It took Steve Wampler 20,000 pull-ups to reach the top of El Capitan.
Over the course of six days in August 2010, Wampler used a self-designed pulley system to hoist himself up the 3,000-foot Yosemite rock formation, becoming the first person with cerebral palsy to complete the daunting climb.
“[By the end] I was so exhausted and dehydrated and I lost 10 pounds and I was happy it was over, but I really didn’t take it in until a couple days later,” said Wampler, who graduated from UC Davis in 1992 with a degree in environmental engineering.
Though it took a few days for Wampler to process his achievement, news of the climb quickly caught the attention of the likes of “Ellen DeGeneres”, “ABC World News with Diane Sawyer” and now, Sports Illustrated.
On Friday, Wampler was named one of three finalists in the Sports Illustrated and Gillette Sweat for Greatness contest, which recognizes the athletic accomplishments of ordinary Americans.
The winner will be determined based on a combination of judges’ evaluations and the results of an online vote. The grand prize? A trip to New York City for the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year awards event and $25,000.
“The outcome we weren’t expecting [from the climb] was the overwhelming support from kids and parents and around the world saying, ‘Now I can look at myself and my kids differently, and you showed us that anything is possible,'” Wampler said.
Wampler’s decision to climb El Capitan was born out of a desire to bring awareness to the Wampler Foundation, his nonprofit organization that provides wilderness recreation programs to children with physical and mental disabilities.
Wampler created the Coronado, Calif. based foundation in 2000 with the help of his wife, Elizabeth, after discovering that the Sierra Nevada summer camp he attended as a child, Camp Nejedly, had been closed.
The Lafayette native journeyed to the camp every year from ages 9 to 18. It was there that he learned just how much he was capable of.
“I knew I could do whatever I wanted. It’s how I got into UC Davis – I didn’t want anything to stop me,” Wampler said. “It taught me that I could do anything, and I learned what I couldn’t do and what I needed help with.”
Wampler reopened Camp Nejedly in 2002, which campers can attend free of charge and is staffed by volunteers. Activities on the agenda include hiking, arts and crafts, sleeping under the stars and learning to identify plants and animals. Wampler said he made the program more physically demanding than it was when he attended it, to better challenge campers with mental disabilities.
“It’s an hour and a half by four wheel drive to get into camp. The kids are wide-eyed, nervous, wondering where they are. They have to learn what they’re capable of doing,” Wampler said. “There are a lot of campers now that are graduating out of the program and going to college, which is so rewarding for us.”
After deciding to tackle El Capitan, it took Wampler a year to design the pulley system he used to climb the mountain, in which he utilizes a system of ropes to pull himself up while seated in a lightweight chair. He hired a film crew to create a documentary of the event, called Wall: The Journey Up, which is currently making its way around the film festival circuit.
The climb also earned him a nomination for the 2011 ESPY Award for Male Athlete With a Disability.
Wampler Foundation executive assistant Tiffany Lees first met Wampler at the film’s premiere in September. Her initial reaction to Wampler’s climb was disbelief.
“[But] after the first time I met him, I said, ‘Of course he did it.’ There’s no way he couldn’t have done it. There’s nothing wrong with him,” Lees said. “It’s like he’s sitting in a wheelchair because he wants to, not because he has to. There’s nothing that can stop that guy.”
For Lees, Wampler and his foundation provide a source of support for families of children with disabilities. Without the proper communication, parents and kids will always be stuck at the starting line, said Lees, whose 14-month old son Dylan was recently diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
“Being at the camp and being in an environment with similar children is all of the motivation in the world to say, ‘There is nothing that can stop me,'” Lees said. “[They’ll say], ‘You went hiking? I went hiking at summer camp this summer.’ It’s confidence, self esteem and a learning experience.”
Foundation volunteer Melissa Murfey said Wampler is a source of inspiration not only for people with cerebral palsy, like her two-year-old son Laird, but for anyone who thinks they can’t do something.
“I don’t know how anyone wouldn’t be inspired by him. People get so down on what they don’t have, and if you look at him, he can do whatever he wants,” Murfey said. “See what he’s been able to do with only a bit of the functional movement the rest of us have.”
It’s messages like these that Wampler aims to impart during his many speaking engagements, and to the kids at his camp.
“I’m trying to get the message across that people that are disabled are just like everybody else. I want them to come away from what I talk about and think about how they can inspire themselves,” Wampler said. “I’m not saying they have to go climb El Capitan, but they have to a sense of adventure and self reliance. Life is too short to sit around and feel sorry for yourself.”
Vote for Stephen Wampler to win the Sports Illustrated and Gillette Sweat for Greatness contest at sportsillustrated.cnn.com/greatness/.
ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.