On a quick pan of the Metroflex Gym in Long Beach, Calif., you’ll see a number of hardcore athletes training for the next big competitions in bodybuilding, powerlifting and Olympic lifting. Standing out among these men and women is Nick Santonastasso, who despite being born with one arm and no legs, makes gains just like everyone else on the floor. “I’m showing people firsthand that it’s not the physical body that holds us back, it's the thoughts we continuously tell ourselves,” says Santonastasso, a man who learned from day one that everything is earned and nothing in life is handed to you.
Santonastasso was given a 30 percent chance of survival at the time of his birth. He was one of only 12 babies in medical history to be born with Hanhart syndrome, a rare genetic condition that leaves babies with undeveloped limbs and/or organs. “[I was told] I’d never be able to feed myself, dress myself, be independent, or drive a car and [I’d] need assistance 24/7,” Santonastasso shares. “My parents chose to throw that list out and see what I was truly capable of doing. The biggest advantage they gave me was treating me like a normal kid.”
From an early age, Santonastasso was pushed by his parents to adapt to the world around him and stay on track with the other kids. While others learned to walk by putting one foot in front of the other, he realized that he could propel himself forward using his left arm. Despite only having one finger, he was able to teach himself how to write by pinching a pencil between his chin and his right limb. “The only thing that I didn’t learn how to do was tie my shoes,” Santonastasso explains. “Because I didn’t need to.”
As Santonastasso got older, he fell into a rut that every teenager finds themselves in—struggling to find his place in the world. He soon found inspiration from his older brother and friends, who were all a part of the school’s wrestling team, and he aspired to join them. “The reason why I did this was because I knew that if I could be part of a team, be labeled as an athlete and be with my friends, that would build up my confidence,” Santonastasso says. “That’s when I had to amputate five inches of my arm off.”
In order to pursue wrestling, Santonastasso had an operation to prevent his bone from outgrowing his skin, a decision that was supported by his parents to improve his quality of life. After getting the ok from his doctors, Santonastasso went into wrestling practice with the same mindset his parents had bestowed on him. “I told my buddies and my teammates that they needed to beat me up,” Santonastasso says. “They needed to not hold back on me because if they were to hold back, I wouldn’t become the best wrestler I could be. So I got beat up and I learned to focus on my strengths, which is the life rule for all of us.” From getting pummeled by his teammates day in and day out, Santonastasso learned that he would add enormous value to his team by staying off his back to avoid getting pinned down by an opponent. And with that in mind, he put his focus into areas that showcased his talents and became a varsity athlete.
Once high school had come and gone, Santonastasso had to come to terms with where he would go next and how he wanted to make an impact on the world. At first, it seemed like entertainment might be the right path, as he had managed to accumulate more than million followers on Vine by pulling pranks and had even worked with Norman Reedus (“The Walking Dead”) while in Japan. Despite his success, Santonastasso didn’t find satisfaction in this work and sought out a new challenge. He saw an opportunity to stand out and make a name for himself in the fitness industry, beginning his journey by finding lifters to model himself after and setting a goal. With a body unlike anyone else in the gym, Santonastasso approached each challenge by employing varying methods of trial and error. He once again found himself learning to adapt to the new world around him and through falling in love with bodybuilding, he gained more confidence than ever before. “Bodybuilders always say that we just want to look good naked,” Santonastasso says. “But for real, it builds up your self-esteem when you look good.”
For most of his life, Santonastasso believed that confidence was something you were born with—through bodybuilding, he learned that confidence is a skill that can be worked on over time. He was able to build confidence and self-esteem through setting goals and, after some hard work, accomplishing them. As he began speaking for audiences around the country, he gained an understanding that everyone struggles with confidence—no matter how many limbs they were born with. “For the longest time, I didn’t think my story was cool because it’s my story,” Santonastasso says. “Then I realized that I have an invaluable perspective and can share experiences that not many people get to go through because they don’t live in the body I have.”
These days, while Santonastasso may regularly speak for crowds of tens of thousands alongside life coach Tony Robbins, he doesn’t call himself a motivational speaker. “I don’t really like motivation I like lasting change. I don’t want to go to a room, speak to people and get them pumped up but then [they] go back to their old ways,” Santonastasso explains. “I want people to walk out of the room and look at the world differently. I want people to commit to something.”
Santonastasso found the most effective way to promote real change of both actions and perspectives was to be open about his struggles, especially in the era of social media where everyone showcases a highlight reel of their best selves. “If I went onstage and blabbed about all of my accomplishments, I’d come off as cocky,” Santonastasso says. “But every time I go onstage, I set the intent to be authentic about the things I’ve gone through and how I was able to get through them. This makes people want to listen and be more receptive to what I have to say.”
By sharing his story with audiences around the world and online, Santonastasso has in return listened to countless individuals as they share their own hardships. Santonastasso has had far more physical disadvantages than most of us can imagine, but he recognizes that he doesn’t have a monopoly on struggle and that being humble is an integral part of making an impact on others. “Sometimes people get into this victim mentality of ‘I’ve been through this and you haven’t, so I’m better than you,’” Santonastasso explains. “They’re gaining significance out of their problems rather than trying to serve with their problems. My whole thing is becoming the victor of your life. We’ve all been victims at some point and we all go through hardships. We all have a story, and so many people don’t tell their stories because they don’t think it’s good enough.”
By keeping the ego in check, maintaining transparency and developing self-esteem, Santonastasso has built himself into a man who's inspired almost everyone who crosses his path. However, none of this would be possible without an appreciation for the life he’s been given. “Gratitude is so important, especially living in America, because we’re programmed to feel like we deserve to get things immediately,” Santonastasso says. “Life moves fast and we tend to focus on what’s next or live in the past. If we focus on the now and the things we’re grateful for it not only humbles and grounds us, but it puts us in a better state to lead, love and serve.”
Throughout his journey of life, from learning to walk to joining the wrestling team to becoming a bodybuilder, the one thing Santonastasso has and will continue to encounter is doubt from others. No matter how much confidence he has in himself, that won’t stop strangers from thinking he can’t do something because of the way he looks. Instead of seeing this as an impossible burden, he welcomes skepticism as an exciting challenge. When it came time for Santonastasso to get his first tattoo, he didn’t shy away from one of the most painful spots on the body. “My first tattoo was the word ‘Inspire’ down my ribs and the tattoo artists made a bet behind my back that I wouldn’t last the whole session,” Santonastasso says. “But I sat through it for four hours to finish the session as a 16-year-old.” Instead of letting doubt hold him back, Santonastasso has used it as fuel to be the best version of himself. This is something we can all learn from Santonastasso, because while his story and circumstances may be unique, we all experience doubt. So whether your goal is to run a marathon, travel the world or sit through a tough tattoo session—the only thing holding you back from reaching your goals is you. You have the power to make things happen, no matter the cards you’ve been dealt. Leave it to Nick Santonastasso to tell you that there’s no excuse for why you can’t be the best version of yourself.