Journey from back injury to professional bodybuilder

He haerenga mai i te whara tuarā ki te kaiwhakapakari tinana ngaio
13 January 2020
4 minute read

Ephraim Gudgeon leaped off a 35-metre waterfall, fracturing his spine. He says nothing about his life has changed, except becoming a professional bodybuilder.


"Go to your left, go to your left!"

"If he slips... holy sh*t."

"I don't know, eh, there's some big rocks over there."

"Jump forward!"

"Do a runner, Ephraim!"

And then, Ephraim jumped.

"Yeah... he's alright."

"Go brother!"

The jump

It was a warm, sunny, Waitangi Day in 2017. Ephraim Gudgeon was with his friends and whānau at a secluded lake and waterfall. They were having fun, jumping and diving into the lake. Ephraim and a friend decided to jump from the waterfall.

Contrary to what his friend had yelled after the jump - Ephraim was not alright.

"I took the jump. I tucked my knees in, but when I hit the water – because it was so high, it just felt like floor... like hitting the ground. All I could remember was not being able to feel my legs," says Ephraim.

Image of Ephraim Gudgeon

Remaining positive

Ephraim fractured his T12 vertebrae – just above his hips – when he hit the water. Paralysing him.

"Those first few days were hard. I think I cried every night for the first few months. There were a lot of tears.

"I remember thinking that everything has changed now and I'm not going to be able to do the things that I enjoyed doing.

"I've realised I can still do those things. I've just got to keep on working to achieve that goal and stay positive."

It took three months after Ephraim left the spinal unit to get back into work. He was a personal trainer before his accident and has been able to continue that.

"Getting back into full-time work helped me mentally as well as physically. I enjoy training people who use a wheelchair because I know where they're coming from and understand the things that they might be going through."

I believe I still would be doing the same thing I'm doing today had I not had my accident.
- Ephraim Gudgeon

The same goals

Ephraim and Arian were newly married at the time of the accident and just starting their life together. It's been three years since his accident. Life has changed in the inevitable way that life moves on – the couple moved from Hamilton to Gisborne and became co-managers of Anytime Fitness.

But for Ephraim he says nothing about his life has changed.

"I believe I still would be doing the same thing I'm doing today had I not had my accident. The only difference is I'm in a wheelchair doing it."

He has the same goals and aspirations he had before the accident, but says he just has to go about them a bit differently.

"Becoming independent is the ultimate goal. Driving is a big part of that. Before I got a hand-controlled car, I couldn't go anywhere without Ari picking me up and dropping me off.

"I don't take my independence for granted now. I just consider being independent a huge blessing."

Ephraim has a never-give-up attitude and believes if he works hard enough, he has the ability to achieve the goals he sets himself despite his situation.

"I'm really excited about what the future has to offer. I've always believed that you had to have something to do, something to work towards and someone to love."

Have you ever done anything dangerous around water?

Agree with your thinking

The professional bodybuilder

Ephraim has always been into bodybuilding. He's enjoyed watching bodybuilding and training but had never made the decision to compete until after his accident.

"I just love training in the gym. I've always been pretty into big muscles.

"It's something I did before my accident and something I can do now. It just makes me feel normal."

He started competing in wheelchair bodybuilding shows and decided to try the international scene.

At the 2019 Toronto Pro SuperShow – a bodybuilding competition which has a wheelchair division – he placed first. Taking away a gold medal and a pro card, he became New Zealand's first professional wheelchair bodybuilder. This certified him as a professional athlete and allows him to compete in competitions such as Mr Olympia.

Ephraim plans on competing at Mr Olympia and to win it one day. He wants to grow the sport of wheelchair bodybuilding in New Zealand and inspire other wheelchair users to take part.

Ephraim pictured at the Toronto Pro SuperShow holding a strongman pose with a gold medal hanging around his neck

In 2018, there were

194
claims for jumping from a bridge, cliff or rock, into water.

In 2018,

15-19
year-olds were the highest claiming age group.

From 2014 to 2018,

2x
increase in claims for jumping from height into water.

Think about the consequences

Ephraim's advice to others is to think twice before jumping into any kind of water and to think about the possible consequences.

"There were signs saying no trespassing and we just ignored them. It didn't really seem like a big deal to me, I thought I'd just jump, and it'd be fun," says Ephraim.

"When I was up on the waterfall, I didn't think about what could go wrong. I didn't think about the consequences. Or how it could affect, not just me but, everyone around me."

Ephraim doesn t regret jumping off the waterfall, but he says he wouldn't do it again. He's grateful for the many opportunities, the people he's met, and the work he's been able to do since his accident.

"I've learned to appreciate the simple things in life and just be cautious of the consequences or the decisions that you make, whether they be small or big."

For more information about how we help New Zealanders stay safe in and around water, visit our newsroom.

Splashing for fun? Or for your life?

Stay safe this summer

  • Watch out for rips, swim on a lifeguarded beach between the flags.
  • Look before you leap; check for hazards under the surface of the water.
  • Take particular care around rocks.
  • Be sensible with alcohol when around water.

Did you enjoy this story?