NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Bill Mansfield is a knowledgeable outdoorsman who enjoys boating and deep-sea diving. A couple steps inside his home you'll find a cabinet stocked with an impressive collection -- 50 years in the making -- of shells, shark's teeth, and other ocean finds.
But Mansfield explains that he is embracing a newer identity, "gym rat," especially after a fall in February 2017 that nearly left him paralyzed and bound to a wheelchair.
"I was walking at the top of the stairs ready to go to bed, and some stuff slipped out of my hands," Mansfield recalls. "I went down to pick it up, blacked out, and woke up at the bottom of the steps."
The 71-year-old fell down an entire flight of stairs head-first, landing on the ground.
"My wife was here, and she heard me go down the steps," said Mansfield. "I had black marks on the wall, where my feet had gone over my head."
Mansfield's wife drove him to the hospital, where doctors discovered he had broken his neck and his back. Most concerning, the C1 vertebrae -- the uppermost spinal bone -- had broken in three separate places.
"I agree with a couple of doctors who said, "You should be dead,'" said Mansfield. "They put a brace on me and sent me over to the hospital."
He spent about 6 days in the hospital, where the doctors' warnings left him on edge.
"I thought about wheelchairs and paralysis, and all kinds of things that are worst-case scenarios," said Mansfield. "The doctor tells you that the rest of your life will be determined by what you do in the next few weeks because the wrong choice will put you in a wheelchair."
After heading home, Mansfield began the painstaking healing process. One day, he decided to make a call for help to his personal trainer, who he had been working with for about a year before the accident.
"He called me one day, and he was like, "Well, I broke my neck and my back,'" said Alexandra Lipford.
They quickly discovered they had more in common than an interest in fitness.
"She has recovered from a horrible accident also, which is something that really drew us together," said Mansfield.
When Lipford was 14-years-old, she was in a frightening car accident.
"The vehicle flipped over and landed on top of my leg at like 45 miles an hour, and slid on top of my leg," said Lipford.
Once in the hospital, doctors told her they would have to amputate after gangrene set in. But luckily for Lipford, she was able to recover and save the limb.
Lipford said her recovery took about seven years, however, she admits her leg still hurts sometimes.
"I used to do wakeboarding, I rollerbladed, BMX," said Lipford. "I couldn't do any of those things anymore. So that broke my heart."
But Lipford turned tragedy into triumph, even overcoming her family's bankruptcy that forced the teen, her brother, and parents to live inside an old grocery store for a time.
Now, Lipford has worked to obtain 15 fitness certifications and said her personal recovery has taught her patience in working with clients as a fitness professional.
"I was told, I'd have to have my leg amputated and I'd never walk again. And I'm doing it," said Lipford
The trainer brought her education and life experience front on center when working with Mansfield, who shares he felt terrified of moving during the recovery.
But the pair devised a plan for rehabilitation and got to work.
Two key aspects of Mansfield's recovery were yoga to help with core stability and elastic bands for controlled resistance training.
"We even went to his boat, and I trained him on his boat, so I could actually get him on and off and show him different things," said Lipford.
And in just three months, Mansfield was back to his active lifestyle, even posing in a photo by his boat to share how his dedication to the rehabilitation process had paid off.
"I look a little different, I feel a lot better than I ever have in my life, and that's kind of hard to say that at my age, but that's pretty much the truth," said Mansfield.
He said the recovery helped reinforce a self-improvement mindset he had developed during his life, and even changed his thoughts toward exercises like yoga.
"I used to actually despise (yoga exercises), but now I just don't like them, so it's improved," Mansfield said with a chuckle. "There's always somebody a little bit better at something than you are, but be the best you can."
As a trainer, Lipford offers advice that everyone experiencing a physical difficulty can use.
"Be the ultimate version of yourself, because the only thing that you can do is better yourself, and there's no point in looking at what everyone else is doing because everyone's different," said Lipford. "We're all human, but none of us have the same DNA. You have to do what works for you, and do the best that you can."