To watch one of Mike Crager’s vigorous training sessions, a person would think he is preparing for the fight of his life. And in a way, he is. However, instead of facing another fighter, Crager’s battle is with an even more formidable foe: Parkinson’s disease.

To watch one of Mike Crager’s vigorous training sessions, a person would think he is preparing for the fight of his life. And in a way, he is.

However, instead of facing another fighter, Crager’s battle is with an even more formidable foe: Parkinson’s disease.

Crager, 47, of Monroe City, Mo., was diagnosed with the disease in 2005 after his wife, Marla, and his parents noticed concerning changes.

“I didn’t notice anything, but my wife did, and my parents saw a change in me as far as how fast I moved. And when I walked, my left arm stayed somewhat still. It just didn’t swing naturally,” he said.

Crager’s family encouraged him to see a local neurologist. After a handful of tests came the shocking diagnosis, which Crager had confirmed by two other physicians.

“I wasn’t sure what that was exactly, but I knew it wasn’t that good,” said Crager. “I always thought it was an old man’s disease. I knew Michael J. Fox had it, but it didn’t occur to me that I’d get it that young in my life. I was about 40 years old. I thought I was still young and vibrant. I still had a lot of things to do in my life, and then to get struck down with this. It took me off guard.”

The news was also hard to accept for Crager’s best friend and workout partner, J.R. Derksen.

“I cried,” Derksen said. “He’s like a brother to me.”

Fighting back

Mike Crager credits his wife, Marla, with coming up with a means for him to regain control of his life following the life-shaking diagnosis.

“My wife was at lunch one day just surfing the Internet for Parkinson’s treatment and therapies. She came across this Rock Steady Boxing,” he said.

Based in Indianapolis, Ind., Rock Steady works with people battling Parkinson’s disease through non-contact boxing training. After learning more about the program, Crager decided to make the long trip to Indianapolis. There, he met professional boxer and full-time physical therapist Kristina Rose Follmar.

“She’s the toughest person I’ve met in my entire life,” said Crager, who described the workout that Follmar put him through as a “living hell for about 90 minutes.”

Crager, accompanied by his best friend, J.R. Derksen, returns to Rock Steady about three times a year.

“You take a trip out there, and it’s like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “Every time we go out there’s something new.”

Crager credits Rock Steady for helping him learn to deal with the disease.

“People who get Parkinson’s and other diseases just roll up and die sometimes. They just quit living,” he said. “Rock Steady gives you the motivation to go out and do something.”
 
Training hard

The workout regiment that Mike Crager and J.R. Derksen perform together is not for the uncommitted. Workouts consist of weight training designed to build core body strength and a variety of boxing-related cardio exercises.

“It’s common-sense stuff that people don’t realize is out there,” Crager said.

“He’s in better shape now than five years ago,” Derksen said. “He’s more limber, stronger and more agile. He’s living proof that you can fight Parkinson’s.”

Workouts are performed seven days a week.

“We do weights on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. We do cardio Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings,” said Crager. “We try to mix it up so it’s not the same thing day after day.”

Crager appreciates having Derksen as his workout partner.

“Bless J.R.’s heart, he is there every morning,” he said. “It’s nice to have a partner to do it with because you don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to skip weights because I’m tired. We rely on each other.”

Derksen says he thinks their workouts help Crager to fight Parkinson’s disease, which has no cure.

“Boxing is a great work out for Mike because it is a true ambidextrous sport that challenges both sides of your body’s motor skills, and that is vital to prevent Parkinson’s disease from taking a toll on the body,” said Derksen. “I think the challenge of fighting Parkinson’s is not unlike a boxing match. Every morning the bell rings and Mike gets up and fights Parkinson’s. He chooses to take back what Parkinson’s is trying to steal from him. He is the very picture of courage.”

Offering encouragement

Parkinson’s disease has not gained the upper hand on Mike Crager. The 47-year-old continues to be a teacher in the Monroe City, Mo., where he has spent his entire 24-year career as an educator. In addition to helping students recover academic credits, Crager also is the head baseball coach.

Crager never misses a chance to tell those with Parkinson’s disease or some other neurological disorder about how Rock Steady Boxing has helped him.

“My Jeep has a Rock Steady Boxing window sticker. People will ask if I’m a boxer, and I’ll say I never have been a boxer. I have Parkinson’s,” he said.

His best friend and workout partner J.R. Derksen believes his friend is an example of how a person, especially one battling a disease such as Parkinson’s, can improve their quality of life with a fitness routine.

“Mike is a shining example on how to handle adversity. He’s a true role model for our students and even many adults in our community,” Derksen said. “It is easy to question why bad things happen to great people, but I think in Mike’s scenario, it is to teach the rest of us how to battle back with dignity.”