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Injury redirects player's dream to helping others

Published January 26, 2007


From the time John Oliver was a young boy, he knew how to do things only one way: all out.

A scrappy kid from a suburb of Syracuse, N.Y., he patterned his work ethic after his father, an Italian-American who had opened his own construction business at 17. Oliver, 27, remembers seeing his father work seven days a week. Now a business owner himself, he finds that kind of drive rewarding.

Why? It doesn't feel like work, says the owner of a personal training business in Oldsmar. Working to perfect the body and its ability to function is something he takes personally and attacks with the same aggressive attitude that took him to the brink of professional athletics.

As a child, Oliver had a passion for sports that surpassed his natural skill. He used his gritty demeanor and intensity to excel in athletics throughout grammar school. He participated in all four major sports but held a particular affection for soccer.

Born to average-size parents, neither surpassing 6 feet, Oliver enjoyed a teenage growth spurt that made him into one of the tallest kids at his high school. At 6 feet 8 and wearing a size 15 shoe, he made a transition from soccer to basketball.

While his size and strength made him a standout forward by his senior year, he wasn't refined enough to play in Division I. But after attending a prep school in Maine for a year, leading his team to a 35-0 record and a New England prep school championship, he soon had college scouts banging on his door. Eventually, he signed with West Virginia University.

He was approximately 215 pounds entering his freshman year with the Mountaineers. That's when he began weight training with strength coaches from the football team. An avid weight-lifter throughout high school, he used bench presses, squats and dead lifts to bulk his large frame up to 250 pounds by the time he was a senior. The added muscle figured into his game perfectly; never the tallest player nor the most gifted athlete on the court, Oliver earned his keep as the most stalwart.

There was no rebound out of reach, no loose ball not worth diving for. No physical sacrifice great enough. His teammates called him a construction worker in a basketball uniform. Seven chipped teeth and two broken noses attested to his reputation.

Such reckless abandon got him noticed by pro scouts at camps in Salt Lake City and North Carolina but would ultimately be his downfall.

In 2002, Oliver was invited to compete in the Empire State Games, an avenue many basketball players on the fringe of a pro career take to develop more recognition and sell themselves to personnel directors at the pro level. During practice, Oliver took a vicious hit in the back while fighting for a rebound. He fell and felt an awkward pain as he hit the ground.

"I said to myself, 'Something is not right,' and it was like the lights went out," Oliver said. "I could tell something was seriously wrong."

Doctors would later discover that he suffered from two herniated discs in his upper back. They told him it wasn't the particular blow that caused the injury, but rather a pre-existing condition diagnosed as a degenerative disc disease.

While they couldn't pinpoint the specific source of his condition or why it happened, Oliver quickly came to what he figures to be a logical conclusion.

"For years, I had been lifting heavy weights trying to make my body as physically strong and as durable as possible, but what I was really doing was just the opposite," he said. "Not that my strength and conditioning coaches in high school were bad, I just think they were old school. I was squatting over 600 pounds and benching over 300, all the time with improper form and bad technique. I think that had as much to do with my injury as anything."

Not wanting to give up on his dream of becoming a professional basketball player, Oliver tried to rehab his back through orthopedic exercises and visits to multiple chiropractors. With his level of talent, he knew the NBA might be a stretch, but there were strong indicators that he might land a roster spot on a professional team in Europe, where his talent and style of play would be more applicable.

But once a player who could throw down a slam-dunk at will, he now had trouble touching the rim.

Rest and physical therapy could not take away the pain he felt physically. Surgery was an option, but considering the risky nature and a small possibility of paralysis, he decided against it. And it was at that moment when the emotional pain kicked in.

"Doctors told me they could go in and take the disc out and replace it, and that there was a risk involved. But they said even with the surgery that I probably couldn't run, jump or lift like I had in the past," Oliver said. "It was the most disheartening news that I had ever heard. I'm 23 years old, and I'm like 'But this is what I do.' It's tough to hear somebody tell you that you'll never play again."

There was a short period of sorrow. For months, he couldn't even watch basketball on television. But upon meeting John Oliver you can see that it's not in his nature to sulk or look back.

West Virginia offered him a chance to come back to school to pursue his master's degree under full scholarship. While earning his degree, he worked with the Mountaineers football and basketball teams as a strength and conditioning coach. In 2004, he graduated with honors, earning a master's degree in athletic coaching and education, with an emphasis on strength and conditioning and exercise physiology.

He moved to Westchase and worked for a popular fitness franchise as a personal trainer before incorporating his own personal training business called JOLT John Oliver's Lifestyle Training in 2006.

He teaches college and professional athletes something called functional sports training, which helps the athlete strengthen sport-specific muscles with an emphasis on injury prevention. But he says some of his most rewarding work comes from training everyday people who, like him, are trying to overcome injuries or procedures such as hip replacements. And, of course, those who just want to lose weight and firm up.

With all that he has experienced during the past six years, Oliver says he feels at peace with his future and couldn't be more excited about the decision he made to go into business.

Sure, he misses basketball. Last year, he and his girlfriend attended an Orlando Magic game. The Magic were playing the Sacramento Kings, and NBA superstar Ron Artest, a player Oliver used to go up against in college. "Yeah, that hit me, watching the game, that I could be there," Oliver said. "Obviously it's not my path. I knew I wasn't going to be [Michael] Jordan, but could I have made a living? There was a good chance."

That's when his positive attitude kicks in.

"Looking back at it now, I realize this is what I was supposed to do. There are a lot of young people who sit out there and wait for stuff to happen, but I'm trying to make it happen. That's where my mentality is. I look at it this way: On Saturday, I affected eight people's lives in a positive manner by the time some of my friends were just waking up at noon. I get tremendous satisfaction from that. This is my passion."

You can contact John Oliver at Freelance writer David Norrie can be reached at

[Last modified January 25, 2007, 08:46:14]

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