Watching KC Mitchell tremble and strain as he deadlifts 600 pounds of tempered steel — the weight distributed evenly between his one good leg (the right) and a new prosthetic — it may be hard to imagine the fortitude that pulled him out of a hospital bed and up onto his feet came from an unlikely place. It stemmed from a competition with an infant so small he could cradle her in the crook of one arm.
As he lay convalescing at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Mitchell, an Afghan war veteran who had his leg amputated below the knee after a 2010 run-in with an improvised explosive device in Kandahar province, knew his newborn daughter, Skyree, would be learning to walk in less than a year. And he was determined to join her.
“It kind of turned into a race against time for me because I was basically trying to beat a newborn baby to walking.”
With the exception of his prosthesis, Mitchell is built like a powerlifter — which is to say, like a truck — standing six feet tall and weighing in at 240 pounds. His large, full face sports an impressive beard, and his massive skull, which somehow seems to bulge with muscles, is topped with a severe and screaming mohawk. He’s got a phone manner to match: More than just blunt, he’s aggressively honest.
“It kind of turned into a race against time for me because I was basically trying to beat a newborn baby to walking,” he recalls.
Before long, Mitchell was standing on his own two feet as he watched Skyree learn to do the same. Then he kept on going, busting through one barrier after another on his way to becoming a world-class powerlifter. There wasn’t always a clear path forward, and at times he stumbled, dealing with depression and disillusionment, not to mention substance abuse, along the way, but he overcame that, too.
Photo courtesy of KC Mitchell
Mitchell’s remarkable drive eventually brought him to the doorstep of National Academy of Strength and Power, aka NASPower, in Bakersfield, California, with a unique request: He wanted to become a powerlifter. But more than that, he wanted to compete against other athletes who didn’t have amputations or injuries.
Just over a year later, having acquired a massive following on social media, a professional sponsorship, and a reputation as the “One Leg Monster,” Mitchell took the stage at the American Cup during the Los Angeles Fit Expo on Jan. 7 and made history when he became the first amputee to complete a full powerlifting meet.
Growing up, Mitchell idolized his grandfather, a decorated World War II veteran. By the time he graduated high school in 2004, he knew what he wanted to be, and he soon found himself on a yearlong deployment to Iraq as infantryman. It’s a job he says he was meant to do — and one he still misses every day. “The brotherhood, the camaraderie,” he says. “I was going to make a career out of it. I never would have gotten out.”
Photo courtesy of KC Mitchell
On April 3, 2010, with just a week to go on another deployment, this time in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, Mitchell went out on a mounted night patrol — the kind of mission he’d done countless times before — to investigate an area where insurgent fighters had been placing improvised explosive devices.
His vehicle came up out of a ditch and rolled over a pressure plate.
“It exploded directly underneath me and pretty much knocked me and my whole squad unconscious,” Mitchell recalls.
He still remembers coming to and yelling at his guys to get out of the vehicle. Only when they’d gotten clear of the blast site did he look to himself. Unable to feel his legs, and pinned under equipment and debris, he reached down to paw at his lower body.
“I couldn’t feel too much, but I could see a lot of blood on my hands,” he says.
Realizing Mitchell was still inside, his men rushed back and pulled him free.
“Once they got me out, they pulled me around the back side of the vehicle and my doc started working on me,” Mitchell said.
The blast left Mitchell with second and third-degree burns, a broken right forearm — to this day he can’t fully close his right hand — and shrapnel wounds everywhere except his face, as well as a lower back fracture and injuries to both legs.
His first few weeks at Walter Reed were spent in a sedated coma in the intensive care unit. When he woke up for the first time, his wife, Malori Williamson, and Skyree, then just 2 months old, were by his bedside. It was the first time he’d seen his daughter since she was born.
While he still had both his legs, they were in bad shape. Mitchell’s right was in a cast, his knee and ankle torn apart, and the doctors were avoiding surgery for fear of infection. In the meantime, they worked on his left.
After numerous surgeries over several months — he would eventually undergo 44 surgeries in total — Mitchell was confronted with a difficult decision. He could keep the leg, but he’d be in for more surgery and would still face daily pain due to severe nerve damage. Or he could have it amputated. It wasn’t an easy decision. Mitchell realized there was no guarantee he’d ever have full use of the leg if he kept it, and he’d watched other amputees at Walter Reed adapt to their prosthetics and return to normal lives.
There was also the matter of his daughter, who would soon be approaching the day when she’d take her first steps. Mitchell was hell-bent on taking them with her.
“I saw a lot of dads in wheelchairs when their kids started walking and how it kind of upset them,” he remembers.
On Nov. 10, 2010, his left leg was amputated. After the incisions healed and he had undergone extensive physical therapy, Mitchell was fitted with a prosthetic. It had been nearly a year since he’d stood up on his own.
“You don’t just start walking all that great right out the gate. There’s pain and you’re not used to it and it’s uncomfortable and you’re just kind of dealing with everything on the daily.”
“To be able to move again and finally get to rebuild your life...” he says. “It was a really good feeling.” Better still was standing beside Skyree as she began to walk.
For both of them, it was a first step. It took Mitchell close to three years to fully recover, and doing so was far from easy. “You basically have to learn to live your life differently,” he explains, adding, “You don’t just start walking all that great right out the gate. There’s pain and you’re not used to it and it’s uncomfortable and you’re just kind of dealing with everything on the daily.”
He also had to contend with a feeling of insecurity. He felt uncomfortable out in public, always keenly aware of glances that lingered a little too long on his prosthetic.
To make it worse, the lack of physical activity was getting to him. A lifelong athlete, he’d begun wrestling in the sixth grade and used to run to school as part of his morning workout. In the military, he graduated to cage fighting.
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Brignola
“I feel like I’m one of the hardest dudes ever,” Mitchell says, “but suddenly I wasn’t able to do that kind of stuff.”
Meanwhile, having left behind the day-to-day camaraderie and sense of purpose that comes with military life, he felt directionless. “I went through addiction with narcotics and alcohol as well,” Mitchell says. “I was dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety because I was out of the military, didn’t have a job, didn’t have anything going for me. I thought that after my injury that was basically the worst situation I could be in, but then the addiction and everything else came in.”
The turning point, once again, involved Skyree. During a family trip to Disneyland to celebrate her third birthday, Mitchell found himself struggling to get around the park. “We had not even walked a block before I had to sit down, take a break and pop pills to keep going,” Mitchell explained in an interview with Self Made Training Facility. “I’m sweating, in pain, angry and that’s when I realized, ‘Damn I have a 3-year-old daughter and I can’t even walk around Disneyland.’”
When the family got home, Mitchell gave up the pills cold turkey, quit drinking, and started lifting weights. He began building his body back up, and with it, his confidence.
“I started to become bigger and stronger than guys that were healthy, and that was kind motivating for me,” he says. “If I can do this, what’s your deal? Then it became like a badge, you know? I just started carrying myself differently and became more proud of myself, and that’s what got rid of the insecurities for me.”
Mitchell says he’s sworn off painkillers for good — preferring to suffer through the occasional injury than to risk addiction again. “I just won’t, because I don’t need it,” he explains. “I’d rather just deal with the pain. I’ll do saunas and hot tubs and cold baths before I’ll take a narcotic again. I’m in pain all the time, but I don’t need a drug to get rid of the pain. I just use my mind to kind of fight it off as much as I can.”
The plan: to become the first amputee to compete in a full power meet — no special gear, no special treatment.
In late 2015, Mitchell found himself at the national powerlifting competition in Las Vegas to watch a few of his friends compete.
At that point, he just a spectator, with no inkling he’d ever be competing himself. That is, until the athletes came out on stage.
“There was so much adrenaline I could feel it,” Mitchell says. “Just the cameras, the people, the yelling, it was just insane.” Before he knew what was happening, Mitchell had taken on a whole new challenge. “I thought, ‘Oh no, this is what I want to do. That’s what I need.’” The plan: to become the first amputee to compete in a full power meet — no special gear, no special treatment.
Shortly thereafter, Mitchell turned up at NASPower and laid out his game plan to the owner. “The look on his face, he was like ‘whaaaat?’” he says with a laugh. “Obviously, me being an amputee and squating, a lot of amputees can’t figure out how I do it, because it is so hard to do,” he says. And there was another issue: Due to his injuries, Mitchell can’t fully close his right hand, and as a result, merely holding on to the bar can be difficult.
The gym’s owner soon came around. “He let me know it’s tough and it’ll beat your body up, but he was all about it,” Mitchell says.
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Brignola
In January 2016, after training for just a few months, Mitchell decided he was ready to compete, starting with a push-pull meet, which includes a bench press and deadlift. After competing in the event at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California, he met Gracie Davis, a well-known powerlifter as popular for her talent and strength as for her long blonde hair and shaved temples, who promptly agreed to coach him.
“A guy with one leg, holy shit!” Davis recalls thinking when she saw Mitchell on stage competing against able-bodied powerlifters. She had just one question: Why wasn’t he doing full power, which also includes a squat?
When Mitchell explained he couldn’t because his leg good leg was worse than his missing one, Davis called bullshit.
The two worked continuously for a few weeks, with Mitchell going lower and lower each time, until he was able to hit the right depth. Before long, Mitchell attracted the attention of a second coach, Ed Coan, widely regarded as one of the greatest powerlifters of all time — “like the Muhammad Ali of powerlifting,” as Mitchell puts it. Mitchell continued to improve, and soon he landed a sponsor, the powerlifting apparel line Apeman Strong.
In less than a year he had gone from being virtually unknown to a sponsored athlete, with a dedicated team of coaches, and a rapidly growing following on social media, where he posts frequent updates on his training under the handle That1LegMonster. (The nickname had been blurted out by another regular at the gym, and it stuck.)
“KC doesn’t do this for himself or for his wife or for his little girl … That meet, yeah, it was about proving to himself, but it was also about proving to everybody else that an amputee can still do a full power meet.”
Mitchell attributes a lot of his recent success to the outpouring of support he’s received online. “I started training even more and posting the videos on social media, and the return on people just being inspired, shocked, motivated by the stuff I was doing made me thrive and want to do even more, to get bigger and stronger,” he explains.
With all the success, however, the greatest challenge — the goal he’d set for himself at the outset — still loomed: the American Cup, Los Angeles Fit Expo.
The weeks leading up to the Jan. 7 meet were fraught with problems.
As Mitchell struggled to prepare for the competition, he found himself battling a severe hip injury — just the latest in a string of physical maladies. A few weeks earlier, he’d suffered a severe infection: It seems the incredible pressure he’d put on the amputated limb had blown open a stitch line. Then he strained his quad, turning his whole leg black and blue.
“Two weeks out from the Cup, I went to try to squat and I couldn’t, the pain was just too much,” Mitchell recalls.
The meet would involve nine lifts: three squats, three bench presses, and three deadlifts. The day before, competitors were asked to name the weight they planned to lift in each round. When it came to the squats, Mitchell wasn’t sure. Just two weeks earlier, he’d tried for 325 and failed. But as he stood before the judges on the eve of the competition, he declared his intention to squat 402.
“Find that mindset, relax and just fight through the pain. You’ve been through worse.”
His thinking was simple, he says. It would hurt no matter what. “It is what it is,” he reasoned. But the added weight would help push him into the full squat.
Nonetheless, on his first attempt, he failed to hit the required depth, and as he walked off stage Mitchell could feel the crowd watching him. “I could tell in everyone’s eyes, in the judge's eyes, this wasn’t good,” he says. Coan leaned over and whispered in his ear. “This ain't nothing,” the coach reminded him. “Find that mindset, relax and just fight through the pain. You’ve been through worse.”
You’re goddamn right I’ve been through worse, Mitchell remembers thinking. “I’ll get the next one,” he said. “No matter what.’”
And he did. Then he got the next one after that and the next. Davis egged him on, yelling at him to keep going. She still remembers the determination etched onto his strained face.
“KC doesn’t do this for himself or for his wife or for his little girl,” Davis explains. “He feels responsible for a lot of people, and they look up to him for motivation. That meet, yeah, it was about proving to himself, but it was also about proving to everybody else that an amputee can still do a full power meet.”
Soon, it was time for his ninth and final lift.
Sweat poured down his face as he stepped forward and deadlifted 600 pounds, making history and fulfilling his promise to himself.
“That was the biggest achievement of my life,” he says now. “I literally had fought through everything, from hell and back for the last six and a half years to get to that point.”