May 18, 2015 12:00 PM

DANCING WITH THE STARS’

NOAH GALLOWAY

For most celebrities, competing on Dancing with the Stars comes with the added benefit of getting in the best shape of their lives. Not so for Noah Galloway. “Being on this show is taking up so much of my time, I haven’t been to the gym in two months!” the 33-year-old Alabama native and father of three says. “I’ve got to get back and get my body to performance level.” That performance isn’t strictly samba related: A runner and fitness trainer, Galloway has set new standards when it comes to pushing physical limits. The former Army sergeant lost his left arm and leg fighting in Iraq in 2005. A depression almost as debilitating as his wounds followed before Galloway decided to turn his life around. “Everything I do is a struggle because of my injuries,” he confesses. “But that motivates me.” So much so that he won a competition to appear on the cover of Men’s Fitness in 2014. The issue became the magazine’s bestseller of the year and led Dancing producers to cast him on the show. Now he’s become a fan favorite on the hit ABC dance competition. (His freestyle with partner Sharna Burgess has earned more than 40 million views on Facebook so far.) As the third amputee to compete on the series (after Heather Mills and Amy Purdee), Galloway has gone farther than he ever anticipated. “People tell me, ‘I forget you’re missing an arm and a leg,’ ” he says. “That’s the greatest compliment I could ever receive.” The star met with PEOPLE’s West Coast senior writer Lynette Rice to talk about his tough journey to the top.

Galloway doesn’t remember anything from Dec. 19, 2005, when his Humvee hit a tripwire during his second tour in Iraq. He was unconscious for five days.

From the explosion to when I woke up on Christmas Day, everything I know is from what I’ve been told. The bomb that hit my door threw my 9,000-lb. Humvee through the air and into a canal. I had a hole in my jaw. My arm was blown off. Both of my legs were severely injured [and one had to eventually be amputated.] One of my buddies thought I was already dead. I woke up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., as my parents were walking in. My mom explained everything to me.

Galloway adapted quickly to a prosthetic leg and wed second wife Tracy, with whom he has two children, Jack, 7, and Rian, 5. (He also has a 10-year-old son, Colston, with first wife Brandi.) But family happiness couldn’t stop him from sinking into a deep depression.

Everyone kept telling me I was going to go through some stages of depression whether I realized it or not. I was like, not me. I portrayed myself as this invincible person to everyone I knew. I said to the prosthetist, “I can’t wait to put it on, I’m tired of being in this wheelchair.” He said, “You are probably not going to be able to walk on it. You’ve been laying in a hospital bed for almost three months. You’re sore.” The first day I put it on, I walked on it. They were impressed. I never sat down in a wheelchair again. I pushed myself. It was so hard, but I acted like it wasn’t a big deal. When it all started to hit me, I started to crumble. I didn’t want to tell anybody. Everyone was so impressed with how well I was doing, so I hid it. I never opened up to Tracy about it. I didn’t want to be vulnerable to her. I would go out drinking all the time. I was partying like nothing was wrong. And then there were those moments that I would just sit at home and drink by myself.

Increasingly bitter, Galloway looked in the mirror one day and had a revelation.

I thought about my kids. I wasn’t being a good father. That stands out as the defining moment. I just knew that something had to change. I realized I still had two limbs: I could do something with that. It took time. It didn’t happen overnight. I had to change my eating habits. I had to get into a gym. It’s been four years since I started getting back into shape, and even to this day I’m happy with my improvements. Now I don’t even think about it, I just walk. I don’t have to watch my feet to make sure they are under me. It feels like a long time since the injuries happened. If I even have a dream about running, it feels like I’m doing it with a prosthetic.

After his second marriage ended, Galloway continued to stay motivated and pushed himself to compete in obstacle-course races. In 2014 he booked the cover of Men’s Health. The resulting fan reaction took him by surprise.

Men’s Health just blew things up. I met Kenneth Cole, and he asked if I would promote Mankind [the brand’s fragrance for men]. There have been days I’ve woken up and said, “Why do I do this every day? Why am I doing these grueling races?” Then I’ll get a message on Facebook from a veteran or from someone with a disability, someone who’s been overweight who feels like I’ve taken their excuses away. I’ve made a parent feel better about what their child will face in life, that anything is possible. That’s been a constant reminder of why I must keep pushing myself.

When he joined Dancing with the Stars in March, Galloway didn’t think he could win but was happy to be competing.

It gave me a much larger platform to share my story. With fitness, I’ve asked people to do something that will challenge them. Dancing is my challenge; it is not natural to me. I only thought I’d be on for three weeks at best. I’ve had a lot of my friends watch these dances that are really fast, and they said they were nervous for me before I even danced. What I want to work on most is to not let the smile go off my face. Every dance I’ve watched, as long as everyone looks like they are having fun, that’s all that matters.

Galloway’s shirtless performances have become his signature, but he’s not always comfortable being a sex symbol.

For a race, I can eat. I have a certain diet, I push myself in a gym, and I eat carbs. Now, for TV, I’m still learning the ways of how to manipulate your body. When you take a photo you look fit, but you aren’t race ready. In fact, I told Sharna if I’m going to be shirtless in a dance, I need to know a week before so I can change my eating habits!

After Dancing, Galloway, who is now dating Army Reserve Specialist Jamie Boyd, plans to tackle other challenges—including getting used to a prosthetic arm.

I said that if I make it so far into the show, I was going to buy a motorcycle. But if I’m going to drive a motorcycle, I gotta have an arm. I never did wear a prosthetic arm, because I don’t have time to wear it and adapt to it. But I got two leather jackets from Kenneth Cole, and I feel they can’t go to waste—and they just don’t work without a motorcycle!

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