At 75, John Manifold spent much of his time in a wheelchair, facing his 21st year of Parkinson’s disease with fading strength and low confidence.
Then he started boxing.
Three days a week, he trained in a Cary gym, tossing a medicine ball to warm up, throwing jabs and uppercuts at a heavy bag. Slowly, his movement improved to the point he could bob and weave around his coach’s hands. He could plank on a medicine ball. He could navigate the steps on a rope ladder.
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And after six months, Manifold has largely left his wheelchair behind. He and his wife, Bev, sometimes forget where they’ve put his walker – increasingly unused. He can tape up his hands and pull on his boxing gloves. And if the sight looks strange to anybody, he explains, “I’m a boxer.”
“He feels strong,” Bev Manifold said. “He feels competent. He feels more in control. He says, ‘I can do it.’ He feels more masculine, which is huge.”
The Rock Steady Boxing group started in Cary last summer, one of seven statewide. Roughly 60 fighters train there, some of whom got their Parkinson’s diagnosis only months ago and others who have battled the disease for years.
A progressive nerve disorder with no cure, it sometimes starts with a hand tremor, leading to stiffness and slow movement. Faces can turn expressionless. Arms stop swinging when patients walk. Steps gets shorter and speech becomes slurred. Movement in general is difficult.
Manifold sometimes freezes in place and can only walk backward. Making his way up a set of stairs can be easier than walking a flat, patternless floor. One common misunderstanding about the disease is that the involuntary movements – called dyskinesia – stem from Parkinson’s medication rather than the disease itself. Bev Manifold laughs to recall Rush Limbaugh cynically suggesting Michael J. Fox, a well-known Parkinson’s sufferer, had skipped his medication to make his 2006 congressional testimony there appear more dramatic.
But in the Title Boxing Gym off Harrison Avenue, fighters talk about finding freedom of movement that Parkinson’s had robbed of them. A variety of studies show that exercise helps offset the disease, but Rock Steady fighters thrive because they work out together, bonding with people who know how they feel. Greg Geheb, one of the owners and coaches in Cary, said he tried going to the gym on his own after his own Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2008. It didn’t take. Rock Steady works, he said, because the fighters get pushed past their own boundaries.
“I like to died the first time I did it,” said Geheb, 65. “I was a fat bastard.”
To warm up, the fighters drop to all fours and make loud animal sounds. Meows. Moos. The gym becomes a barnyard. Parkinson’s can make people speak too quickly and softly, and this exercise forces them to enunciate.
For 30 minutes, they alternate between speed bags, stability balls, running drills and punching exercises, holding a 1- to 2-pound weight while they jab. They try lengthening steps and walking along a beam. They jog side-to-side between the punching bags. They concentrate on lifting their left legs while punching with their right hands.
Then the gloves come on.
The fighters throw a combination of six punches, all of them numbered. Part of the challenge is to throw the right jabs with the left uppercuts in the right order. Amanda Novachek, the other coach/owner, stalks between them shouting “One to the head! One to the body!” She pauses occasionally to dance to Stevie Wonder or sing with Aretha Franklin. But she never calls anybody a patient. Only a boxer.
“Everything that Parkinson’s takes away, boxing gives back,” Geheb said. “I can chase my granddaughter up and down the slide 20 times if I want to. I can mow my own lawn if I want to. I climbed Chimney Rock – 492 steps!”
As he paused for a water break, Manifold’s forehead showed a sheen of sweat. His wife, known at Rock Steady as his “Corner Man,” gave him quick congratulations.
“I’ve never seen you do that ladder as well as you did today,” she said.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” he returned. “I got Parkinson’s, but it ain’t got me.”
Then he kept punching.