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Hard Core Training Has New Meaning to Me
When I was 13, a family friend gave me a box of bodybuilding magazines. I never imagined that the man who inspired me so much, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would one day become governor of California.
I participated in my first bodybuilding competition in 1984, when I was 16 years old. Since then, I’ve been on about 40 shows and won titles like Mr. Philadelphia, Mr. Pennsylvania, Mr. Physics USA, and in 1993, Mr. . North America.
I was at the top of my game, preparing to turn pro, when my body started giving me problems. In 1994-95, I had problems with balance and leg strength. I was working with my friend one day and told him that I had looked on the internet and thought that I might have the disease, multiple sclerosis.
He just laughed and said, “Paul, you don’t have MS, you just squatted 550 pounds!” So I laughed about it too; there was no way I had MS. In the back of my mind, however, I realized I was squatting on a Smith machine; it didn’t force me to balance myself.
As my health continued to decline, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1997. I was still going to compete a year later, but lost my sight. It made me fall into a deep depression and, with MS, it also led to a lot of stress. Because I felt so bad, I asked the doctor to prescribe me antidepressants, sleeping pills, and medicine for my muscle spasms. The drugs made me even more tired and discouraged, and my MS progressed to the point where I had to be in a wheelchair.
I sat in my wheelchair for a long time, feeling sorry for myself. I then met my future wife, Judy, and she told me that I had to come to terms with my MS. I told her that I didn’t want to and that I hated it, but she told me that I had to do something other than feel down. I wasn’t sure if I could because the doctors told me I had primary progressive MS. It is the worst kind; you are not better.
I decided not to believe the doctors and went back to the gym to start exercising. I found out which muscles are mainly affected by MS – the core muscles (abdominal, hip and back muscles). When these weaken, it is like a flower with a frail stem that falls when the wind blows. That was me, and that’s why people with MS are always looking for something to help balance them. I also learned about abdominal muscles by watching my son, Tyler. When he was only 7 months old, he had the leg strength to stand, but I had to hold him so he could balance himself. When he was 11 months old, he was still using the couch for support while he walked – much like I had to. Then I realized that for an infant, the core muscles are the last to develop, and in someone with MS or other neurological disorders, they are the first to go. Before he could walk, Tyler was balancing on his knees. I thought, “What a great way to exercise; do it on your knees and challenge the balance. You don’t have to worry about falling! I also discovered that by waking up new muscles, I could stabilize myself and walk better.
The average person activates about 60-70% of their muscles over their lifetime, a bodybuilder about 75% (they’re just a lot bigger), but a dancer or gymnast awakes about 90% or more. I thought to myself, “Wow! If I could tap into those muscles, it would be like having a spare tire for your car. So the way I did it was to challenge the balance using a swiss ball or standing on air cushions. Both strengthen the core.
In 2001, I moved to California. When I returned to gyms I realized how inaccessible they are for someone in a wheelchair. Of course, maybe the bathrooms and the parking lot are accessible, but rarely the equipment. I applied to work at Club-One, even though there was no wheelchair accessible equipment. When I spoke to the manager of my mission to help the disabled community, he was very receptive. That’s why I decided I wanted to work there.
During my interview, the fitness manager asked me if I knew what core training was. At the time, I wasn’t as familiar with it, so I tried to joke, “Sure, hardcore training. I’ve been doing it for 20 years.” She didn’t laugh, but I got the job anyway.
I started training people with disabilities, but realized that many people with physical disabilities didn’t come to the gym because the equipment was not accessible. I decided to do something about it, and in 2002 my wife and I opened Accessible Fitness, a fully wheelchair accessible gym located in Santa Clara, California. We specialize in working with people of all ages and fitness levels, and not only is each weight station wheelchair accessible, but the cardiovascular equipment is as well.
Now I help young and old get fit, lose weight, get six pack abs and others want more strength and muscle so they can move out of their chair more easily rolling.
“My life is different now because I feel through exercise I’ve got my life back and I don’t have to give in to this thing they call MS. I’m inspired by people from my gym every day and I’m competing again for everyone who has some type of physical challenge.”
I am no longer in a wheelchair and will be entering the Mr. America competition this year. Even if I have to use my cane, I’m here, win or lose, to represent people with physical disabilities like me.
For a long time, I asked myself: “Why me?” But then I realized that was my calling, my passion in life.
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