I will soon have the honor and pleasure to present to a group of individuals who are simply called “Champions.” These Champions are amazing people who have been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and are fighting to gain or regain their health. Wrestling MS, will be hosting a cycling clinic along with fitness and nutrition presentations in Blue Springs Missouri on March 24th.
Wrestling MS is a non-profit organization that raises money through cycling events and donates the money back to patients with Multiple Sclerosis in the form of bikes and other equipment. The one day event will also feature Sandie Reilly, a cycling coach from New Jersey along with David Lyons, a well-known author, body builder and MS fitness expert from California. Both of these two incredible individuals have amazing stories about their personal battles with MS. I have recently had a opportunity to visit with them and they are both incredibly motivating individuals. Their knowledge and backgrounds are to say the least “extensive.”
According to WebMD, “Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a long-lasting disease that can affect your brain, spinal cord, and the optic nerves in your eyes. It can cause problems with vision, balance, muscle control, and other basic body functions.” For patients with MS, the effects of the disease vary but many experience issues with simple tasks such as walking, extreme fatigue, heat sensitivity and balance. For some with more extreme symptoms and depending on its progression, patients may lose the ability to walk and experience spasms and extreme pain.
Again quoting WebMD, “MS happens when your immune system attacks a fatty material called myelin, which wraps around your nerve fibers to protect them. Without this outer shell, your nerves become damaged. Scar tissue may form.”
In case you’re wondering, I personally do not have MS. I also have a life free from the complications that are so closely associated with this debilitating disease. However, while not having the first hand experiences with these issues, which both Sandie and David do share, I have a story surrounding MS which has dramatically impacted my life.
Approximately four years ago, Les Gatrel; one of my very best friends, college teammate and roommate found out that he had MS. For him, like many others who receive this prognosis, it was devastating news. Along with all the physical complications, this news led to a serious bout of depression, “which is not uncommon in MS patients.” Les, who was a former 2X former All-American wrestler at Central Missouri State University back in the late 70s’s and early 80s at the 190 pound weight class was now faced with his toughest match yet. This battle came with a completely undefined yet fierce competitor, MS.
Figuratively speaking, Les was not ready to step on the mat when he first learned the news from his doctor. In fact, he actually retreated to his bedroom and found comfort not going outside for nearly six months. Maybe by coincidence, another friend and former teammate, Gary Ervin had just reached out to Les at about the same time as I had, inquiring about his prognosis.
Not really knowing how to handle this issue or even approach Les, Gary and I agreed on one very simple fact, we were not willing to sit back and watch our buddy regress to a wheel chair without a fight. We settled on the idea of offering up a challenge and get Les on a bike. We also served up an additional challenge with a futuristic ride on the Katy Trail http://www.bikekatytrail.com/katy-trail-map.aspx which is located along the banks of the Missouri River and spanning nearly 250 miles across the state Missouri.
Interestingly, I had done very little cycling in my life, but if it meant getting Les up and going, I was all in. One issue that was somewhat problematic was the fact that Les was living in in Tacoma, Washington and I was in Kansas City, Missouri. Gary was living in Morganfield, Kentucky. So much of our train
ing would have to be done individually. We agreed that we would keep up with each other’s progress over the phone for the next several months.
The ride would consist of a total of 90 miles on one day on the Katy. This number was chosen to reflect the weight class Les wrestled during college. Though he really wrestled in the 190lb class, we at least had enough insight to not to bite off the full 190 miles!
For a seasoned cyclist 90 miles is probably not an overwhelming challenge. However, for Les who had really never exercised on a regular basis since college and a good 80 to 90 pounds over-weight…..this was a huge undertaking! Unquestionably, his issues with MS also severely complicated his training. Gary, fortunately had some cycling experience and was totally on board with the challenge ahead of us and offered some training advice. Though I had not ridden on a bike for some time I was confident that sufficient training I would be ready for the ride when the time came.
The next step was to see if there were any other friends who might want to join us. And fortunately for all of us, we recruited another 10 to 12 former college teammates and friends to make the ride. At the time we didn’t actually realize it, this was the start of our future Wrestling MS organization. After several months of training and some strong coaching from Duane Fritchie (who is an incredible cyclist along with being a former Central Missouri State University All-American wrestler, Duane is also a triathlete and Ironman competitor), we were all ready to tackle our first adventure across the state of Missouri on the Katy.
Ironically, we all ended up doing that first ride nearly four years ago today. It was truly the start of something incredibly special. It was obvious that we were all hooked on cycling and wanted to do more riding as well as helping others with MS. Our Wrestling MS group originally had several purposes/goals but most importantly, we all knew that we wanted to help others by doing what was now becoming a passion for all of us….cycling! Jim McNamara, a Central Missouri State University fraternity brother and lifetime friend, has served as our Executive Director and has put in countless hours of time organizing and leading our group into new territories and adventures, including various rides and other opportunities assisting MS patients.
Over the course of these past few years, we have gained momentum and our organization has evolved into a much more substantial presence. As I mentioned earlier, our main goal centers around riding and taking pledges and then donating the funds back to MS patients in the form a bikes, riding gear and even coaching. Our efforts continue to evolve and expand as we are now in the process of offering cycling clinics along with instruction on other health and fitness components.
In the big picture, Les’s diagnosis may have been a blessing for all of us. I have no doubt that this was the motivation that he needed to get up and take total ownership in his personal health and fitness. I can also say without hesitation, As for Les, he is now healthier and currently 80lbs lighter than he was four years ago. He recently completed the 7-day RAGBRAI, a ride across the entire state of Iowa. His mental outlook is amazing and he has made serious changes in his lifestyle including nutrition and exercise. He has also shifted his focus from just helping himself to helping others dealing with MS.
For me and others in our group, it has also changed our lives as well. To be able to focus on doing something that we all love to do and at the same time interject a greater cause helping others with their personal struggles centered on MS has been an amazing experience. Fitness and nutrition has always been a big part of my life and to have the opportunity to help others, especially those dealing with MS first hand is humbling and rewarding. Lastly, this experience has reunited a group of friends that had an incredible bond some 35 to 40 years ago. It has elevated our collective awareness of what is most important in life and generated an unstoppable motivation. To learn more about Wrestling MS and the upcoming clinic please go to https://wrestlingms.com/