There are many things Donahue Fields had to learn after he lost his ability to walk, including how to defend himself while in a wheelchair.
When he was 19 and thinking of joining the Marines, Fields, a native New Yorker, lost his legs when a stray bullet sliced through his spine while he was walking home in February 2003. Later, he was mugged and assaulted while staying at a medical facility during his recovery, he told the New York Times.
The incident, combined with the loss of his limbs, affected Fields’ confidence and left him contemplating his self-worth.
“I was shot in my back, I lived through a spinal cord injury,” Fields, now 37, tells PEOPLE. “The depression and PTSD just spiraled. I tried to commit suicide, woke up in the ICU. I didn’t know where to go with my life from there.”
His weight ballooned from a lack of activity, and his health — both physically and mentally — declined.
Then something unexpected happened: Fields found love, which compelled him to return to the gym to regain his physical well-being. That’s when he discovered adaptive boxing.
“I was approached by a trainer at the gym,” Fields recalls. “During a program that I attended here in New York. I just started going, got better, kept training harder and I started to feel good.”
The sport gave Fields a foundation for a new chapter of his life.
“I found confidence, a confidence that I was meeting goals. I was getting better at something,” he says. “It played a part in me wanting to try other things and wanting to become better — to apply myself.”
After rebuilding his strength and confidence through boxing, Fields saw that the sport could help others with disabilities. So he rented out a section of a gym to train them and got to work.
“I wanted people to enjoy it the way I’m enjoying it to create a self-esteem boost,” he says. “It starts with security, and then you apply that in other areas of your life. Hopefully, they experience the same thing I did and just keep growing and growing.”
Those who have joined have a variety of conditions, Fields says. Some have cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and other developmental disabilities. One is recovering from a stroke.
“It serves a purpose,” Fields says. “It brings fulfillment. What this is really about is how it affects their lives.”
He is now hoping he can help get adaptive boxing included in the 2020 Summer Paralympics.
“Don’t be afraid to try new things,” he says. “You know the most difficult tasks are the most rewarding.”