A life-changing accident on the footy field had Joel Coates believing he’d never walk again. But the Mildura man was determined to make the most of his second chance at life, and through sheer determination, months of gruelling rehabilitation and a “never-say-die” attitude, he rose up to not only walk again, but to own and operate the successful gym empire of his dreams. Joel spoke to Ashlee Falvo about what it takes to overcome adversity, how a positive mindset can make all the difference, and his rise from underdog to top of the pack. Pictures: Ben Gross
FROM humble beginnings in small-town Balranald, by no stretch of the imagination did Joel Coates have an easy upbringing.
He’s the first to admit that without the support of his Grandmother, he’d be telling a very different story today.
“My Mum had a lot of issues with alcohol and mental health when my brother and I were kids,” Joel recalls.
“I love her dearly, but if we’re being honest, Mum was in and out of rehab, in a pretty bad way. She wasn’t a functioning alcoholic at all.
“My Grandma stepped in and kind of filled that role – she took care of us, she made sure we never went without and I can honestly say, I don’t know where I’d be today without her.
“We had a great childhood because of her.”
Joel says despite the turmoil of his home life, he was a “typical country kid”, a class clown who developed a love for sport early on.
“Nan sent me to boarding school in Kilmore when I was 12 – I think it was her way of making sure I had the best opportunities later in life,” he says.
“I went from being a big fish in a little pond to the complete opposite – there was a lot of bullying and that sort of thing going on.
“No matter how bad things were at home, I wanted to go back so badly – I spent a lot of that first year on my bed crying.”
Joel cut his education short and returned to his hometown without finishing Year 12.
“I went from one of the best private schools in Melbourne back to Balranald, cutting firewood and playing footy,” Joel laughs.
“I didn’t care what I was doing, as long as I was back home, but it didn’t last long. I moved back to the city at 19 – and that’s where I really fell in with the wrong crowd. I was depressed, going out, partying all weekend, drinking a lot, not rocking up to work on Mondays – it wasn’t a great time. I wasn’t taking my life as seriously as I should have and I knew I had to nip that kind of behaviour in the bud.”
He turned back to his love of fitness, and while looking at him, you may think he went straight to lifting weights, the opposite is true – it was yoga that helped him centre and reset his ways.
“I was still playing football, doing yoga and working out at the gym, and I guess where that’s where my real passion for all things fitness kicked in,” he says.
“Things had finally settled down, and were just cruising along nicely.”
But the discovery of a pea-sized lump in his hip turned Joel’s now peaceful life upside down.
“When the doctor said they had found something “different” in the lump, I knew it was bad,” he says. “The doctor said it was a very rare, very aggressive tumour and that I had to be at Peter Mac the following week.
“It was a bit surreal to be honest; I was 21 years old. I was just thinking to myself, ‘OK, this is it, my life is over’,” but lucky for me, I was given the all-clear.
“But it was definitely the kick up the bum I needed to stop wasting my life and really do something with myself.”
After meeting his then-partner and moving to Tyntynder, life had well and truly settled down for Joel, who has undertaken an electrical apprenticeship.
“Things were going great, I was in love, playing footy again, working on a career I really enjoyed – it was all really settled and I was super content,” he says.
“It was the first time in my life there was no partying, none of that stuff at all.”
But an on-field tackle during a football match on June 30, 2007, when he was just 23 years old, changed the trajectory of Joel’s life forever.
“I had the ball in my hands and was bent down low – next thing I knew I had gone ‘smack’ into my teammates shoulder, and was on the ground,” he recalls.
“I got up and tried to run, and just kept hitting the floor again head first. I was carried off, vomiting, couldn’t see straight … I knew it wasn’t good.
“I couldn’t swallow, I couldn’t see, my facial control was non-existent. I felt like I was dying, I could just feel my body shutting down around me.
“It was absolutely terrifying.”
Doctors told Joel he had suffered a haemorrhage to his brain stem, which was likely to result in him never regaining the ability to walk.
“If you think of your brain like a computer system, it’s like someone poured water all over it, causing everything to just blow up,” he says.
“But because I couldn’t see myself, I was probably in a bit of denial about how bad the situation really was.
“When my mates came to Melbourne to come see me, especially the boys from footy, and they walked in crying, that’s when it hit me that I was really in trouble.
“But I didn’t cry about it or anything, I just knew that no matter what had gone on, I was going to do everything I could to walk out of that place.”
And after three months of grueling, intense rehab – he ran.
“I did a lot in those three months – I learned how to swallow again, I had to learn everything all over again. There were tough days, not just for me but for my family and the people who love me,’ he says.
“I was terrified they’d all leave me, to be honest, because it’s tough on them too.”
Joel and his then-partner Tammie moved to Swan Hill and the process of rebuilding his life started again. They went on to have two children together, Lilly, 6, and Harley, 3.
“I was nowhere near 100 per cent,” he says.
“I couldn’t keep going with my apprenticeship, because I couldn’t use pliers. I had a second chance, and I had to make the most of it. That’s when I started doing my personal training course via correspondence, and the rest, I suppose, is history.
“I ended up moving to Mildura and working in a couple of gyms in town, until the opportunity to get on board with Snap Fitness came up and completely changed my life.
“We opened the doors with 600 members – that doubled within the first 12 months. I finally had the chance to really help others, and that was a dream come true for me.
“Without a doubt, my passion for fitness has seen me through the absolute worst of days. This gym, to me, now, is everything, it’s my baby.
“It’s a symbol and a constant reminder to me to never give up.”