Gallatin Valley boxers battling Parkinson’s one punch at a time

Posted at 8:12 PM, Mar 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-03 14:56:15-04

BOZEMAN — When people think of boxing, many associate it with violence. Punches are thrown to hurt people. But the sport can actually help heal because the workout it provides is incredible at combating a debilitating disease.

Rock Steady boxing, a class at Fuel Fitness in Bozeman, is specifically designed to help people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“I would not believe exercise is that powerful to do that until I saw it with my own eyes,” said Michael Kirkwood, a Rock Steady Boxing coach.

The most common effect people think of about Parkinson’s might just be the tremors of a shaking hand. But the disease affects many other aspects of life, including balance, mobility, speech and memory loss. But through boxing, Parkinson’s patients can fight back.

“Boxing is great because we know from research that force-induced exercise can really slow down the progression and the symptoms of the disease. Bringing people in here and having them work out for 90 minutes is just a great counter way to fight their symptoms,” said Rock Steady Boxing coach Rebecca White.

And it all started with Norm Dreyer, an occupational therapist, who is the owner of Rock Steady Boxing Yellowstone-Bozeman. It means so much to him, being diagnosed with Parkinson’s himself on his 60th birthday.

“I thought this was a no-brainer, I have to do this, I started researching what Rock Steady was about and the more I read, the more I saw, the more I liked,” said Dreyer.

Word spread throughout the Gallatin Valley that Rock Steady works to slow down the effects of Parkinson’s. It started with just a few classes and a small group, but the growing demand for classes and an increase in members has Rock Steady Boxing putting on classes three days a week.

“When I first learned about having Parkinson’s, I felt like I had a mini-stroke, so my left side wasn’t moving nearly as well and between the BIG exercises and Rocky Steady Boxing, I’m over that,” said Bradley O’Grosky, who participates in the class and has had Parkinson’s for nearly seven years. “It’s fun and, of course, I’m learning a lot, and I think I’m actually getting stronger, as well.”

The results from the class are nothing short of incredible.

“People in here that were using wheelchairs before are walking and they are punching harder, they’re quicker,” White said.

And they have some of the best coaches and volunteers around to help them.

“I see these smiles on their faces and total devotion to what they are doing, and that by itself is very rewarding to me,” said Mike Wilson, who was a Golden Glove boxer in Philadelphia in the 1970s.

“They’re all extremely hard-working and I teach 20-something-year-olds, and I have to yell at them to work harder,” said Kirkwood. “I don’t think I’ve ever really had to tell anyone in here to do the physical workout.”

In today’s medical world, Parkison’s is an incurable disease, but with every single punch these boxers throw, they fight back a little more.

“There’s something cathartic about beating the bag that you want to label Parkinson’s, you know, just giving it to it,” said Dryer.

“Maybe growing up the southern girl, I’ve never hit anything,” laughed Martha Hendricks, who has been boxing in the class since it started in October. “And I just have so much fun hitting those bags and it’s like, ‘Why did I not know this for 66 years, how fun it is to hit things?’”

And they have one message for Parkinson’s patients in the Gallatin Valley.

“If they do this, it’s going to help them. If they sit at home and don’t do anything, it’s going to progress,” said O’Grosky.

“That’s the Rocky Steady mantra,” said Dryer. “In this corner is hope, don’t give up, keep fighting back.”

It may be a disease that is medically unbeatable, but don’t tell that to these boxers, who will throw every punch they can to beat it.