This video is the visual companion to this post and can be watched before or after reading. Another link is provided at the end. Please enjoy the video and the music players as you will and feel free to share with anyone who could benefit from my story. HD is recommended for the video.
“Dreams Come True” by Falk Wünsch
Let me start by saying this: This has been the best week of my post-diagnosis life. If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve endured the hardships and challenges of this life with me. You’ve read my anecdotes of pain and loss, and hopefully received my message on the power of perception and it’s ability to turn the tables on negativity and shine a light on a darkening life. Many of you have expressed thoughts of support and hope for me and I appreciate that more than you can know. This post is our payoff. Enjoy this week’s post. For walking through this story beside me and listening to my voice in the dark, let’s enjoy a beautiful sunrise, and a dawn breaking triumphantly on the next chapter in this life of struggle.
Last weekend was the USPA Sacramento Open Powerlifting meet. Otherwise known as the culmination of my first 2 ½ years with PD. In order to illustrate how and why this event had come to mean so much to me, we need to go back to the beginning. Immediately after my diagnosis in March of 2013, I vividly remember sitting alone in my truck, parked in the biggest lot I could find. Shell-shocked and lost, I found no answers in the cold cheeseburger that was my only companion as I took my first steps on this new path.
My answers would come within the next hour as the fires would slowly light in my inner forge, gently warming and reawakening my spirit of competition. That fire had driven me on countless football fields until the age of 30, nine years prior. Over those years though, the forge had grown cold in it’s disuse. In my happy, domesticated life it had simply not been needed, but now, there was a 250 lb. fullback bearing down on me and it was time to be a linebacker again. In this impending, hypothetical collision, an undersized linebacker has a decision to make. The ballcarrier is behind that beast of a fullback who’s only job is to destroy you. Most offenses actually call the play ISO, as the entire 9-man blocking scheme is designed to isolate said undersized linebacker, leaving him alone to defeat the block of a much bigger opponent. The decision to make is to take the block head on at the line of scrimmage, forcing the tailback to alter course into one of your teammates or to try to avoid the collision and slip around. This gives the linebacker the chance to make the tackle himself, but it gives the ballcarrier a lane to run through.
I proudly wear a one-inch scar above my right eye that is a symbol for how I have always approached that decision. In the first days of full-contact practice in my last year of football, countless collisions met head-on had left my facemask bent and just a little too open for full protection. Then, in the infamous Oklahoma drill I ended up carrying the ball against our team’s most ferocious hitter. To try to avoid him was never an option, I put my head down and ran as hard as I could. As our helmets collided his facemask smashed unimpeded into my eyebrow. My only thought as I picked myself up and saw the ribbon of blood pouring to the grass was “I hope the stitches are out in time for our first game.” (They were, all 6 internal stitches as well as the 5 on the outside.)
Now, at 39, life had called an ISO again and the name on the back of the fullback’s jersey was Parkinson’s. The scouting report says he’s undefeated and unbeatable, a true juggernaut that runs over everything in his path. This collision would hurt but that has never mattered before. The play has always been three quick steps to the point of attack and light his ass up or make a pile-up as you get run over.
Within an hour of leaving Dr. Hope’s office with my little six page Parkinson’s pamphlet (yeah really, his name was Dr. Hope), the decision was made to take this thing head on and not just live with it, but to do something amazing with it. I decided I wanted to do something that other people with PD could look at and be inspired, hopefully saving them from the despair I felt for that first half-hour.
The specifics of this grand achievement I wanted would change many times due to injuries and the reality of my reduced abilities in some areas as well as needing to have right bicep and elbow surgery in July of 2014. Eventually though, that course would settle on powerlifting.
After my friends basically forced me to enter my first meet at the Pacific Coast Open in February (Write-up here), my close brush with what was then the national deadlift record would set my course and begin what has become both a quest and an admitted obsession to be the first person with Parkinson’s to hold records in a strength sport. The reason that these records are so important to me is that the people I’m trying to reach don’t care how much I can squat, bench or deadlift, and nor should they. If they see that a man with PD is not only competing with the able-bodied but is able to reach the pinnacle of the sport with both state and national records, that is much harder to ignore.
“Travel With Me” by Danny Rayel
After two soul-crushingly close misses at the Old Skool Iron Classic in July (Pre & Post write-ups at these links) things really started to go badly. Guilt over having to make the decision to let my father pass back in April had begun to weigh heavily on me. Medications that I had intentionally kept to a minimum began losing effectiveness. I became stiffer and slower. My personal life grew painful and a deep loneliness started to weigh me down into depression. As I began to lose my ability in the squat, my second best lift and the keystone of my training, I began to face the very real fear that I was losing to this disease and that it would rob me of my weapons before I ever had a chance to take the field of battle. (This episode is summarized here.)
This fear that I felt goes much deeper than simply dreading becoming handicapped. These records that I chased had come to represent an idea of turning this disease into a positive force in my life. The idea of lifting up and inspiring others had given my life a meaning and a purpose that hadn’t been there before. The fear I felt was almost overwhelming in the face of being denied even my first step on the road of my newly purposeful life. With depression and loneliness deepening I latched onto the phrase Molon Labe, cried out by the Spartan King Leonidas at Thermopylae when the Persians demanded that they lay down their weapons. In rough translation, it means “Come get them.”
Though I began to accept a much darker version of my life than I had planned, I decided to go down fighting. I would take some solace in coaching others to do the great things that I had intended for myself. I put on a brave face, but inside I was presiding over my own funeral as I watched my favorite parts of myself slip away. Deep inside of me though, that forge was still lit and I began to pump furiously at the bellows, willing those coals to grow white hot again and begin rendering the heavy metal that I lifted into mettle.
Refusing to surrender my mobility, I began training for it incessantly. I would spend 10 minutes, multiple times a day in an Olympic wall squat, lying on my back with feet on the wall in a very deep squat, forced into place by the floor’s traction and often using a heavy band around my knees to pull my hips into place. With all of that, however, the struggle to reach depth in my squat remained. If I couldn’t squat to parallel, I could deadlift 1,000 lbs and not break the record. I would need a score in all three lifts or I would be disqualified and denied again, potentially signalling the end of my career as a powerlifter and a motivator. (Yes, I know. I would still be an inspiration but it’s not the same and I had grown to love the idea of excelling again.)
Despite my challenged mobility, my strength in all of my lifts increased dramatically under a peaking program that I designed personally. So the morning of the weigh in for the Sacramento Open, what I had internally accepted might be my last shot at turning this disease into a positive force, found me cautiously optimistic yet ready to handle another bad outcome with dignity.
At this point, I would tell of the epic series of events surrounding those final 24 hours, but their detailed description I must save for later. I apologize to many who were looking for that part of the story as that’s exactly what I’ve said today’s post would be about. Another day, that part of this ordeal will be it’s own story. Today, those details are simply what they were last Friday. Distractions from the goal. For now, just know that separate incidents caused me to miss both early weigh-ins and therefore carry my weight cut for 24 hours and right into the day of the meet. Then, on the morning of the meet, hungry and dehydrated, I maintained my sanity when my car began overheating badly 15 miles into the 60 mile trip that it had just made the night before without the slightest problem. After laughing it off, (with more than a little mania, I’ll admit), I was able to call family for a replacement vehicle, and arrived at the meet well after the allotted time to weigh in. If I hadn’t called ahead, I would’ve been disqualified. As no lifting had started I was allowed to weigh in and compete. I stepped on the scale to see it read 99.9kg out of 100 kg. After everything I had gone through over the previous 24 hours, not to mention the brutal programming and training of the prior two months, I made my weight class by 1/10th of a kilogram. (Not as dramatic as it sounds as I had shorts that I could have shed and a bladder holding the half a small black coffee I had allowed myself.)
After making weight, while putting my singlet on, that bellows deep inside of me began to pump furiously, blowing air through my coals as if a horde of angry demons were working the handles. I began to think of everything I had gone through because of PD. Losing so much of my physical identity as an athlete, seeming to lose the future I had envisioned for myself, and worst of all, separating from my wife and best friend of 15 years in a temporary bout of martyrdom and self-pity. This was the time to even the scales. In my mind there were countless people diagnosed and struggling to find hope that needed me to deny my disease today and prove that we can still live our lives on our terms.
With all of this in mind, hunger and thirst disappeared. Though I ate and drank in an effort to refuel my depleted body in time, I wouldn’t have needed it for those 8 hours of competition. As I warmed up for the squat with my opener set at a very conservative 429 lbs, my inner fire began to grow. At some point I would notice and show my friend Mike, who drove 2 ½ hours just to come and give his support, that my hand tremor was making it’s presence known in spite of all of my activity. By that point it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. The fire inside had flared like a dying star and condensed into a singularity of purpose and calm confidence. I knew then that the record was mine and nothing would stop me.
The squat that had been such a concern for weeks ended with a personal record at 485 lbs, the weight that I had planned as my “pie in the sky” goal. On a day when the judges were being very picky about awarding white lights for depth, my three attempts at 429, 451 and the never before attempted 485 didn’t get a single red light, going 9 for 9 from the judges and preserving a perfect record of 9 successful squats in my first three sanctioned meets.
Though the bench press has been a problem for me for years due to my arm injuries and tightness in my right shoulder due to PD, I managed to tie my competition personal record (PR) at 308 lbs in spite of only being able to really push hard a handful of times in the two month prep program.
When the moment of truth finally arrived and it was time for my first deadlift attempt, my confidence was a mountain. Everything melted away, leaving me to simply pick up more than anyone else in my age bracket and weight class ever has. I had set my opener just over the 573 lb current record at 578 lbs, a weight that I have pulled fairly easily in training. With the call of “Platform ready!” from the head judge, it was time to leave behind the first stage of my fight with Parkinson’s. I would either rise or I would fall again. The culmination of everything I had suffered through and trained for since March of 2013 distilled down to one lift. The voice of doubt that I have often referred to on big lifts was silent for the first time in memory. He knew not to waste his time.
I stepped to the bar and braced my core against my belt. I went through the ritual of taking my grip, using the rotation of the left hand to seat the bar into the grip of the right as I used the same torque on the bar to pull my upper back tight and lock it into position. The cue that my long set up routine was over and lift-off was imminent: the raising of my hips to stretch the hamstrings and glutes, then the pull down to the starting position. Just like my last attempts at the record months before, there was no silence, like in the movies. The crowd was actually very loud in their support and the energy joined that fire that started all of this as my feet tried to push the floor apart. Once the weights broke contact with the floor, the bar practically flew up, just it had in July, only this time the motion continued through a steady, deliberate lockout. As the judges hand swept down in time with the “Down!” command, I kept my grip as I unhinged my hips, letting the bar crash down under control as I turned to the judge’s lights as they all lit up white.
Just like that, mere seconds of ultimate execution turned the worst 2 ½ years of my life into a span of time that I will always regard fondly as a good beginning to the second half of my life. As soon as the record was mine, the fatigue of the extended weight cut started to make it’s first appearance. My final attempts were at 606 lbs, again, a weight that I can pull, but by this time, everything was spent.
As the last lifters completed their attempts and I began to tap out the announcement to my friends on facebook, I couldn’t keep my eyes from welling up as the words formed in my mind and on the screen: “The state record in the deadlift …is a man with Parkinson’s Disease. This is what you can do with Parkinson’s.”
That last is a phrase I started using early on in this project and after November 7th it has finally gained a true weight of meaning. Those words have a value now. We can still excel. By focusing on our strengths rather than what is lost and fighting for everything that any disease, injury or situation tries to steal from us we reconnect with our lives. This applies to everyone, not just those of us who hear the ticking of our life clocks in one way or another. Rekindle your forge and stoke the fires. Work those bellows until the coals glow and your mettle shines bright.
Live your life – This is what you can do with Parkinson’s.