HomeArticlesCornerstone ArticleHow I Broke My Back: My Story

How I Broke My Back: My Story

written by Vinny Crispino

Long before Pain Academy was around, I was an elite swimmer. When I say elite swimmer, I mean 33+ Colorado State records, 8 All-American accolades in a Division 1 collegiate program, 16+ Top 16 in the Nation titles, and a wall full of trophies and blue ribbons – so I’d like to think I was really capable in the water. 

That being said, you can only swim up and down the same lane so many times before boredom kicks in.

It was time to quit – my heart wasn’t in swimming anymore but I still had an immense love for the water. Growing up in Denver Colorado, six months out of the year were miserably cold and frigid – especially when you have to be in the pool at 5:00 am (sometimes those practices were outdoors) at Lowrey Airforce Base.

I remember laying in bed on those cold nights watching cable shows of surfers in Southern California tearing up waves in board shorts in January, hanging out at the beach, enjoying the water in an entirely different way than I was.

These were before the days of Youtube and easy access to watching any video you wanted so I had to wait for the cable networks to spotlight a surfing competition to get my fix. I couldn’t wait that long so I ended up going to a local surf/snowboard shop and bought my first surf video – Blue Horizon.

I remember watching that video with my face 2 feet away from the screen in awe. The love Andy Irons and Dave Rastovich had for surfing struck me to my core. I knew at that moment watching them surf what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a pro surfer.

I sold what I had. Packed up my bags, quit swimming, and drove out to California to chase that dream.

I naturally thought this was going to be a piece of cake given how confident/extremely cocky I was when it came to anything water-related.

Well, like any cocky person, I bit off way more than I could chew…

After living out in Cali for a year and making my way into the surfing scene, I caught wind that an epic swell was coming and it’d show up big at some Malibu state beaches – so I loaded up my board and went for it.

I pulled up to the beach and heavy was the only way to describe these waves. I saw other surfers checking out the waves to see if they even wanted to paddle out into that – I thought those guys were nuts for even debating it. I quickly learned why. It was a fight to get out there, but I felt like all those hours, days, months, and years in a pool trained me to handle the ocean on a big swell day. I finally got past the break and I saw it. The very first wave started to roll in – it had my name on it.

It was as if Poseidon himself sent that wave just for me.

I paddled like hell, the wave picked me up. As soon as the wave started to take me, I felt like I made a huge mistake. This. Wave. Was. Massive. I had zero control, virtually no skillset to rely on surfing wise and I just… I wiped out. I rolled underneath the wave and with full force, my back hit a rock. I’m not sure I know how to completely encompass what I felt but if I were to sum it up, it was just this instantaneous moment of “I fucked up.” 

I felt it.

I mean I felt it so hard that I HEARD it. I felt my spine bend a way it wasn’t designed to bend and a rock graciously helped me do that.  My mid to lower back took the full force of that impact.

I knew I wouldn’t surface the same. My life just changed in the blink of an eye. Just writing this out right now I’m taken back to that moment when I was coming up gasping for air nauseous and in shock.

When I surfaced, I remember feeling around for my left leg. It felt like it was gone. My mind was in such a state of panic that I literally thought it was torn off with that impact. When I reached down to feel for my leg, I knew something was seriously wrong because it was there. – I just couldn’t feel it.

I lost the surfboard, I think it got detached from the leash but that was the least of my concerns. I don’t know what happened to it and I didn’t care.

Like any wounded animal looking for refuge, I started to flounder to the beach to find some solid ground. I crawled across the beach, across the parking lot to my car, and just… drove home. Some people asked if I was alright, which clearly I wasn’t, I said “Yeah yeah just a little wipeout that’s all”. I’m not sure who I was trying to convince more – me of them that I was OKAY.

If you’ve ever driven in the hills of Malibu, you know Kanan Road is a beautiful yet windy route through the Santa Monica Mountains. And it was this really weird moment I had with myself driving through those mountains.  Every winding turn sent me a little further into shock and brought me closer to this place of “I just need to be by myself right now – I can’t handle anything else. No conversations. No hospital. Nothing. I need to be in my room with the door closed.” 

My soul was crushed more than my back was and at that moment I felt what it meant to truly be humbled. I felt invincible my entire life up until that moment. After spending some time on the ground, I finally made my way to the doctors, and I heard the news.

I ended up fracturing the T-12 vertebrae. There were multiple herniations. They classified that there were various grades of strains/sprains within the soft tissue and there was now a clearly visible 21-degree curve in my lower back from the severity and trauma of the impact. It felt just as bad as it looked on that back-lit X-ray board.

My X-Ray a few years after my accident.

And my next experience was being referred to specialists and given hefty drug prescriptions with muscle relaxors to just exist.

I eventually was recommended to surgeons and specialists, but the first one I saw suggested exploring a fusion – which he also stated was an extreme option because he would usually recommend that for someone with twice the curve but due to the impact and damage, the now zero quality of life I had, he thought it would be the only way out of this problem. I tuned out the rest of what he said – I knew that wasn’t a world I wanted to go down.

So I didn’t.

There was no surgery scheduled, no extensive rehabilitation plan given to me – there was nothing. It was just me re-upping my drug prescription every 2 weeks to manage life. I spent countless days on the ground staring at my ceiling fan go around and around testing how high on pain killers I needed to be so I could numb myself enough to take a temporary escape from the prison it felt like I was trapped in.

I kept thinking, “How do you deal with this? There’s got to be a way.” There was no way this is what my life was going to be. I refused to believe it. After a few months of living literally pill to pill as my body and my soul further decayed, I started getting second and third opinions. Seeking our specialists and anyone who would see me.

I hated all the answers I got from everyone I saw. So much time had passed that I got to a point when the herniations healed but I was STILL in excruciating pain. And what did the specialists do? They’d just say “your pains in your head. “The discs have healed this is what your life is, it’s now about you learning how to cope. Have you looked at wheelchairs or crutches? We suggest you find a therapist that specializes in traumatic events and/or chronic pain.”

I changed entirely as a human being. I used to be outgoing, funny, upbeat, energetic, really silly. A goofy guy. But after the accident, the humor faded and I became a shell of what once was, for years. Hurt and injured became my mood. There was nothing I could do at the time, no position I could find to feel relief. (I wouldn’t find the real answers for another year at this point.) 

There was nothing that I could do to find what “comfortable” was without a combination of alcohol, prescription drugs, and weed. I was playing a game of “How can I self-medicate to just space out and forget that my back’s broken and my life sucks?” I remember cracking a manic smile one day playing out a stereotypical scene from a movie, sitting kneeling on my window and just watching people walk to their mailbox and thinking, “That looks so nice. That’s amazing.” Or seeing people take out their trash and being envious that they could even do that, or watching a kid ride a bike and feeling jealous because I could barely breathe.

Seeing and thinking about what I couldn’t do anymore more was just as painful as the injury itself.

Things got so bad that I literally had to plan my day out to move as little as possible because I didn’t want to have to brush my teeth, and then get back down to the ground, then have to get back up again to go to the bathroom. My day was structured in ways so I would have the least amount of movement. I tried to lump activities together…little things like brushing my teeth, combing my hair, taking a shower, going to the bathroom. I had to be really specific about how I did these things and in which order because it took so much effort to bring myself to move and get off the ground. I knew if I was going to move, I would have to go through an insane intense amount of pain with every single step – so I became skilled at not moving.

I remember what it was like hearing something drop on the ground, freezing in a state of panic thinking “Fuck. Do I really have to get that? Maybe I’ll just leave it there.”

One night, and I’ll never forget this night, I brought myself to make a good meal – which was a big deal for me at the time being able to stand in a kitchen and cook…but my soul needed a “treat yourself meal”. So I made a steak… and the plate dropped. The plate shattered and the food went on the ground…and there it stayed for days. It stayed there because I didn’t want to bend forward and clean it up. That steak was symbolic of how I felt – forgotten, broken, and left to rot on the floor. Maybe that’s dramatic, but that’s where my life was at. And it took days before I could bring myself to clean it up.

It was years of being invalidated by specialists and even more time spent being pointed in all these different directions. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t trust specialists, what I’m saying is, all of the people that I saw weren’t doing it for me.

Every person that I went to go see pushed my problem into their box of understanding saying they knew what the problem was and yet things always seemed to get worse the more I opened myself up to getting help.

“Your foots the problem.”

“No, your spine is a problem.”

“No, you need therapy, your body is fine, it’s all in your head now.”

“It’s your muscles, you need a massage.”

“It’s your diet, that’s why you can’t move well. You need more celery juice.”

And it just went on and on…

It wasn’t long until chasing symptoms ran my bank accounts dry.

Correction, I ran out of money and was living on plastic cards… which was fine because the path I was walking down, I honestly didn’t feel l like I’d live long enough for the collection companies to come knocking.

It was either find my own solution to these problems, or just… end the story there. 

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t honestly consider it. There was a point where simply numbing myself to exist day to day wasn’t cutting it, and as much as I wanted to…I just couldn’t. It was an idea that I’m thankful never turned into action.

That’s when I realized I’m the only person that’s going to do this – I’m the only person that cares enough to help me.

I had found this mentor, maybe I should say they found me, who introduced me to what posture therapy and functional morphology is – two sciences I’ve never heard of, and neither of them was ever talked about with any specialist I saw. He showed me a few simple positions… I just laid down, was asked to breathe, and we did a few small simple movements from there. Nothing intense – like at all. I thought I was completely wasting my time. And we did that for about an hour. Afterwards, he asked me to stand up… and… I did. I stood up… I actually stood up! Instead of resuming my bent-over position that would most commonly be referred to as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this bent over position I had been stuck in for years… I was actually standing upright. Still experienced pain, but something was different…

I could breathe.

It was as if my body said screamed for the first time at me, “this is the way.”

It was in this one moment, where I felt like I don’t need to take another drug – what I just did gave me more than any pill could ever give me… it was this moment, that I actually felt like I had the chance to live life again.

This was my second chance.

How did no one recommend this to me? 5 years… FIVE YEARS….and this wasn’t on any specialist’s radar. We didn’t use any fancy machines or equipment. We took photos of my body and looked at what didn’t seem right or what looked “off”.. and worked on putting joints back into a better-looking position. We didn’t do any back exercises. Nothing of what we did was nowhere to be found in anybody’s recommendations for years by doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, personally, personal trainers, corrective exercise specialists, or any of the numerous massage therapist I saw. 

My next thought after I could breathe was, “How the hell does the world not know about this? How many people are laying on their floors right now who have no idea this even exists?”

At that moment, my life purpose became clear. I had to break my back to find my purpose in life. It wasn’t to shred waves with long hair and only wear board shorts in Southern California – my purpose was to make this big enough to reach everyone else laying on the ground dreading life. I knew I had to reach all of the people out there who are staring at their ceiling clinging on to life. I knew I had to make something for the people hobbling to refill their next drug prescription.

I studied Exercise Physiology at Stanford. Acquired certifications in Corrective Exercise and Personal Training through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. I became a Posture Alignment Specialist certified through The Egoscue Method. I became a Loaded Flow Training Specialist from Kinesiology Institute for Performance Specialist, and have amassed a serious collection of books on movement over the years. I learned. I hired mentors who specialized in restoration techniques. I practiced. Outside of any traditional schooling or education, my back pain was my greatest teacher. I didn’t just learn about pain and movement through books – I experienced first hand what to do and how to navigate the road from chronic pain to living life again. I rehabilitated myself, and along the way, I’ve shared what I’ve learned with thousands of people across 75 different countries.

I founded Pain Academy to teach and share the flame that relit my torch and saved my life. My goal, my dream, my purpose, is to build something big enough for the world to see.

This was the start of Pain Academy.

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8 thoughts on “How I Broke My Back: My Story

  1. Hell yeah, an awesome read.
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    Thank you<3

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  5. This sounds exactly like my story. I’m about to start the Pain Academy and I can say the same things have been my life. I too swam and injured myself by not taking care of myself mentally. I pushed myself too far and it’s been years since I felt “normal”. I’m excited to see where the Pain Academy takes me.

    1. Hey Abby! I can’t wait to see where this takes you as well! It really was all about pushing yourself… always. Coaches rarely taught us how to slow down and take care of ourselves. Garbage yardage seemed to be the overarching term when discussing training programs from back in the day. Glad you’re here. Excited to help. Keep me posted on your progress!

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