At first glance, 33-year-old Dublin resident Paul Rubio, owner of Elite Training Center in Pleasanton, appears to be like any other fitness trainer motivating his clients with enthusiasm.
Standing at nearly 6 feet tall with 16 percent body fat, he is an inspiration for those he's training. But beyond the muscles lies an inspirational story that deserves a closer look.
Rubio was born in 1977 with exposed spina bifida at a time when very little was known about the debilitating defect.
According to the Mayo Clinic, spina bifida is described as a birth defect in which a portion of the neural tube fails to develop or close properly, causing defects in the spinal cord and in the bones of the back. In Rubio's case, much of his spine was exposed at birth.
He was rushed immediately to Stanford Hospital where surgeons worked frantically to save his life. After a month in the hospital doctors told the Rubio family that their newborn son would be forever paralyzed and would possibly be mentally disabled.
For the first five years of his life growing up in the San Jose area, he suffered multiple infections from complications of his disability. His pediatrician's office became a revolving door for the Rubio family as they struggled to keep him healthy.
From a Glimmer of Hope to Hellish Bullying
The first glimmer of hope came when Rubio was three years old. During playtime with his father, Alfredo Rubio, he wiggled a toe for the first time.
Thrilled by this small miracle, Rubio's parents rushed their son back to Stanford where he underwent surgery to untangle the bunched up nerves in his spine.
With the persistent support of his father and the help of the Stanford medical staff, Paul soon began to regain control of his limbs and learned to walk.
“My dad is my hero," he said.
"He’s the one who made me the man I am today. He never let me feel like I was disabled. He showed me the importance of hard work and perseverance.”
Although physically Rubio appeared to be like any normal boy, his internal organs remained paralyzed. He couldn't control his bladder, for one, which later made him the target of bullies.
From kindergarten on, he was teased, taunted, beaten and tortured by his classmates. He was thrown in trash cans and had his head locked into a fence.
After one particularly brutal beating, Rubio said he lay helplessly on the ground while his abusers rode their BMX bikes over him. This incident left him paralyzed at home for days.
"This was my daily life," he said. "It was painful being made fun of and beaten up."
His family often moved around the Bay Area, and Rubio looked forward it each time.
"I liked moving around because I saw it as a new chance for a better life, but it would always have the same ending."
At the age of 12, Rubio was finally fed up with being a victim. To learn to protect himself, he turned to his stepfather, who was an Army serviceman, for instruction on hand-to-hand combat techniques.
Within days of his self-defense lessons, Rubio found himself for the first time standing up to his attackers.
"I went on a bully rampage," he said.
"I defended myself against anyone who wanted to bully me. I only fought the bullies. I began defending other kids that were being bullied. That became my life."
Rubio found a renewed hope within him and began training to become stronger. He soon gained a reputation among his peers of being a good fighter.
"At first the bullying I endured was about the disability but then I was being bullied because I was big and could fight."
He oftentimes found himself the target of gang members waiting for him after school to challenge him.
"I didn't want to fight," said Rubio said.
"My whole entire life was a fight. I was fighting the disability, fighting the bullies, and fighting even myself."
His grades soon began to drop. He struggled with low self-esteem and the consequences of his new reputation.
"I was getting stronger and starting to hurt people. It reminded me of how I felt when people hurt me. I would think to myself that if I hurt the kid in front of me I'd be hurting their family, and most of all I'd be hurting myself."
Not wanting to fight for the sake of fighting anymore Rubio learned how to talk himself out of the conflicts.
Eventually, at the age of 14, Rubio found himself homeless and sleeping under a park tree at night due to family financial struggles. He quit school and began working fulltime to survive.
His two passions in life were football and amateur fighting. With the risk of a single blow to his spine causing permanent paralysis, he would never be able to pursue his dream of playing football. He instead began focusing on amateur fighting.
“I wanted to take my fighting skills to a venue in which I could fight but not get in trouble.”
In 1998, Rubio attended radio’s Wild 94.9 Battle of the Big Boys event.
After a brutalizing "Battle of the Bouncers" round, he found himself heckling the winner of the match. DJs from the station invited Rubio up to settle his grievances with the irate bouncer. He accepted the challenge, knocking his opponent out in less than 30 seconds.
Seeing potential, the radio station set him up with Coach Joe at USA Boxing and Karate in Hayward for training.
He trained for three weeks before attending a sold-out Battle of the Big Boys. His boxing career was launched after he knocked out his competitor in 2 minutes and 38 seconds.
Rubio's success in boxing continued to grow.
He fought in both sanctioned and unsanctioned events. He held an undefeated fight record for six years.
In 2004, under Coach Hector Ramirez, Rubio was slotted to fight at an event at the Concord Youth Center. Ignoring the tightness in his shoulder and with the encouragement of his coach, he entered the ring with his gloves up.
Going for a hard right jab, he snapped two ligaments in his shoulder, leaving him defenseless. By the second round, he had been knocked around enough that to this day, he still cannot recall stepping in the ring for Round 2.
Eventually, the match was stopped and for the first time ever, Rubio had been defeated in the ring.
End of Boxing
His shoulder injury ended his boxing career.
Rubio fell into a deep depression. Since childhood, he had defied being label “disabled." Without his fists, Paul was forced to redefine himself and his purpose in life.
He spent the next four years as one of the top sales people for Arbonne while working as a personal trainer on the side. He soon discovered his passion for motivating his clients to see their own potential.
He became a contracted personal trainer, meeting with individuals at their homes or in his garage studio.
When the garage became too small, in 2008 Rubio established Elite Training Center with the vision of creating not only a state-of-the-art gym for competitive boxers but also a fitness facility founded in supporting family fitness and community morale.
He coined "Boxrcise," a fitness workout that includes boxing bags, spin bikes, weights, plyometric exercises, agility training, cardiovascular training, abdominal and core training.
“I wanted this to be a place where people could get a great workout at a good price,” he said. “I don’t turn anyone away.
“I have people who have lost their jobs and no longer can afford the membership. I’ve told them that as long as I can keep the lights on, this gym is their gym. I’m just the guy that pays the bills.”
Gaining in popularity is Rubio's anti-bullying program, Kids Mixed Martial Arts, where his main goal is to build up his tiniest members’ self-esteem.
“Kids need to go out there in the world and be confident in themselves," he said.
"I teach them how to handle real life bullying scenarios. I prepare them mentally so that when they step out of here, they know they can take care of themselves against anyone anywhere.”
Most impressive about Rubio's kids program is his philosophy on the teacher-student relationship.
“I want these kids to be leaders in life, not followers. I can’t teach them how to be a leader if I’m demanding them to follow me. Instead I teach them to respect everyone equally.”
Rubio continues to face health challenges but credits chiropractor Ed Le Cara for helping him with pain management.
He also gives credit for his extraordinary optimism to one other.
“My father taught me to thank God every day I feel pain because that means that's one more day I am alive, one more day I am not paralyzed. I do exactly as he told me and do thank God daily for the life I have.”
Membership is $89 per month and offers a variety of classes for all ages and levels of fitness. For information about a two-day trial membership, click here.