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Diving Accident Survivor Dedicates Life to Helping Others: ‘Being Quadriplegic Is My Superpower' (Exclusive)

“Anybody’s life can change in a split second like mine did,” says Mark Raymond Jr., who opened Split Second Fitness in New Orleans

<p>Studio Colin</p> Mark Raymond and his mother, Ronda, at Split Second Fitness Center in 2023

Studio Colin

Mark Raymond and his mother, Ronda, at Split Second Fitness Center in 2023

The last thing Mark Raymond Jr. remembers in those final seconds before the accident was standing in the back of his buddy’s boat at the end of a perfect July afternoon in 2016, and staring down into the waters of Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain.

Then he dove in and instantly felt his forehead slam into the sandy bottom of the lake.

“I couldn’t move and realized, 'I’m probably going to drown,’ " Raymond tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. “My last thoughts were about my mom and just praying that my friends would realize what was happening.”

He was close to death when his pals pulled him out of the water and performed CPR.

Two weeks later, Raymond awoke from a medically induced coma in a New Orleans hospital to discover that he’d fractured the fifth vertebrae in his neck and could no longer walk or fully use his hands.

“I quickly learned that my life was going to be really different,” he says. “To call it a huge adjustment is an understatement.”

Related: Mom Uses Feet to Care for Baby After Being Paralyzed. Now She's Working to Stop the Disability Stigma (Exclusive)

<p>Courtesy Mark Raymond</p> Mark Raymond Jr. in the hospital weeks after his accident in 2016

Courtesy Mark Raymond

Mark Raymond Jr. in the hospital weeks after his accident in 2016

But that’s just the beginning of Raymond’s story. A year later, frustrated with the lack of wellness resources available for people like himself in New Orleans, the former broadcast engineer decided that his hometown needed an adaptive gym to cater to those with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities.

For more on Raymond, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

The aptly named Split Second Fitness opened in 2021, with specially designed workout equipment and therapy programs that allow clients to grow physically and mentally stronger. Seated elliptical bikes move paralyzed users’ legs, a yoga instructor helps stroke survivors increase flexibility and range of motion and mental health experts facilitate the hard transition to a new way of living.

“Anybody’s life can change in a split second like mine did,” explains Raymond. “What our organization is really centered around is ‘How do I give you hope? And how can I help you transform that hope into action steps for you to create a better tomorrow?’ "

Related: Groundbreaking Use of AI Technology Helps a Paralyzed Man Begin to Move Again

The idea came to Raymond as he spent three months at a state-of-the-art rehab facility in Sacramento that challenged the idea of what recovery could look like.

<p>Studio Colin</p> Mark Raymond Jr. with his mother, Ronda, fitness center director Quanteria Williams-Porche and a young gym client in 2023

Studio Colin

Mark Raymond Jr. with his mother, Ronda, fitness center director Quanteria Williams-Porche and a young gym client in 2023

“I knew I had to get back home and figure out how to do that,” says the natural-born networker, who spent three years raising funds and learning how to run a nonprofit.

“The goal is to increase the quality of life of those with a disability,” he says. “Because if I can give you something to look forward to, it will help that grieving process and help you get back on track to a happy, healthy life.”

For 22-year-old Ray Walker — who was left paralyzed from the chest down in a  car accident that killed his mother and aunt — Raymond’s center has been life-changing.

“It’s more than fitness,” says Walker. “It’s a place where people like me aren’t judged and where I can work towards doing all the things I want to do in my life.”

Those who know Raymond, like former NBA player Lance Thomas, whose boat Raymond was on when the accident occurred, aren’t surprised by what he’s created.

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“He’s smart, charismatic and great at getting people together,” says Thomas, a board member of Raymond’s Split Second Foundation, which provides essential services and resources for people with disabilities. “And he’s managed to make something good out of something bad by helping others."

Raymond — whose grandfather, A.P. Tureaud, spent decades fighting for civil rights as one of Louisiana’s only Black attorneys — insists that he’s just getting started.

“I hope he’d be proud of who I’ve become,” says Raymond, who has plans to open similar gyms across the nation. “I want to be remembered as someone who moved the needle on disability advocacy issues.”

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