By Dave Greenslit
June 01. 2016 6:00AM
Barre farmer teams up with family Spartan challenge
Nellie Zarif, a certified prosthetist at Hanger Clinic in Worcester, stands with her father, Phil Stevens. Stevens is wearing the ExoSym, a device that alleviated the pain he suffered after being injured in a fall. Stevens, his wife, Erin, daughter Molly and son Will competed in the Spartan challenge. T&G Staff/Rick Cinclair
Thirty-six teams competed in NBC’s “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge,” which premieres June 13.
Among those climbing ropes and walls, crawling in mud under barbed-wire and swimming under submerged logs was a family with deep roots in Barre: Phil Stevens, his wife, Erin, daughter Molly and son Will.
The team was the oldest in the competition and the only one in which all are related. But the most remarkable aspect of the family’s participation is that Phil Stevens, 58, could be there at all. For more than a decade, he could barely walk.
Working at his family’s Carter & Stevens Farm, Stevens fell off the roof of a barn, breaking both heel bones and leaving Stevens in constant pain. Surgery did not work, and Stevens was limited to jobs around the farm that kept him off his feet. Not wanting to live his life on pain medication, Stevens at one point suggested to one of his daughters, Nellie (Stevens) Zarif, that his legs be amputated.
“Get rid of them, they’re junk,” Stevens recalled saying, during an interview about the upcoming show.
Instead, he turned to a device called ExoSym, which is a kinetic orthosis originally developed for soldiers with injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ExoSym has a foot plate that fits into the shoe, a brace to stabilize the ankle and rods that run up the calf to just below the knee. The system controls pain while allowing movement. Stevens can now do everything he used to and, in the Spartan event, considerably more.
He said the device has changed his life, ending what he calls the “12 years from hell” he endured after falling from the barn roof. Zarif, a certified prosthetist at the Hanger Clinic on Park Avenue in Worcester, said the ExoSym works well for people with other lower leg injuries, as well. Hanger has more than 750 clinics in the country, seven in Massachusetts.
The new NBC show was inspired by the hugely popular Spartan obstacle races. Each team consisted of two men and two women, matched with an elite Spartan racer. They met on a 10,000-acre horse ranch near Atlanta in December, competing for a $250,000 prize.
Preparation, for the most part, consisted of what Stevens already does. “We train on the farm every day,” he said, cutting wood, loading trucks and doing myriad other heavy lifting farm chores. He did wade through a chest-deep frog pond on the farm, however, to test his braces in the water.
Stevens said participants in the show are limited to what they can say, but an NBC promotional trailer shows racers crawling in mud under barbed wire, swimming, paddling, climbing ropes and scaling a 25-foot, slanted but slippery wall.
“All the crazy Spartan stuff,” he said. “This was not for the meek at heart. I’m kind of amazed that we did it. You can’t underestimate the power of adrenaline.”
He did disclose that his braces provided a useful handhold for his team on the scaling wall, and that his son had to rescue his wife after she got stuck under a log in four feet of water. “He saved her and off we went,” Stevens said.
“It was an unbelievable experience to do this with my wife and two kids,” he said. “I’m proud to be a family that could do this.”
The 200-acre Carter & Stevens Farm, which has a farm store and barbecue area and will soon open its Stone Cow Brewery, is no stranger to obstacle races. It has hosted Spartan races in the past and will do so again June 4 and 5 and Aug. 13 and 14. On July 23, it will feature Battle Frog, an obstacle race inspired by Navy SEALs.
“I fell in love with the whole dynamic of these races from having people at the farm,” Stevens said. Describing his family’s experience in Atlanta, he added, “We proved four people ‘off the shelf’ can do it. We’re not all super athletes.”
Stevens said he probably will be too busy hosting the obstacle races at his farm to run in one of them, but he hasn’t ruled it out. And beyond that?
“Before the Exo, if you gave me a million dollars I wouldn’t do the Boston Marathon,” he said. “Now, I’d do it for five hundred.”
Stevens’ team will be featured on “Spartan: Ultimate Team Challenge” on June 20.