Wheelchair athlete overcomes health challenges and stigma to shine on the international stage

In March, Marie Pontini checked off a goal on her bucket list.  She became the first Canadian female wheelchair user to compete in an international bodybuilding competition.  She placed second at the 2024 Arnold Amateur Women’s wheelchair bodybuilding competition, a remarkable recognition that highlights her determination and hard work.  This milestone is a significant step forward for the representation of disabled persons in sports. “Bodybuilding is still relatively old school.  It is very selective and can be non-inclusive,” explains Marie. “The pool of competitors in the wheelchair division is small but with time, things are starting to change.”

To celebrate Quebec Disabled Persons Week (June 1 to 7), we invited Marie to share her inspiring story.

A relentless medical journey 

Marie has a complex medical history. Diagnosed with a hearing disability as a child, she also experienced many symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). A diagnosis of an aggressive form of (MS) at age 35 changed her life. “It’s at the Emergency Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital that a nurse recognized my symptoms of MS. They transferred me to The Neuro where I received confirmation of the diagnosis,” says Marie. “It gave me so many answers.  I had doubted myself for my whole life.” 

There are varying degrees and severity of MS. Early treatment can slow progression and with the right care and support, many people lead healthy, active and long lives. Just months after she was diagnosed with MS, Marie learned she had a rare tissue disorder. “By the end of 2016, my digestive tract system stopped working. I lost 175 pounds due to Gastroparesis (a medical condition that prevents proper stomach emptying) and digestive tract system paralysis. I was also diagnosed with Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), a genetic connective tissue disorder,” she says. “There were days I couldn’t talk or walk.  I started using a wheelchair. Every week there was a new symptom.”

Bodybuilding became a lifeline

Despite unbearable neuropathic pain, she started bodybuilding and competed for the first time in November 2019. "I fight the pain of my body with the pain of the gym, because that pain, I chose it," she says. Marie’s health challenges have accelerated her muscle loss. “I had to stop bodybuilding after my hand separated from my wrist.  Now my elbows and shoulders are starting to separate,” she explains. “I have lost strength, but I have found ways to adapt.”  One strategy she relies on is mind-body connection. “With the help of mirrors, I talk to my body to contract the muscle. It takes a lot of focus. At least this way, I can keep training,” she says.

Mindful of her health obstacles and with surgery on the horizon, Marie pushed herself mentally and physically to compete on an international stage. “I consider the Arnold my last competition,” she reluctantly admits. In April, she had reconstructive surgery at the Eldorado General Hospital. “I am in complete awe of Dr. Roy Kazan and his team. They are basically body engineers working and building with used bodies,” she joked in a social media post. 

The future is unclear but promising

Marie is on bed rest for the time being and faces more surgeries in the future. She stays busy by managing her many social media channels and advocating for disabled people. She is physically unable to train but is mentally gearing up for a return to competition. “I need goals,” she admits. “If my digestive system cooperates, I can start to train for Arnold 2025 and go for first place.”

While Marie hesitates to be described as a role model, she acknowledges her persistence and resilience.  “There are so many challenges for people with chronic pain. My disability doesn’t define me,” she notes. “It is important to recognize when a chapter of your life ends and a new one starts.”

For disability-friendly workouts or to follow Marie’s motivational life story, you can find her on social media at:

https://www.youtube.com/@mariepontini 

Discover how representation of disabled people in sports is evolving in Canada at sportforlife.ca  

For information on wheelchair bodybuilding visit wheelchairbodybuilding.com 

For more information on Quebec Disabled Persons week, visit Semaine québécoise des personnes handicapées.