Finding strength in adversity: Meet the Lisburn bodybuilder who rebuilt his life after car crash

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A man who started weight training to help his recovery from a serious car accident has told how he rebuilt his life and body.

n what has been a spectacular few weeks on the global bodybuilding stage, Lisburn’s James Melville scooped a series of prestigious titles, including two professional bodybuilder statues.

In September, the 41-year-old picked up the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF) Irish Champion title to qualify as a professional.

He then went on to win the PCA British Championships, where he was awarded a second professional status.

Fresh from Munich, where he finished fourth in the European championships at the end of October, he now has his sights set on the world championships in Birmingham later this month.

James, who owns and runs The Compound Room gym with his fiancee, Edel Burns, in his hometown, said his spectacular run hadn’t sunk in yet.

“I have been training since January. My goal was to earn my pro status with the WNBF,” he said.

“The PCA British Championships, which is untested, was only meant to be for fun — I didn’t expect to do well. Winning and getting a second professional status was a very welcome surprise.

“For a lot of people who are working towards something for themselves, it is good for them to see the success, especially for the community in my gym.”


James with his collection of trophies

Bodybuilding has been dogged by controversy and claims of drug abuse, but it is working hard to change its image.

Natural bodybuilding competitions subject athletes to rigorous drug and lie detector tests before allowing them to compete.

James said: “I have never used performance-enhancing drugs of any kind to gain an advantage. The drug testing before competitions is as stringent as those carried out at Olympic level.

“This isn’t about casting darkness on the other side of the sport but shining a light on natural bodybuilding and showing what is possible, especially to young boys coming into the sport.

“For me, it started as a necessity for rehabilitation, so I have always had a holistic approach.

“I just want to show that through good nutrition and exercise it can be a healthy part of a healthy lifestyle.”

As a professional athlete competing with two of the sport’s biggest governing bodies, James can now secure sponsorship to help pay his way as he competes against the best in the world.

He explained: “As a professional, I can go to the big competitions all over the world and my travel costs are covered and there is a chance to make prize money.

“It can be quite stressful to compete at that level with all the costs. Especially with running a business and having to leave it for periods of time, there is that added pressure of spending time away from it.”

James has built up a thriving members-only gym. Many of his clients are now also training and competing as bodybuilders.


James competing in a contest

It was not a career he had planned, but life took an unexpected turn when he was 20 and living and working in London as a bartender at a cocktail bar.

He explained: “I had trained on and off from the age of 13, but I never saw myself making a career of it.

“At 20, I was involved in a car accident that completely derailed me and put me in a different direction.

“Out of a very difficult time there came so many positives.

“I suffered a brain trauma, which left me paralysed down my left side. Initially, I was in King’s College Hospital in London, where I had brain surgery.

“Then I was moved home to the care of my local health trust, which was fantastic.

“It took me about nine months to rebuild my muscle back.

“As part of that, I was encouraged to do some strength training with weights, and what started out as a necessity became a passion.

“I researched it more and decided to become a personal training coach.”


James in hospital after his accident

James opened The Compound Room in Lisburn in 2016 and gradually built up its membership.

From day one he had a unique approach. “Before I started my own business, I was getting referrals for people with mental and physical health (issues) that needed to factor exercise into their recovery. For people with mental health (difficulties), the environment is very important to them and often anxiety
was stopping them from going to a gym,” he explained.

“From the start, I made my gym members-only to create a better environment for people.

“With members-only gyms, there is more familiarity and you can create a space of comfort.”

James and his partner put everything they had into building the business, which had just started to produce a profit before Covid-19 struck.

“It took a few years, but by 2019 we had built it up and it was a success and we decided to move to larger premises,” he said.

“We sank every penny we had into the move and had no credit left in the bank. We had just opened 18 days when the first lockdown happened. We were very frightened and didn’t know how we were going to survive.

“We got a lot of loyal support from members who helped us get through it. Thankfully, we reopened last year and are now in a good spot again.”

Now that he is ending the year on a high, his plans after competing in the world championships later this month include taking a break next year before building his career in 2024.

James said: “The European championships in Munich last month was my first pro show. I had been hoping to finish in the top 10, so I was elated to finish in the top five.

“Now I have the world championships, I hope to go in and hold my own.

“If I get into the top five, that would be amazing.

“That will conclude my season. Mentally and physically, it can take its toll. You need to give your body a break.

“I’m hoping that when I finish the world championships, I can sit down and take in what has happened this year and appreciate the efforts of everyone who supported me.”

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