Feature Stories

Fighting back: How a Latter-day Saint amputee became an elite Ninja Warrior

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After his leg was amputated, Gary Weiland was told he’d never be a firefighter again—but he fought his way back to the job he loved and is now preparing to compete on American Ninja Warrior against some of the most elite athletes in the country.  

Gary Weiland was tossing a football with his kids during their family’s annual Thanksgiving “turkey bowl” when he suddenly felt the blood drain from the vessels of his left leg and fail to return. The pain stopped him short. He’d dealt with knee trouble before—he’d even had surgery for some routine repairs on a joint that had been battered by years of playing competitive sports. But this pain was different; something was seriously wrong.

At the hospital, Weiland found out that his condition was a fluke complication from his routine knee surgery two years earlier. “It literally cut the blood flow to my foot. … The circulation quit in that artery. And that was it,” Weiland says.

Credit: Megan Lamb/skipandleap.com

Even today, Weiland, 42, hesitates to talk in detail about what happened next. In short, 13 hours of surgery failed to fix the problem. That Thanksgiving Day was the last time he’d ever walk on his own two legs.

“They let [me] know that … they [couldn’t] restore circulation, and so they [were] going to have to amputate my leg,” Weiland recalls. That’s all he’ll say before quickly moving on: “I don’t focus on that, though. It’s, in a lot of ways, the worst day of my life. But I try not to focus on any of those things. I try to focus on … the good things that have come since then.”

And good things certainly have come since that day, including opportunities to compete at top athletic levels. But in his ascent to the heights of elite ninja warrior, Weiland had to start from the very bottom.

Fighting for a Dream

As a high schooler in Quincy, Illinois, Weiland strove to be the best at sports—baseball, basketball, football, it didn’t matter—and even dreamed of playing professionally. There was only one problem: he was much too small.

“I was only 5-foot-5, 110 pounds when I graduated high school. So I was basically the size of a sixth grader,” he remembers, adding that among the many talented athletes at his large high school, he “didn’t stand a chance.”

But just after graduating from high school, Weiland gained 5 inches and 40 pounds in a year—so he decided to keep pursuing sports. The extra height and weight worked out in his favor as an athlete, and on top of all that, he met a young Latter-day Saint woman, Shanna, at a local basketball tournament. The two soon began dating, Shanna introduced Weiland to the gospel, and he was baptized. Two years later in 2001, the couple was sealed in the St. Louis Missouri Temple and eventually moved to Denton, Texas.

Gary and Shanna Weiland

Weiland’s dreams were coming together. He lived an active lifestyle with his beautiful wife, and over the next several years they were blessed with four healthy kids. But as he plugged away at his career, he felt like something was missing.

“I spent a lot of years in the retail world, and I felt like I’d been given some gifts and abilities that I was maybe wasting a little bit,” Weiland says. “Being physically fit and keeping myself in decent shape, I thought that I needed to do something a little more active-related, [and] I … wanted to serve my community.”

He looked into options like the military and police force, but he “fell in love” with the fire service. “And so I quit my job,” he says. “It was a pretty big leap of faith because we had four kids at the time. It’s a big deal to just quit your job and go to the fire academy and hope to get a job someday.”

But Weiland had learned that it’s better late than never, so he went for it, putting his trust in help from above. “Obviously, that [decision] was very much faith based,” he says. “Lots of prayer went into that. And we felt like it was the right thing to do. … And you know, it all worked out. I got hired on.”

Having been hired into the Denton Texas Fire Department, the last piece of Weiland’s dream was in place. He loved his job, and his family was happy and active: they ran together; they played basketball and softball together. Other than his routine knee surgery everyone was healthy, and there was no reason to believe things wouldn’t stay that way. But then Thanksgiving 2018 came, and everything was dramatically different after Weiland’s amputation.

Fighting Back

Weiland tends to understate the challenges he’s faced, so when speaking of the year that he lost his leg, he simply says, “That was a very difficult time in our lives.”

He’d received a priesthood blessing from his stake president before the surgery and felt that everything would be fine. But as he lay in his hospital bed after the amputation, he was surprised by an alarming sensation that wasn’t due to physical pain. Instead, he felt acutely that he’d truly lost a part of himself—part of his identity. “You know, there’s a sense of grief there,” he says, referring to the loss of his leg. “It’s something that was a part of me for 39 years, and now it’s gone, [after] I’ve counted on it for years.”

He’d certainly counted on it as he fought fires for the Denton Fire Department. “Being a firefighter, we tend to need both of our legs to work. And I wasn’t sure if I could fight fire anymore. I wasn’t sure if I could work at all anymore.”

It was a moment of truth for Weiland. “At that point, I have some choices to make, right? I can either give up—I can just check out and be like, ‘Nope, I can’t do this’ and sit at home [or] take a desk job,” he says. “But, you know, [before] I kind of felt like I [was] Superman to my kids. We’d go out and play ball all day, every day, and swim, trampoline. … I didn’t want to feel like this was going to beat me.”

Gary recovers in the hospital, November 2018.

Weiland decided that he was going to get back to fighting fires, even without his leg. “I didn’t know how or whether anyone had ever done it before, but I decided right then and there that I’m going to do it,” he says.

“Gary, two days post-op of removing his leg, was already telling anyone who would visit him that he would make it back to full-duty, full-shift work, quicker than any person out there,” Denton Fire Chief Kenneth Hedges told CBS News DFW.

But not all of Weiland’s doctors agreed. “There [were] a lot of doctors involved in this, … and a few of them said I need to try something else,” he recalls. “[They said] there’s no way I can be a firefighter. … I respected their opinion, but at the end of the day, this is my body, my life.”

Weiland was fitted with a prosthetic leg, and he took his first tentative steps toward returning to the firefighting career he loved. Those early steps were small, as even getting out of bed was a test.

“It’s silly, but … my brain just [hadn’t] processed yet that I don’t have that second leg. So I [would] go to get out of bed, and I found myself on the floor. It’s embarrassing. It’s humbling. It hurt my pride a little bit,” he says.

But bruises to his body and his ego were quickly brushed aside. Ten months and six days later, Weiland was back on duty at the Denton Fire Department in October 2019.

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Weiland returned to duty just 10 months after his left leg was amputated.

“I can still do everything that I did before. It’s just that I do it differently,” he says. “When I’m standing on a roof that’s pitched, I have to stand a certain way, like on my right foot. … So things like that, I have to think about more: if I’m cutting a hole, if I’m coming down a ladder, there’s a certain technique now that I have to use. It’s a little bit different, but still effective. I still do just fine.”

Weiland’s perspective on his experiences is one of both acceptance and determination. “This is just a situation that is part of my journey,” he says. “And if people say it’s a bump in the road, I say it’s not a bump in the road—it is the road. It’s my road, and so I want to make the best of it.

Ninja Warrior

Weiland figured that if he could be an amputee firefighter, there wasn’t much else that could stop him. He started looking for new athletic opportunities, and when he set his sights, he set them high.

“Of course, I’m a dreamer,” he says, “And so I’m like, ‘OK, what's the highest level?’ It was the Paralympics.” Weiland now trains on the US High Performance team for sitting volleyball and beach volleyball. He hopes to be able to compete on Team USA in the Paralympic Games in the future.

Weiland trains on the US High Performance team for both sitting volleyball and beach volleyball.

Just like his high-school self, Weiland still wanted to compete in as many sports as possible. So one night in 2020, when he stumbled on a Facebook post where an acquaintance mentioned he was competing the next day in a ninja competition—a sport where athletes navigate complex obstacles relying on strength, flexibility, balance, endurance, and other physical skills—Weiland decided he was going to compete as well. So he rose at 5:00 a.m. the next day and drove three hours to the competition in Austin, Texas, having never trained for the sport.

Spectators watched Weiland, the only amputee competitor, qualify for the next level of competition on his first day ever attempting the sport. Over the next couple of years, Weiland hopped, swung, and climbed his way to the highest levels of competition, even making it to the Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association’s world finals in Las Vegas last year. A documentary crew followed Weiland’s experience in Vegas, and he’s one of the athletes featured in the upcoming documentary Becoming the Ultimate Ninja.

And now, Weiland is facing his biggest athletic challenge to date: Competing on the American Ninja Warrior TV program on NBC, where he’ll compete against some of the most elite ninja athletes in the country. He’ll be featured on season 14, episode 4, airing Monday, June 27, 2022.

Going into the competition, Weiland knew he had both some strengths and some weaknesses. “I’m very confident in my upper body stuff. … But for the lower body, balance obstacles are super tough for me,” he says. “It could be a 5-inch PVC pipe that I have to balance on and walk …. There [are] trampolines involved. You just need both of your feet and both of your hands to really compete at the highest level. And so I do the best that I can with what I’ve got. I try to make up for that [missing] leg with my other leg and my upper body.”

In the video below, watch Weiland’s inspiring run on the show, where he surprises onlookers by overcoming several obstacles that require precise balance and stability. You can also watch the full episode, which includes a segment highlighting Weiland’s story, on NBC.com, Peacock, or Hulu.

Inspiring Others

Weiland’s faith brings a strength that impels him forward. “It’s all about perspective and seeing everything the way that the Lord sees things,” he says. “Knowing that Heavenly Father knows me, loves me, and has a reason for this—it helps me every single day to get out of bed and keep doing what I do.”

Weiland plans to continue competing, whether that’s on the Paralympic volleyball court, a ninja obstacle course, or elsewhere. But what energizes him the most are opportunities to inspire others. He’s shared his story with groups of schoolkids, professionals, and others, even creating a superhero-esque persona called FAN-Man, which stands for Firefighter Amputee Ninja, that he assumes when he interacts with kids.

Weiland in his persona as FAN-Man.

“FAN Man has some firefighter tools—an axe and a Halligan [tool]—he’s got the Ninja Gear, and [he’s] got my blade leg,” he says. “It might be a little cheesy,” he says, “But I’m OK with that.”

He has also released a children’s book titled Fischer’s Accident, a story about a firefighter whose leg is amputated following an on-the-job accident. Weiland hopes the book will help normalize disabilities for kids, who are often shocked when they see amputees.

“I want the main character to look a little bit different than your normal main characters … to take that shock factor away,” he says. “So when these kids see an amputee at the grocery store or the ball game, they don’t have to focus on it. I think it’ll help a lot of amputees and it’ll help kids just see differences and not think anything of it.”

Looking back on the unexpected trajectories of his life, Weiland feels he’s learned some unique lessons. “You better believe that I know how quickly life can be taken from you in an instant. And so I don’t want to take one second for granted,” he says. “I’m using as much time and effort as I can to help others. … I have a calling, I feel like—a purpose. … I’m just rolling with it and seeing what Heavenly Father has in store for me and my family.” This attitude is captured in the personal motto he’s adopted, “Adapt and Overcome.”

Gary, Shanna, and their children.

Weiland has a message to others who face challenges: “It doesn't matter what you look like or what happened to you—you can absolutely get through things. … You have to keep moving forward one step at a time, whatever that step looks like. If it’s a metal leg or your own feet, you’ve just got to keep moving forward.”

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