. You're sort of you know, maybe it was the shock as you thought that kicked in there. And then you're coming back and your teams working on you there and you're sort of okay, you're coming in and out of consciousness. And you can't see from their faces. Look, this is worse than they're letting on.

Zach Stinson:

But oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I had been I had been asking them the entire time, like, do I have my legs? Yeah. And just trying to get some info on what we were dealing with. Again, I thought I was dead. So I was I was just trying to get a thought of what is happening, just to know, but I was like, it's already game over. And I knew it was bad because they weren't giving me answers. Yeah, so I asked him if I had my legs and they just blow off my questions or they change the subject something like that. Um, but yeah, I mean, so I assume that's what shock was, is that everything like whited out Yeah. And I could just see like barely the outlines of my guys's like bodies, like their faces and stuff. And yeah, everything went really really white and then just shot back to color. And then from there, I didn't really have any issues. I mean, I got thirsty, really thirsty, but there was no like, in and out of consciousness or anything. I was conscious the whole time

Phil Wharton:

Even during the airlift when they airlifted you back to the base. You're fully conscious. And the last thing I remember reading the article, you remember hey, look, mask goes on they're, bringing me into the operating theater starting to work on me there and then you wake up. Was it a week later? You're in Bethesda now?

Zach Stinson:

Six days later. Conscious the entire time. Okay, all the way up into the OR, still asking everybody and anybody asking doctors, asking the guys on the Blackhawk like am I gonna die? And no one would give me an answer. No one would talk to me they put the mask on and then Yeah, I'm in la la land for a few days, and then wake up in Bethesda.

Phil Wharton:

Wow. Yeah. And then there starts a journey. Was this a two year process of, obviously, you know, you've stopped counting surgeries at 35 or 36. I mean, it's just, it's just incredible the depth that you had to go through the, the rigorous, just tedious rehab. And, of course, now you're questioning, you know, where were you at this time? You know, what was going on?

Zach Stinson:

Well, initially, I was pretty upset. I mean, I was just angry at everything. But, um, yeah. So, I mean, I wake up, and then they're, they, they have to tell me multiple times that I lost my legs. I mean, it's because the the medicines and the drugs and everything like I'm just in and out of reality, basically, it makes sense. It makes it honestly, it was kind of difficult to separate the two because some of the stuff was one of the side effects was hallucinations. So I was I had to separate and I was just not, not in the capacity to separate at that time. Um, but yeah, so I'm just trying to figure things out. And, yeah, angry, I guess. But I learned real quick, because I still remember I was in ICU. And it was the world's gonna keep spinning. And you can either go with it, or you can stay back, but it doesn't care. And it didn't make any sense to me, especially whenever I had the people that loves me the most. By my side, it didn't make any sense to be mean to them. Because that's, that's just not what it was about. So yeah, it was a it was a learning process. And I mean, I still consider myself learning to this day, but we're, we're, we're in a lot better place. Now.

Phil Wharton:

I love that what you said there, it's like, okay, there's things I can control. I can control my mindset, I can control those. I can't control what's in God's hands about my ultimate destiny. But I can control like, hey, nobody's gonna care if I'm super happy. Or if I'm just angry, angry. And so I'm going to make a choice. And you made a choice. That was a moment where you had a fellow, a soldier that was on the mat, jump jumps, he is a quadriplegic amputee jumps on the mat. Next, you say, hey, wait a minute. I'm not going to be stuck in this. Look at this guy teaching me right here today. I thought that was an amazing moment for you that I read in the story about you.

Zach Stinson:

Oh, yeah. Well, that's the thing is that everybody? I mean, people have a hard day, and they kind of lose perspective. And they just think the whole world is against them. And I've been there plenty of times as well. But when that was that, for that particular day, yeah, I was just having a bad day. And then to see somebody that's going through something a lot worse than me, and they weren't complaining at that time. It's like, okay, well, you can't complain about it. I mean, you're on a whole different level, comparatively, so it didn't make any sense.

Phil Wharton:

That's right. Now, take us take us Zach to your ascent. Now. When you decide I know you did a triathlon early. It wasn't really, it didn't really, you didn't really connect to it yet. You sort of did it. It wasn't really your path yet. When did you feel? Was it 2019? When you first decided, let's say, you know, on your, on your, for your birthday, you wanted to do a full Ironman was that when you felt like okay, that's when you feel like that's the ascent when you started to really get the bug and really get realized what was possible?

Unknown:

Well, so as athletically was it was because I had picked ups. I never really done cycling or anything with legs. Oh, come I picked up hand cycling at the hospital as a form of therapy. Okay, then. I did the Marine Corps Marathon back in 2012. I did really well. Okay, I don't think I finished eighth.

Phil Wharton:

Very good. First, not even training. This is amazing.

Zach Stinson:

Exactly. It's just it was just like, Okay, well, I did a marathon. Yeah. Um, and then I did really well. And I remember a lot of people were saying, Well, if you really start like putting some time into this, and just really applying yourself, you can do really well. And that kind of pushed me away because I didn't want to, I enjoyed handcycling. But I didn't want to make it something that I had to do, right. I wanted it to be something that I a hobby, and if I did well, then I did well, I'm just a competitive person regardless. So um, I didn't do any marathons until 2016. Okay. Okay, I jumped back in with Marine Corps, and then I did Boston in the spring of 17. I started doing a little bit more and a little bit more. And I was started training more and more. I was like, Hey, I'm pretty good at this and I can do better if I really apply myself. And then I started training with a guy around here around where I live, doing just cycling, but he he was doing triathlons. Okay. He had done I think it was Chattanooga, a Little Debbie Ironman and he was telling me about it. And I was like, well, that's freaking nuts. And I was like, that would be a Cool 30th birthday thing. So yeah, I still remember it was like it was actually around this time it was I want to say was December 26. of 2018. And yeah, I signed up for Ironman Lake Placid, I found out that that it was a handcycle legal race because certain races in Ironman that are handcycle I didn't have I still hadn't swim without legs. And I had never done the the running portion which is done in a racing wheelchair. Okay, so I hadn't done that. And technically, and I didn't know this at the time. But for triathlon, I didn't even have the right bike. Way with with triathlon handcycle athletes all have to be in a recumbent like lay down bike. And that's because it's equal throughout the field. If I go straight as a hand cyclist though, being a stronger athlete and having the ability, I would be classified as probably as an H5, I have never been classified, but it would probably be that in which is a kneeler more of an upright bike. So yeah, whenever I signed up, and then it was trying to figure out how to get all this equipment and how to afford all the equipment. I literally tell everybody, if I would have known how much I've been spending I probably never would have done triathlon to begin with.

Phil Wharton:

Yeah, so reading some of your blogs and your your writings. It's like look, it's a team with my wife and we're going in there and it's like it's a major logistical nightmare to some to trip even. That's a that's a competition in itself versus just get through checkpoint Charlie's and go through customs and all the things that you're doing. I mean it's a remarkable endevour.

Zach Stinson:

sure, I'm pretty sure they cringe when they see us heading up to the airport. Honestly, we've got a good system now. But yeah, it's I'm taking I have my racing wheelchair, which more than likely, usually will check at the gate. But I have a wheel case with all the wheels for my hand cycle. I have my hand cycle in a bag. And then I also if I if I separate it, then I have my racing stuff in a separate, separate bag. And then I have also our regular day clothes and stuff. So yeah, we don't travel light. Yeah.

Phil Wharton:

And so this is it feels like the discovery for you what you were learning through these experiences and events and new things coming to light. Who are some more of those mentors? You mentioned the coach in the triathlon that was running during the triathlon in Chattanooga. How about mentors, coaches and teachers at this time and what was revealed there?

Zach Stinson:

Ah, so we've learned alot mainly from ourselves. Okay, um, I've had, I've had a lot, uh, I don't know if I would say, I guess leadership would be a good way of putting it. I've had leadership with hand cycling, like other amputees or other athletes, it's, it's very tricky, and it gets frustrating at times. Because for even for hand cycling or even triathlon, like the people I'm one competing against, or that, well, I'm competing against them, but even if they're on my team, like other athletes, team, USA athletes, stuff like that, like everybody is wants to help each other because we all go through. It's a very small community. Yes. Yeah, it's not one community. But the thing is, like, you don't want to lose your spot either. Like, it's also you want to keep that competitive edge. But that and that's where I find I've had a little bit of a trick because not everybody wants to share what works for them. Because maybe that gives them the boost that they need, or they feel that it gives them a boost. Yeah, so it just kind of depends on who you run into. Um, but I've had a lot of help with Tom Davis. He's a top H4 athlete for team USA. He was just in Tokyo. He's helped me a lot with a lot of the hand cycling stuff and gracious talking with him when some of the races we've done. Achilles freedom team team Semper Fi like, yeah, those just other vets and other athletes, talking with them. And just learning. My coach now, Christine Palmquist. She's helped me a lot as far as understanding Para Triathlon and specifics when you get into these ITU races. So it's but I mean, I'm still learning Yeah, it never stops.

Unknown:

No, that makes sense. And I don't know if this is your experience, but in my experience in marathoning, and professional athletics is sometimes very, very, very top is more willing to share then some people that are coming up or sort of on the verge and on that precipice of okay, sort of more protective mode of this is my spot. And I've got to keep that. And, you know, so it feels like to me like with the gentleman that was in Tokyo. Tom Davis, you know, being sharing, but being at that very top that that made sense. And that's great that he was able to do that.

Zach Stinson:

Oh, yeah, People at the top, and they know that no one's going to touch them. They're not near as worried as the ones that are like, if you're five seconds behind them. That's right. I mean, they're like, Yeah, you're not using my shoelaces. That's right.

Phil Wharton:

That's right. And and let's, let's go for a moment to the fall or speed bumps. Take us to the lowest moment in your career in life overall. What was that? What did you feel that was?

Zach Stinson:

Ah, I mean, we've had issues with our marriage, I would say that was probably at whenever. I mean, I was very angry for a long time. And we've I mean, my wife didn't sign up for being a with an amputee kind of thing and having to sign life papers at 18. I mean, we should we were engaged whenever she was still a senior in high school, and I was a year into the Marine Corps. So I mean, we were really young, when everything happened, I was I just turned 21, she was 20. And we even had our first wedding anniversary. So we dealt with a lot of things together, going through the hospital, and then even afterwards, but there was times whenever I just wasn't in the right mindset. And I almost lost her that way. And then that would have put, and then we had my daughter's my first phone call, and Afghanistan was found out that she was pregnant with our oldest. And then we had our second through IVF a few years later, but like my kids remember all that and they remember me as being like angry. And wow, like that. So that would probably be like more of my lowest, especially since the kids still remembered. I mean, it hurts whenever because kids soak up everything. That's right, made everything you do as a parent. I mean, that's, I wish somebody would have told me that. Back whenever my kids were first born, I'm glad I know now because they're still young. But I mean, they're a sponge, they absorb everything, and they just watch everything. So I wish I could have been a better example whenever it was earlier in their lives. And whenever I was a little bit younger and a little bit less angry. But yeah, so from there, and then building up on that. And we've been able to establish a stronger foundation with God and work on our family unit as a whole. And yes, things have gotten very, very good.

Phil Wharton:

Yeah, cuz it seems like from your, from your posts, and looking into your life, and you've really got that strong foundation now coming through your reconnection with God and following Jesus's will and, and just turning it over. And I think that's just a really powerful, powerful path that you're on.

Zach Stinson:

Yeah, don't I mean, don't get it twisted. And that that's another thing I don't I actually probably have, I don't know if I've ever even told anybody this. But so um, I'll be really quick to say like when I got blown up, like made everything right with God. But then what I always know, I'm guilty of this is what I don't fail to mention is that as soon as we went back to the hospital, and we started life that way, that took a backseat again. I mean, it was It wasn't until it's human nature. Yeah, I think it was 2012 or 2013. We came back to Pennsylvania, and then we started seeking out a church and then we started getting more and more in depth. I mean, we're still growing as is now. But I mean, there's there's still two or three years at the hospital that again, we just kind of didn't even do anything with them. So but luckily we had people in our community that were praying for us and we had family that was praying for us and yeah, we've been able to stay pretty strong throughout.

Phil Wharton:

It's very apparent when I'm here taking in your story and and coming into the listeners. The pivot Zack. What what do you feel steered you back on course what turned you around during these lowest moments? What do you feel like there was one thing or a moment?

Zach Stinson:

Ahh.. Well, so as far as like for the lowest moments, it was not wanting to lose my family. Yeah, just getting my head back on straight and just realizing that. That was the constant. That's all my wife's been the constant. I've literally spent almost half my life with her. And that was something I wasn't willing to lose. So that would be from the lowest point up, but if we get back into athletics, it was it would be that I felt that I was never happy with anything that I was doing. Like I worked at a gun shop I had other little jobs and stuff. But I'd always had the ability to show up to races and do really well. And I don't remember necessarily praying that God would show me like where I needed to be or what I needed to be doing. But it always kept going back to athletics, it always kept going back to these races and doing really well in them to be like, Okay, well, maybe this is what the plan is. And, you know, a lot of people would look at my situation or getting blown up in Afghanistan and say, it's a tragedy. And there's, there's been so many lives lost from Afghanistan, or anything I'm not trying to, like, I don't know, make it seem like a very glamorous thing. But I don't necessarily look at my situation as a complete negative, because I get a lot more recognition, people see me more as a motivational, something absolutely, than what I would be if I was a normal, full bodied athlete. And so I take it as like, that's, that's my opportunity. And then that's my platform to go off of. And like I said, I'm just I just happen to be really good at it. I don't have any other excuse for it.

Phil Wharton:

No, that's, yeah, that's exactly right. And into the rollback Zack, if you had the opportunity, and it sounds like you probably wouldn't do anything differently. But what would you redo or do differently if you had the opportunity?

Zach Stinson:

Uh, well, I would definitely go back into a treating my family a lot better. Earlier on in my life, or earlier on in the injury and stuff because there was. Like I said, the low point in our life was, was that. But yeah, I don't have a whole lot of regrets. I mean, some people would say, go back, and I wouldn't have joined the military or right, I would have, I don't know, looked, I guarantee if you sent me back to Afghanistan, I'd watch where I stepped a lot more. But I mean, everything happens for a reason I texted somebody else that earlier today, you know, I look to the future. With, I have a lot of big things happening. And I'm hoping that there's even going to be bigger things happening. And I'm just going to take them and try to make the best of each day I I've been saying tell them a couple people's, I literally wake up every morning and just try to be better than I was yesterday. And I feel like that's a very easy goal. And it's something I just shoot for every day.

Phil Wharton:

Now. That's those are great words to live by. And I think if we look at the anvil here, and you're you've been on the anvil so much, and what events or decisions that have forged you defining moments that have shaped your destiny?

Zach Stinson:

Well, I mean, obviously you have to, you have to say the bomb. Yeah. But uh, but yeah, just being at that low point. And just coming out of it. Yeah. And then being stronger on the other side. And now, it's just shooting for being the best father, the best husband, the best athlete. Any of that, like, my kids don't see me work a nine to five. So but they do see me they see all the time that I put in for training. And then whenever we go to these races, if they come, which we did take them to a pretty good amount this year. That's great, then they can see me with the finishes and everything and they kind of understand okay, well, we we do all this work over here so we can get the result over here. Yeah, there's a lot that goes into the preparation, the back

Phil Wharton:

Yeah, of the house, the training the days and, and that's the stuff that makes the victories not just showing up. So that's those are great things for them to see at that age. And they can see exactly whatever you wish to do, whatever your passions are, whatever your life's purpose, it's going to take a lot of work to get there. And it's going to be a lot of trials and tribulations along the way. Your journeys Zach. What's most important to you now? You mentioned family, being a better father, being a better husband? What does the road ahead look like to you? What's next?

Zach Stinson:

We're, I mean, we're still shooting. I mean, the long term goal, I would say, it's not really even that long term is obviously what the same thing my website says is Paris 2024. Yep. I would say the 2022 goal right now is again, just trying to be really competitive in Para Triathlon. I'm also hoping to try my hand at a little bit more Para cycling events going forward, just because that's my strong suit in triathlon. So also, I want to also try and see I'll Tri cycling goes but yeah, so and father and husband I was telling somebody man is because they were saying about whether how to do business or their personal or or they're athletic, I said, you know, everybody gets 24 hours. And how you break down that 24 hours is where you want to see the results. So if you want if you really care about your business or whatever, and so you spent 16 hours with your business, guess what, you're probably going to have a really successful business. Yep. Like your personal life is probably not going to be the greatest. Athletically, you might not be the greatest. So for me, I see myself as a full time athlete, so I take a big chunk of my 24 hours, and I put it towards training. Yeah, training and, and getting my name out and doing all that other stuff. But yeah, I also take part a big part of that 24 hours. And when my kids come home from school, I try to be more with homework. And just family time and stuff like that. And, you know, in, in 10-15 years down the road, I'm hoping to see reap the rewards of all that. So we'll see what happens.

Phil Wharton:

Yeah, energy allocation. I think that's very smart. Right now, yes, you have a finite time, the athlete has a finite time, the Olympic cycles are four years, you got Paris coming up in three because of the COVID. So there's a switch, you know, so the, there's a lot of also time that people don't understand between those hard bouts like today, where you have hours and hours where you between the gym and between the road work, and you've got to rest and regenerate, then you got to be able to be present to your family. So it's a it's a beyond a full time job that you have right there. So I applaud you. And as we as we look through the slipstream of your life, any parting gems of advice you'd like to leave for us Zach?

Zach Stinson:

I don't even know what I would say, Man, I guess, you know, I'm just going to say what my wife always tells me whenever I come on to something, and I'm having struggle with it. And it's so simple, but it's, "Have you prayed on it". Yeah. And that's it. It's so frustrating, because I know that's always the you don't like that. She's she tells me she says it, and she knows what she's saying to me. Like she knows, like, I haven't. But and I find myself doing that. Like every time I come to a tougher decision or something where I need a little bit more guidance. It's like, well, I had the answer in front of me the whole time. And usually, whenever I do pray on it, then things become a lot clearer. So that's like, if you're struggling with something or you're looking for that answer, it doesn't hurt to talk to God about it and see what he says.

Phil Wharton:

Yeah, well, sage words of advice. And, Zach, I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy training day to speak with us today at intrinsic drive. We've just loved having you and love meeting you and I look forward to meeting you in person as we're not far from each other. So

Zach Stinson:

Most definitely, man. I've had a blast. Thank you Phil.

Unknown:

Thank you, sir. Thanks for being with us. We appreciate you opting in, subscribing and reviewing us for thumbing us up and following us on socials. Liking us. We like you. Drop us a note. Tell us what stories move you. For books, videos, resources and more information, visit us at W H A R T O N health.com forward slash shop Wharton health. And be sure to join us for the next episode of intrinsic drive.