In the red corner, weighing in at 222 pounds, hailing from Lincoln, Nebraska – a longtime heavy hitter in the local restaurant industry, an amateur photographer whose images pack a powerful punch: 51-year-old John Coffey.
And in the blue corner – a chronic, mysterious challenger, Parkinson’s disease.
Diagnosed almost two years ago, Coffey refuses to be bullied by the progressive neurological disorder. He takes medication three times a day to control his symptoms, mainly left-hand tremors and a “slap” to his walk. But that’s not the only way he is going toe-to-toe with the disease.
“Rock Steady Boxing has been a game-changer for me,” he says.
Coffey is one of about a dozen Parkinson’s patients enrolled in Rock Steady Boxing, a rigorous, noncontact boxing program and fitness regimen offered since July at Lincoln’s Air Park Recreation Center. Funded in part by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska, Rock Steady Boxing is tailored to stand up to the symptoms of Parkinson’s. Stretching combats stiffness, footwork helps with balance, punching heavy bags helps develop strength, eye-hand coordination and dexterity.
“You’re sweating like crazy,” Coffey says.
Just five weeks into his Rock Steady training, he says he is noticing positive differences in himself and fellow boxers.
“When we were punching bags to begin with, I was barely moving them. I’d lost a lot of strength in my left arm and a lot of dexterity in my left hand,” he explains. “Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I switch it up. I pretend my right arm is my weak arm, so when you jab, you’re using your left arm to crash into the bag, put some muscle into it and build it up.”
“It is a treatment,” says Ryan Mohling, director of Air Park Recreation Center and one of the center’s two certified Rock Steady Boxing coaches.
He was inspired to bring the Indianapolis-based program to Air Park – and Nebraska – after seeing a feature on CBS’s “Sunday Morning.” He found a need in Lancaster County, where more than 2,300 people are living with Parkinson’s disease, according to the Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services.
“Rock Steady Boxing is giving some of these boxers their independence back – including independence from their tremors,” Mohling says.
A 2011 study of patients with Parkinson’s showed both short-term and long-term improvements in balance, gait, activities of daily living and quality of life after participating in Rock Steady Boxing.
“I would call it medication,” says Coffey, who describes his symptoms as mild compared to those of other Rock Steady boxers.
His involvement in the program continued a streak of healthy lifestyle changes made post-diagnosis. To reduce stress, he traded 30 years in the restaurant industry for a new career in credit card payment solutions (though he remains a partner in The Flatwater bistro in Lincoln’s Haymarket District). He finds peace in photographing nature, walks several miles a day and avoids foods with refined sugar and white bleached flour. He has lost 60 pounds so far and hopes to lose another 20.
“When I told my doctor about Rock Steady Boxing, he had the permission slip written up before I could finish talking about it.”
John says boxing isn’t something he thought about doing prior to his diagnosis. Now he’s a champ at throwing a proper hook, cross and uppercut.
“John is one of our younger boxers,” Mohling says. “For him to come in, be assessed and start a program – that takes a lot of courage. And here he is now. He has really turned into a great spokesperson for us.”
When facing a diagnosis like Parkinson’s, Coffey says you have to have the right people in your corner. For him, that’s his family, his doctors, and the two “good servants” who coach Rock Steady.
“I’m not going to give Parkinson’s any more attention than it deserves,” Coffey says.
The same cannot be said of the speedbag.
“When I’m in the gym with Rock Steady, I don’t stop early. I punch two or three more times.”
“Faces of Fearless” is a storytelling series in Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska’s “Live Fearless” campaign celebrating people living their very best lives and inspiring others to do the same.