Tom Archdeacon: Boxing helps Parkinson’s sufferers cope

He said the first time he walked into the gym “you’d have thought I was drunker than a skunk.

“I was staggering. I had to hang onto the desk up front to make sure I didn’t fall over.”

It was about two months ago when John Stanley came through the front door of the M-Power Gym on North Dixie Drive in Vandalia. He first spoke to Jeff Baker, whose son Mike runs the gym with partner Will Ashcraft.

“He was on a cane and had this shuffling gait,” Baker said. “He couldn’t move very well and he could only go forward, not backward or sideways. If he did, he was afraid he’d fall. He said, ‘Hey, I see you guys do boxing. Will you work with me?’ ”

A beloved Northmont Middle School teacher and coach and the longtime front man of the rock ‘n’ roll band Cotton, John suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement.

He’d seen a special on television about the actor Michael J. Fox, who has dealt with Parkinson’s for years and had said he was helped by training at a boxing gym.

But John’s confidence was as wobbly as his legs that first time he walked into M-Power, which had just opened a few weeks earlier.

“I was intimidated,” he admitted. “I saw women lined up on the heavy bag and they were knocking the snot out of it. I was thinking, ‘I can’t do that.’ ”

Ashcraft, who conducts the boxing instruction in the gym, said he initially thought the same thing:

“My first thought was, ‘What in the world are we gonna do?’ ”

But two days later — with John giving his all as he tried to deliver punches while Jeff Baker held the back of his belt to keep him upright — Ashcraft chided himself internally:

“I said to myself, ‘Man, you’re guilty of what you tell other people in here not to do all the time.’ I had counted John out before he even started.’’

John understood Ashcraft’s initial skepticism:

“At first I was embarrassed a lot. I was all over the place. I’d throw a punch at the (heavy) bag and end up on the wall over there because I had staggered right on through it.”

But he made steady progress, moving from the bag to hitting the padded catch mitts Ashcraft held in front of him.

And if you were at M-Power a few days ago, you would have seen him get up onto the ring apron by himself, roll under the bottom ring rope and then stand up all on his own in the ring for the first time.

He followed that with a steady peppering of the mitts, landing punches as he moved forward, backward and even a little laterally. He then rolled back out of the ring, did a slow sprint to the far wall, grabbed hold of a 105-pound sled and pushed it the length of the gym and then back again.

“You wouldn’t recognize John from the guy who walked in here nine weeks ago,” Jeff said. “He’s like a new man. It’s pretty amazing. It’s like a miracle.”

‘Thought I was Rocky’

Down at Drake’s Downtown Gym on Fifth Street in Dayton, Pete Segi — who like Franklin is 65 and suffers from Parkinson’s — has had similar experiences.

A year ago he showed up at the fight club to take part in a new program launched by owner John Drake.

“I had the CBS Morning Show on TV one Sunday and, as I was making my coffee, I looked over and saw this gym on the screen and thought, ‘That looks like my place.’ But it was Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.

“They had a woman who was running a class for Parkinson’s patients. She was a doctor and they had done a lot of research and the people were really getting into it and enjoying it. Pretty soon I got four or five texts from people around here who said, ‘John, are you watching this show about Parkinson’s?’

“Well, we pursued it and got hooked up with a doctor (Dayton neurologist Dr. Joel Vandersluis) and he eventually recommended it to some of his patients.”

It turns out Pete’s daughter-in-law works for Vandersluis. She passed on the information and Pete — accompanied by his wife Stephanie, who now does all the driving — decided to give it a try.

Like John, he was apprehensive at the start.

“When I first came in, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do it,” he said. “It was very depressing.”

And yet, had you watched him work out a couple of afternoons ago, you’d have seen him do stretches holding a weight against his chest, take a couple of laps around this gym and then go to work on a heavy bag with punches that sometimes were herky-jerky, but usually near the mark.

At Drake’s invitation Stephanie works out alongside him, so she sees the progress in the gym and away from it.

“In the beginning I’ll admit it was hard for me to even say my husband has Parkinson’s. I’d get choked up,” she said as the emotion welled up again. “Seeing him shake all the time got to me. But then they got those tremors under control and now, with what he does here, there are times you wouldn’t even know he has Parkinson’s.”

As Pete sat near the ring at Drake’s and talked about the benefits of boxing, you couldn’t help but notice the poster of Muhammad Ali hanging on the wall above him.

The most famous boxer ever, Ali suffered from Parkinson’s likely brought on by the punishment he endured in the ring, more so from all the sparring he did than his actual fight career, which includes over 100 amateur bouts and 61 (548 rounds) as a pro.

Pete and John are involved only in non-contact workouts. The concept was first embraced over a decade ago by Scott Newman, an Indianapolis prosecutor with early-onset Parkinson’s.

He put together a program called Rock Steady Boxing that incorporates the tenets of balance, timing, hand-eye coordination, footwork, agility, strength and endurance found in boxing as a way to delay, reduce and even reverse some symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.

A 2011 study in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association followed a small group of Parkinson’s patients who did two, 90-minute Rock Steady training sessions a week for nine months and found they showed short and long term improvement.

As for Pete, he offered his own study.

“When I got up in the ring for the first time, I thought I was Rocky in there,” he laughed. “I think they thought, ‘We gotta get that guy outta there!’ ”

A scary disease

Pete said he first sensed something was wrong 12 years ago when he attended an outdoor wedding with Stephanie.

“She was sitting next to me and we held hands,” he said quietly. “But I noticed I couldn’t hold on very long because I started shaking. I thought, ‘What the hell?’ ”

After a few visits to the family doctor he went to see a neurologist and got the diagnosis.

While Pete dealt with tremors, John eventually found himself trying to cope with a different symptom, bradykinesia, or paralyzing “freezes” of his leg.

“I had had an injury from a motorcycle accident six or seven years ago and ended up with some screws in my neck,” he said. “Now, when I started to get a tingling in my neck and hand, I thought it was related to that old injury. But the neurologist did a scan and said, ‘You’ve got Parkinson’s.’

“I didn’t know what it was really, but I went on the Internet.”

Soon after, he admitted, “I was scared.”

The disease is incurable, but, John said, “it won’t kill you. It will make you look stupid at times and it will make you change your way of life.”

He continues to teach eighth grade social studies and said on the occasion that he steps out from behind his desk and suddenly freezes mid-stride, he’s learned little “tricks” to break free:

“I might tap my leg or I’ll lift the other leg and kick it. Maybe I’ll do a knee bend backward, anything to break the concentration and move again.”

He said he’s given up coaching basketball and volleyball: “If you can’t show them what to do I figured there’s no use just trying to tell them.”

But with the “miracle” he’s had in the gym, he’s not only taking big walks every day, but found he can run again. And he still golfs.

“Remember when Jack Nicklaus would swing and walk forward after the shot?” he said with a grin. “Well, my momentum carries me way beyond that. Now when I swing, I might end up halfway down the fairway.”

As for the band, where John’s the lead vocalist and plays rhythm guitar, it still performs every weekend from Cincinnati to Lima at “weddings, bars, festivals. Wherever they got money and are gonna pay us.”

Pete, on the other hand, is no longer an accountant. He retired. But he tries to remain active and said he has told his two sons: “’l’ll go as hard as I can for as long as I can with you.’ Everybody knows I’m a grinder. I’ll stick with it.”

That mindset makes for good medicine, he said:

“If you just sit at home moping around about your condition, that condition will follow you through the day — and it will ruin your day.”

John agreed: “Parkinson’s is on your mind 24/7. So that’s why I like coming to the gym. I can escape that a while. Once I start working out, I feel like I’m doing what I can to slow down the Parkinson’s. Everyone thinks because you have Parkinson’s you’re gonna die.

“My goal now is to live to be 130.”

But any such thought of longevity might get turned upside down if he has another embrace like he did last Sunday.

“We were at the Eagles lodge in Springfield and this woman asked me if we could play John Denver’s ‘Country Roads,’ ” he grinned. “When we finished, she came up to the stage and said something. I couldn’t make it out, so I leaned down to hear her and she reached up and grabbed me around the neck and hugged me tight.

“Well, I lost my balance and she pulled me right off the stage on top of her!

“That’s happened three times now. Over at the Eagles in Richmond, that gal grabbed me and next thing I’m floppin’ around the floor like a fish outta water.”

Will started laughing: “Look at you! You’re 65 and you got cougars!”

John shook his head: “Naah, they’re all in their 80s.”

Goals are similar

John said the band started in 1978:

“The first gig we did was at a nursing home and the lady came up beforehand and said, ‘We want soft, fluffy music.’

“I said, ‘Like cotton?’

“And she said, ‘Yeah, just like cotton.’

“We kept the name after that though there were times we’ve been tempted to change it because we’re playing rock ‘n’ roll.”

Although he described the group as “a bar band,” it has opened for the likes of well-known musicians like Henry Lee Summer, McGuffey Lane, Jonathan Edwards, the San Francisco band The Tubes and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dave Mason, among others.

This weekend Cotton played at the Vandalia Oktoberfest. Interestingly, the M-Power Gym had a booth there as well.

The guys at the gym want to get John on their own stage in November when they host a charity fight show.

“They’re trying to talk me into getting in the ring, but I’m too competitive not to do well,” he said. “And right now my jab comes across soooo slow. But we’ll see what happens. I might change my mind.”

“Will has really been a wonder to me. He’s given me confidence. He put a program together for me and helped me do things I never thought I could do. What I’ve done in here is perfect for my Parkinson’s.”

Pete and Stephanie offer the same assessment of Drake’s.

“We love these workouts,” Stephanie said.

Both gyms have comparable goals.

“Whether somebody’s here to lose 10 pounds or they have an underlying disease and refuse to be a victim, it doesn’t matter once they get in here. Everybody’s getting what they can out of it,” Ashcraft said.

“With John, he doesn’t want to be known for Parkinson’s. He just wants to be another dude in the gym.”

Shannan Hamm runs the Parkinson’s class at Drake’s and touched on a similar theme:

“At our place, for anyone who comes in for any reason, you step through the door and you kinda forget about life out there. You’re in here and you’re exercising and having a good time and laughing and nothing matters but the boxing. This can be a pretty special place.”

Pete proved that earlier this year.

He and Stephanie were high school sweethearts when he was at Chaminade and she was a Julienne student. They’ve been married 43 years.

“For Valentine’s Day this year he bought me boxing gloves,” Stephanie said with a chuckle as she pulled the red and black Title Classic gloves from her duffle bag. “Most women might have been upset, but I loved it.”

Pete offered a shrug and a grin:

“After 43 years you can only send flowers so many times. I wanted them to be all red, but these were pretty close.

“Call me Mr. Romantic.”

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