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This gay fitness instructor teaches classes from his wheelchair: 'Disability is not inability'

Kris jokes lovingly: 'I've created a family of monsters'

This gay fitness instructor teaches classes from his wheelchair: 'Disability is not inability'
Gay fitness instructor Kris Saunders-Stowe. | Photo: CARA Centre Ireland

20 years ago, Kris Saunders-Stowe was your typical gym-loving gay man and never thought he would end up in a wheelchair.

Now 47 years old, he suffers from a degenerative condition in his knees causing constant chronic pain. But it was a slow process to get where he is today.

Kris grew up in an Evangelical church. In fact, the first person he came out to was somebody he was at church with.

I was part of a church youth group and I told my group leader,’ he told Gay Star News. ‘Her opinion was tactful but it wasn’t acceptable.’

She ended up keeping it confidential, but Kris couldn’t keep it in anymore.

One day when he was 18, his female friend came over to his house to hang out. His mother enforced a strict ‘no girls upstairs’ rule and he had to stay downstairs so his parents could supervise them.

Kris got so frustrated, he blurted out: ‘You don’t have to worry because I’m gay!’

Kris Saunders-Stowe

Kris Saunders-Stowe. | Photo: CARA Centre Ireland

His mother and church minister could not accept his sexuality. His minister even suggested Kris turned out gay because he saw a clairvoyant when he was 15.

So they both forced him into what he calls ‘faith healing.’

Kris explains: ‘It’s a laying of hands in prayer and it went on for a couple of months.’ He just pretended he was cured and they stopped the healing sessions.

It all came to a head years later in 1999 when they had an argument. After years of her trying to sway him to be straight, he was fed up with being disrespected.

He called his mom and after a heated exchange, ended the call with ‘If you can’t give me respect, then you have no place in my life.’

Kris didn’t see his mother until she passed away the next year.

I remember going to the funeral home and I walked straight past her,’ Kris said. ‘I didn’t even recognize her.’

Then the pain began

That same year in 2000, the discomfort in his knees started. He was referred to a physiotherapist, who gave him some basic exercises to do.

Then he had to have his kneecaps taped in place and told him he had underdeveloped muscles.

Kris told GSN: ‘I found this bizarre because I was a regular gym person and I’d go to the gym seven to eight times a week. I was very active and in very good shape actually.’

The pain persisted for many years later, then doctors told him he had arthritis.

He explained: ‘The doctors said there was damage to all the heads in the bones of all the joints and all the kneecaps were damaged.’

In 2008, he was in ‘constant, constant pain’ and absolutely nothing was working to relieve it.

His legs would constantly give out on him and he also had numerous growths on his joints.

Doctors gave him crutches but it was affecting his mobility.

‘I got in the chair and I was free’

Then, one day in 2012, his partner Dean suggested he try a wheel chair.

Kris joked: ‘My response started with an F and ended in two Fs (fuck off).

‘Like a lot of people, you see a wheelchair as a very negative thing. That is how a lot of people see it,’ he explained.

It wasn’t until friends of his wanted to go to Alton Towers – a theme park – that he really gave it much thought.

Dean and Kris

Dean and Kris. | Photo: supplied

Dean told Kris: ‘The only way you’re going to be able to do it is in a wheelchair.’

Kris reluctantly agreed.

As soon as he got in the chair, he felt a huge sense of relief: ‘It took all of the load off my legs and I was able to express myself again.

I got in the chair and I was free. Suddenly I could move at the same speed as everybody else, and I never looked back,’ he said.

Dean and Kris have been together for seven years now. In 2012, they had a civil partnership and then upgraded it to a marriage a few years later. 

Kris joked: ‘He had a second option to say no but he didn’t say no so that was quite good.’

Life changing vacation

In September 2012, Dean took Kris on vacation to the Hilton in Cardiff, Wales. But when they arrived, they saw a lot of other people in wheelchairs.

They found out it was the central base for the Paralympians training for the upcoming Paralympics. He watched all of the Paralympic games and became inspired to do something sports-wise with his life.

He started playing wheelchair basketball and then the career ideas started flowing.

Kris said: ‘So I did my gym course and I had a million ideas in my head.

Within eight months, I’d done six or seven qualifications and then I adapted everything I’d been taught on the courses to disability.

‘It was all by accident. If Dean hadn’t taken me out that day, none of this would’ve come about,’ he said.

Kris Saunders-Stowe leading Wheely Good Fitness class

Kris Saunders-Stowe teaching Wheely Good Fitness class. | Photo: supplied

He set up Wheely Good Fitness, a fitness provider for clients living with a disability.

He offers seated aerobics, mixed ability classes and spin classes. The latter uses rolling units and ‘it’s actually like you’re on a treadmill,’ he explained.

Kris said: ‘Most of the time, people think seated exercise is very gentle and low intensity, but this is actually high energy and high intensity.’

He continued: ‘Everything I’m doing is for everybody. I find a level where everybody can do something and then create those adaptations so everybody feels part of the group.’

‘I’ve created a family of monsters’

Disabilities in the class range from amputees, arthritis and people who’ve had a stroke.

Kris said: ‘I’ve created a bit of a family actually, a family of monsters – in the most loving sense of the word.

‘They come in shy, head down and six months later, they’re a monster,’ he joked.

He says the best part of his job is seeing the quality of life of his clients improve. He said: ‘You see such difference.

The changes I see are worth far more than any pay check,’ he said.

In fact, he’s even gotten a few clients to compete in various marathons around the UK: ‘I’ve got one lady who competed in her first event two years ago at the age of 60.’

Superheroes Dash, sponsored by npower. | Photo: supplied

Kris also competed in the (26 mile/42km) London Marathon, two years running.

He ended up completing the race in 4 hours 54 minutes and 4 hours 24 minutes the second time.

‘I want to have a through-knee amputation’

As he’s still in constant pain every day, Kris wants to have voluntary through-knee amputations. This is where a surgeon would amputate his legs off through the knee, hopefully at the same time, he says.

Kris believes his legs are holding him back: ‘I can see how much more beneficial it would be for me not to have them.’

He explains: ‘It would allow me to do so much more.

‘I’m restricted by isolating my legs in the gym. I can’t do a skydive on my own because I can’t take the force in my legs. Whereas if I had a through-knee amputation, I could actually do those types of things,’ he said.

Kris Saunders-Stowe competing in the Cardiff half marathon

Kris Saunders-Stowe competing in a wheelchair in the Cardiff half marathon. | Photo: supplied

Kris is passionate about dispelling myths about disabled people. He even put himself forward for the next season of Britain’s Got Talent.

And what category did he apply under? Dance.

Kris explains: ‘‘When I was a kid, I used to do ballroom and latin dancing. I was called a poof through school because of it and I didn’t even know I was gay then.

‘But because I was being bullied, I actually stopped doing dance,’ he said.

Kris Saunders-Stowe teaching his Wheely Good Fitness class

Photo: supplied

He reveals most wheelchair dancing is ballroom, but he wants to show more contemporary and diverse styles. He’s even professionally filming three dance routines this month.

He said: ‘You can still dance in a wheelchair and express yourself.’

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