He was tired after football practice, so 13-year-old Jeff Butler laid down in the back of his family’s SUV.
That decision changed his life forever when another car slammed into the side of the car he was riding in, breaking Butler’s neck.
The Fort Wayne, Ind., native became a C5-6 quadriplegic, which means he can move his upper body but has limited hand dexterity.
In the years following the accident, Butler said he went to rehab for hours every day in an attempt to learn how to walk again.
But he reached a turning point at age 15 when he realized that walking again shouldn’t be his goal.
“It wasn’t me abandoning the idea of walking, it was becoming more comfortable in my skin and realizing that...a lot of opportunities are going to present themselves without being able to walk,” he said. “Since then, I’ve been using a wheelchair.”
He also started playing wheelchair rugby, which used to be called murderball, a sport specifically for people confined to a wheelchair that combines elements of basketball, ice hockey, handball and rugby.
Just as the decision to lie down in the back of the SUV changed his life, so did wheelchair rugby. It set him on a path to try to earn a spot on the U.S. wheelchair rugby Paralympics team in 2016, which also led him to move to Austin. More than anything, Butler wanted a gold medal.
The coach for the USA wheelchair rugby team lived in Austin, Butler said, and invited him to play on a club team here. If he ever wanted to make the U.S. team, moving to Austin was his best shot.
So Butler left Indiana University, where he had spent his freshman year, and enrolled in the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.
At UT he got a degree in management information systems, which Butler described as “business people who can code.” After graduating in 2014, Butler figured he needed some real-world work experience before starting a company.
He went to work in quality assurance for Austin-based software company Mobi, while also training furiously for the 2016 Paralympics. By then he had made the U.S. team.
Training involved lots of travel, Butler said, with 61 travel days during the season, which runs from April to September. The official home for the USA wheelchair rugby team is in Birmingham, Ala., Butler said.
“It was one of the most special moments in my whole life,” Butler said. Playing over the roar of 14,000 people was “wild,” he said.
In the end, Butler’s team got silver, losing to Australia in double overtime.
When he returned to Austin, Butler decided to leave Mobi and start his own business. He co-founded VIPatient, a telehealth startup, last fall.
Butler said his telehealth software helps doctors chat with existing patients over video.
He is targeting concierge medicine and already has several customers, he said. He declined to disclose revenue, and is preparing to raise money from investors starting in May.
And he’s still doing wheelchair rugby. Butler is hoping to return to the Paralympics in 2020.
“My hope is that I’m able to continue to juggle all of these things,” he said. “It’s real-life work, paying bills, starting a company, and making it to Tokyo 2020. I still want that gold.”
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