Strong body, steely resolve

Updated July 06, 2013

Patrick Whaley opens the back door of his SUV and grabs a pair of jeans to throw on over his shorts, his body warm and still sweating from an evening workout.

It’s move-in day for Patrick, a 22-year-old senior at Georgia Tech. He just needs to carry a couple of lamps into his first off-campus apartment on Northside Drive.

Inside the Midtown parking deck, he’s preoccupied by the invention of a product he’s been working on for 14 years — a weighted suit that could turn the physically fit into elite athletes.

Patrick recently had a major breakthrough when he figured out an easy way to embed squishy gel weights into the fabric of the suit.

“Pockets,” Patrick says with a smile and a sigh, recalling his eureka moment. “Put the gels in pockets.”

But that sense of satisfaction doesn’t last. As Patrick steps out of his SUV that night in May 2009, he’s attacked by three masked teenagers, one of them pointing a gun. A bullet rips through Patrick’s chest, piercing his right lung and liver. It nicks a major vein. Patrick peers down and eyes a silver-dollar sized circle of blood pooling on his chest. He feels his lung collapse.

But Patrick isn’t the type to give up. Not when grade-school teachers told him he would never make it through college. Not when friends scoffed at his idea for inventing a shirt that makes you look like a superhero. And not then, when he is left to bleed to death in a parking deck.

The shooting, it turns out, will be much like his invention: It will slow Patrick down at first, but eventually make him stronger.

 As a child in Peachtree City, Patrick climbed trees and shoulder-rolled out of moving toy cars just for the fun of it.

The boy with blue eyes and curly bright red hair was agile, quick and fearless.

He was also skinny. He coveted big, beefy muscles like the ones he’d seen on Sylvester Stallone in the “Rocky” movies.

At 8 years old, Patrick hatched an idea for bulking up. He started loading up his book bag with extra books. Days passed. Patrick didn’t develop brawny muscles — only a sore back and bad posture.

But he never abandoned his idea for developing a strength-building product. He was nothing if not determined in everything he pursued. His mother, Deborah “D.J.” Whaley, recalls how he wouldn’t let her throw away broken toys. Instead, she watched in amazement as her toddler sat on the floor and methodically put together the pieces of a broken car or truck.

Letters on a page, however, made little sense to Patrick. Reading was so difficult for him that when he was asked to read out loud in class, Patrick quipped jokes instead of reading the passage.

Teachers didn’t find it funny and told Patrick — and his parents — he’d never make it at a four-year college. Teachers and counselors encouraged his parents to enroll their son in special classes. But Patrick’s parents refused and hired a tutor instead. In sixth grade, Patrick’s family moved from Fayette County to Duluth. A new teacher helped identify the root of Patrick’s academic struggles — dyslexia.

Tutors helped unravel the mystery of the learning disability. Adept at recognizing patterns, Patrick looked at words more like shapes than letters. He listened to classical musical to help satisfy — and occupy — the creative part of his brain, allowing him to better focus. He started excelling in school.

By Patrick’s freshman year, he was lean and strong but still thin, weighing only 120 pounds. He joined Duluth High School’s competitive swim team at the end of the year, considered late to start competitive swimming. Many of his teammates had been competing in the water since they were 7 years old.

Swim coach Jim Reason immediately saw raw power, but told Patrick he had a lot of catching up to do with his technique. Patrick’s work ethic kicked in. After going to the swim team practice in the early afternoon, he’d do a second swim practice on his own at another pool.

“I knew right then he was a coach’s dream,” said Reason. “He craves getting better and you can only do that through hard work.” Patrick went on to set a school record in the 200 freestyle his senior year in high school.

An eye for invention
Meanwhile, Patrick tirelessly worked on inventing something.

Deeply influenced by his parents, Patrick watched his father, Eric Whaley, an airline pilot, fix anything that broke in the house. Like his father, Patrick loved solving problems and understanding how things work. He also watched his mother rise through the ranks at Panasonic in the marketing department. When they watched television together, he and his mother would critique the commercials.

“We would decipher what demographic they were targeting, how it represents the brand, or even how it would make you feel as a customer,” he said.

One of Patrick’s earliest ideas involved using Alka Seltzer and water to fuel jet engines. He also drew up plans for an automated lawn mower.

Every idea and every step of the way, his dad pointed out obstacles, giving his son a reality check. (Where are you going to get all that Alka Seltzer? What about the safety issues? Who is going to buy it?)

Patrick enjoyed some early successes. He and and a friend developed a software program for swipe cards and convinced a gym to use it to give members access.

When he was in the sixth grade, Patrick rode in his father’s ’81 Corvette. When he got a whiff of the musty smell a car can give off after not running for a while — Bam! He smelled a good idea. Scented air filters. He was convinced that when he got older, that would be The One.  And then, in 2005, shortly after getting accepted to Georgia Tech, Patrick was walking through Home Depot and there they were — scented air filters with baking soda. His idea.

“My sister thought of Rollerblades in shoes and then Heelys came out with those shoes. And then I realized, everyone has ideas. Those who become successful are the people who act on it. I didn’t even have a prototype. I knew I had to answer basic questions: How much does it cost to bring to market? What is the easiest thing I can make by myself?” he said.

In college, Patrick decided to focus on his childhood idea for weighted exercise clothing as a training tool for athletes. Patrick, an athlete himself who dabbled in body building, was fascinated with anatomy and physiology.

At Georgia Tech, Patrick’s dorm room looked like a science experiment involving gels and rubbers and silicone. He found a company that made special bandages for skin lesions. He bought sheets of it and got a seamstress to make a shirt, but the material was difficult to work with and it took weeks to complete.

He went back to the drawing board again and again. He taught himself to sew watching YouTube videos. He eventually created a prototype for weighted exercise clothing that strategically placed eight pounds of squishy hydro-gels across the upper body and upper arms. The idea was to create a shirt that essentially builds muscles by simply wearing it.

During the summer of 2008, Patrick took a fluid mechanics class. It was a required class, but one many students dreaded because it combined complex math and physics and required sophisticated analysis. The professor, Paul Neitzel, was having a particularly difficult time that summer. His son, who was in his 30s at the time, was shot at an ATM in Sandy Springs.

“I never passed the hall and saw Patrick without him stopping me and asking me how my son was. No other student was as vigilant checking in with me,” said Neitzel. “I have a reputation for being gruff. But that was something I would never forget.”

Nearly a year later, Neitzel found himself rushing to the hospital again, this time for Patrick.

Violence strikes
Patrick parked his mother’s Yukon SUV in the garage at Tenside Apartments on Northside. He had just completed a short run and stopped at a park to do some pushups. It was late, after 10 p.m.

A mix of excitement and concern raced through his mind. He felt good about his weighted shirt, which was nearing completion. But the rising senior also felt like he was running out of time. He wanted some of those shirts on college football players that upcoming fall. And it was already early May.

He also felt upbeat about moving into his first off-campus apartment. He just needed to move in a couple lamps and he’d be all set.

He opened the back door of the SUV to grab the pair of jeans. He heard someone running, the sound of feet pounding the pavement. There was yelling, something about handing over money.
Young men in masks hovered over him. All three carried guns.

“This is a joke, right?” he said to the three teenagers.

He didn’t think the gun was real. But then he felt the barrel of it pressed to the back of his head. The young men demanded Patrick get on the ground and rifled through his pockets. Patrick rolled over on his right side to try and hide the wallet, but they found it.

Patrick didn’t know it at the time, but 19 hours earlier these same three teenagers had robbed a Georgia State University student. They forced him into a stolen van, blindfolded him and used his ATM card to withdraw money. After they released the young man, they fired two shots, striking him once in the leg.

That same gun was now aimed at Patrick’s head. The shooter pulled the trigger and — click. The safety lock was on. The shooter released the safety and Patrick tried to swat the gun away, but it went off, firing into his chest like a burning freight train tearing through his body. The bullet pierced Patrick’s lung, grazed his liver and hit a major vein before exiting his back.

The suspects fled.

Patrick rushed back to his car. He found his cellphone and dialed 911. He tried not to panic. His lung started to collapse. He was running out of breath, every inhale met with sharp pain, like razor blades. Three female students exited the elevator. One stayed with him; the others ran outside the apartment complex to flag down an ambulance.

When the doctor asked Patrick if he knew who he was, Patrick made a joke.

“No, sir, we’ve never met before,” said Patrick.

Still alert when he reached Grady Hospital, Patrick tried to stay positive. He recalled some of father’s jokes to keep his spirits up. Before going into the operating room, he felt a sense of peace. God, I’ve done everything in my power I can do, he thought.

Between 10 percent and 15 percent of the patients who arrive at Grady Hospital emergency room are in danger of losing a limb — or their life. Patrick was part of that group of people whose lives hung in the balance. The bullet came within an inch of Patrick’s heart, and he’d lost 60 percent of his blood. Dr. David Feliciano, then surgeon-in-chief at Grady, removed a quarter of Patrick’s right lung to stop the bleeding.

“There was no whining. No ‘why me?’” recalled Feliciano, now chief of general surgery at Indiana University Medical Center in Indianapolis. “He was incredibly cooperative and he wanted to get better fast and put this terrible incident behind him.”

Even as he convalesced at the hospital, Patrick came up with ideas for new inventions. Hooked up to IVs and receiving powerful pain medications, he implored his mother to jot down ideas. One was for a bed sheet that could move to prevent bed sores; another one was for a 45-degree angled chair to help support a recovering patient transition from sitting to standing upright.

Patrick’s mother wrote down everything he said, even if he mumbled incomplete sentences. If she didn’t have paper, she’d grab a napkin or write it on her hand. You have to use steel and aluminum...iron would be too heavy...antimicrobial... Later, mother and son would try to make sense of the rambling.

“So what did Patrick invent today?” the staff at Grady would joke.

Visitors poured into his room, delivering fresh fruit and encouraging words. A friend gave him Superman underwear and T-shirts. Professor Neitzel visited him several times.

Discharged after 17 days, Patrick walked out of the hospital in his socks; his bloodied shoes were taken for evidence. At first, he couldn’t lift his arm. He felt like he was moving in slow motion, like moving through a swimming pool of syrup, he said. But little by little, he got better.

Three months after the shooting, he turned to his own muscle-building shirt to aid his recovery.

In August 2009, just three months after the shooting, he moved into his apartment.

“I have the right to live free, wherever I want, and I won’t succumb to threats from anyone. Not now, not ever,” said Patrick about his decision to move back to the same apartment and drive his car back into the same parking garage.

He also resumed work on his muscle-building shirt and entered it in Georgia Tech’s InVenture Prize competition for students.

In October of that same year, the three suspects pleaded guilty. Robert Antwon Hodge was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while 19-year-old Maurice Brown and 18-year-old Deangelo Love received 25-year sentences.

Picking a winner
Clad in a pale green shirt and black blazer, Patrick stands on a stage, one of eight finalists for the annual InVenture Prize, an American Idol-like competition that started with 300 undergraduate students. It’s the kind of competition that makes you think, wow, that’s clever. Why didn’t I think of that? The winner takes home $15,000.

Patrick’s invention is up against a headset that detects brain waves to prevent drowsy drivers from falling asleep behind the wheel, an innovative drum tuner, a high-tech flash-card organizer and a portable cooling gadget for beverages. The judges ask questions, and they don’t sugarcoat their skepticism.

When examining the cooling gadget, one judge quips: “Didn’t we take care of that problem with ice?”

It’s Patrick’s turn. A friend models the black, Batman-looking shirt fitted with gel weights. Patrick makes his pitch for a shirt he’s named, “Omega Wear.” The endurance-training shirt uses embedded, form fitting gels that boost the intensity of workouts and build strength. A video shows Patrick’s story of working on the product and nearly dying from a gunshot wound.

“As soon as I could get into the shirt, it was one of the proudest days of my life,” he says in the video.

He tells the judges the shirt can be worn while doing laundry or washing the dishes to burn more calories and get more fit. He tells the judges they could be wearing the shirts while judging the competition.

“This is really what America needs,” he tells the judges, “the ability to look yourself in the mirror and feel confident and walk outside your door and know you deserve everything you get.”

Over the years, as Patrick worked on developing his invention, he faced plenty of naysayers. A high school girlfriend told him he was wasting his time. His first patent attorney told him not to bother applying.

But the panel of judges has a different reaction. They award him first place. He also wins the People’s Choice Award and collects an additional $5,000.

Overcoming challenges
Still, major challenges loomed. The sports training industry is highly competitive.

The following year in 2011, Patrick’s shirt was ready for market. It was a sleek polyester blend, weighing eight pounds. And it had a new name — Titin — the name of the largest protein in the body that functions as a molecular spring.

For Patrick, Titin was a metaphor for his life springing back.

In 2012, he had investors but disappointing sales — less than 1,000 shirts for the year. By early 2013, investors started getting nervous.

But Patrick wouldn’t give up. He even expanded the line to include shorts.

In the spring of 2013, Titin was on the verge of bankruptcy. Patrick’s over-sized office was sparse, the sewing machine quiet, the conference room empty. Most of the sales staff was let go.

Patrick took charge of sales and had a series of breakthroughs. Michael Strohl, CEO of Lelantos Group, a new security and safety training company, committed to purchase 20,000 shirts, each one retailing for $250. An Australian fitness supply company placed an order for 3,000 shirts. Strength and conditioning coaches for professional athletes also began showing interest.

Fans of his product include Andrew Fischer, personal trainer for golfer Bubba Watson. He tried on the shirt and fell in love with it. He had Bubba in the shirt almost immediately.

“I try to always be ahead of the curve,” said Fischer. “It’s an integral tool in my box to help Bubba become one of the most fit players.”

On a recent afternoon, Patrick, now 26, starts warming up for a workout when he feels throbbing in his chest, a familiar sensation he sometimes gets before a rain storm. Doctors say it’s not uncommon for a shift in barometric pressure to cause pain around the incision site following chest surgery. It’s a bitter reminder of the torment to the body.

Patrick pulls on his weighted shirt. Standing 6 feet, 4 inches tall, he is lean and powerfully built. The bright red hair of his childhood is more copper toned now; his blue eyes intense.

With every push up, he feels like his ribs are on the verge of bursting. In the pouring rain, he doesn’t stop. Instead, he picks up the pace and then skips rope at a dizzying speed.

“The faster I go, the less it will hurt,” is Patrick’s philosophy.

Patrick does what he’s always done. With every obstacle, he fights harder to overcome it. And in the end, it only makes him stronger.

“You are always going to have challenges and adversity,” said Patrick. “The shooting just happened to be mine. It’s up to you to challenge it and overcome it.”

Last spring, Helena Oliviero read an article on the WSB website about Patrick Whaley and his efforts to raise money for Sage School for children with dyslexia in Gwinnett County. The piece talked about Patrick being shot during a robbery, but what grabbed Helena’s attention was his observation that everyone encounters adversity, but it’s up to the individual to overcome it. Impressed by Patrick’s attitude, Helena contacted him to learn more. For the past few months, Helena has spent many hours interviewing Patrick at his office in Alpharetta. She also reviewed police and court records and interviewed his surgeon, his mother and his swim coach, among others. That kind of passion for a good story is what fuels Personal Journeys, making it an award-winning feature and a reader favorite.

Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor

About the reporter

Helena Oliviero joined the AJC in 2002 as a features writer. Previously she worked for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Knight Ridder as a correspondent in Mexico. She was educated at the University of San Francisco.

About the photographer

Jason Getz joined the AJC as a staff photographer in October 2005. A graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology, he previously worked at the Tuscaloosa News in Alabama and The Daily Item in Sunbury, Pa.