Competing in the sport has given him purpose!
Surviving a traumatic brain injury motivated a Houston man to become a bodybuilder, the Houston Chronicle reports.
Kelubia Mabatah graduated from the Kinkaid School in 2005, a college preparatory school located in Houston, Texas. There he was a tennis star and a force to be reckoned with, leaving such an impression that when the academy unveiled its new eight-court facility in 2018, it was named “Kel’s Hill.” Mabatah went on to attend Purdue University on a tennis and academic scholarship, eventually transferring and graduating from Texas Christian University. Unfortunately, an elbow injury derailed his dream of playing professional tennis. Mabatah went on to work with his father, Dr. Augustine Mabatah, a Houston ophthalmologist.
The new family job required Mabatah to travel between Houston and Nigeria, staying on his family’s compound when abroad. He continued the routine for a few years until that fateful day on December 3, 2014. Mabatah says he had been in Nigeria for a couple of weeks at that point and was closing down work and walking home, calling his mother Hyacinth back in Houston to check in like he normally did. Shortly after his arrival home, he heard a loud banging at his door. Initially, he thought it was the security guard who would check in from time to time, but he knew it was different, running to the back of the house and attempting to call for help.
Eventually, the intruders broke down the doors, holding Mabatah at gunpoint while asking for money. The last thing he remembers is closing his eyes.
“[I thought], I’ll never see my family again, I’ll never see my sister. I’ll never see my friends again,” Mabatah recalled.
The police eventually arrived and took him to the hospital. Mabatah suffered a fractured skull, numerous stab wounds to the stomach, missing teeth and was in a coma for six days. In Nigeria, he underwent emergency brain surgery, eventually returning to the U.S. where he had to receive three more brain surgeries. At just 28-years-old, Mabatah had to learn how to walk and speak all over again, beginning treatment at TIRR Memorial Hermann rehabilitation hospital and research center.
“At first, I didn’t know what a brain injury was. I thought that if I applied the same principles as playing tennis and worked hard, if I did everything the doctors said, in a few months, I’d be back to normal...Of course that didn’t happen,” Mabatah explained.
His trainer, Eugene Bramble, a fitness specialist at TIRR, helped coach Mabatah, laying out goals and accomplishing them one by one. Still, Bramble thought he could benefit from something more. That’s when he introduced him to bodybuilding.
“Kel needed something else to help with his quality of life. We all need to have a purpose. At that time, his only purpose was recovery,” said Bramble.
At first, Mabatah said he didn’t believe he could become a bodybuilder because of his disability, but Bramble informed him about the adaptive category in the sport designed for those who are differently abled. More importantly, the discipline it took to compete and being regularly active would help enhance his overall health.
“When he said that, I was sold,” said Mabatah.
Trainer Eugene Bramble and Kel Mabatah. Photo Courtesy of Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle
In 2019, at the age of 33, Mabatah began training and lifting weights again. He also began a strict eating regimen, enrolling the help of Bramble and other friends who were familiar with his story and the fitness and bodybuilding world.
“Throughout this process, it was important for me to work with people who knew my situation. They were all people I trusted,” said Mabatah.
Initially, Mabatah was training for his first bodybuilding competition in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic derailed his plans. During that time, he took up walking until he could return to the gym, eventually getting back in by September 2020. When the time finally came for competition, he felt prepared but after learning that he was the only competitor in the adaptive category, he decided to compete in the open category instead.
“I placed second, to my surprise. I think I should have gotten first,” said Mabatah.
Nonetheless, he had found his purpose again. Competing, winning an award in a sport, it was exactly what he’d been missing and Bramble was right there cheering him on.
“I was most proud of the fact that it looked like he was having the time of his life. He was having fun,” said Bramble.
Now he is focused on training again to return to competition again. His goal is to inspire others who may be in similar situations and encourage people to try bodybuilding, specifically those who would qualify for the adaptive category.
“I know how blessed I am to even be able to work out...I know I shouldn’t even be able to do this in the first place...I’m doing this for everyone who can’t. If what I’m doing can help someone push a little harder, give them some hope, then that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Mabatah also founded his own nonprofit, the Kel Strong Mabatah Foundation, aimed at providing a better future for traumatic brain injury patients by funding scholarships to TIRR. He wants others in his situation to know that regardless of their injury, they can overcome it.
“It may be different, how they get there. They might have to adapt, like I did, but they can do it,” said Mabatah.
Photo Courtesy of Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle