Michelle “Hulk” Huntley – The Legend Continues
1. Steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc. especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.
2. Theology. Continuance in a state of grace to the end leading to eternal salvation.
Not everybody meets their future spouse ordering contact lenses over the phone, but Michelle “Hulk” Huntley isn’t exactly like anybody you’ll ever meet so it’s fitting that on June 1st, 1998 that was exactly how she met the love of her life. It was by cosmic chance that Owen, her husband to be and manager of the sales office Michelle was calling, picked up the phone the day that she called. Normally he didn’t answer the lines but if not for a shortage of staff that had everyone pulling extra duties then this story would have been finished just as quickly as it started.
Michelle, born and raised in Philadelphia (as made evident by her East Coast sass if you ever have the good fortune to talk with her) was simply looking to check into the latest method for contact lens shipping when she rang, but when Owen answered she couldn’t find herself able to pull away. When the phone call reached the hour mark it was clear that he wasn’t really looking to hang up all that quickly either. As they squeezed the last bit of stimulating conversation they could muster from the rousing subject of eye-wear advancement delivery Michelle and Owen exchanged personal numbers before finally calling the “sales call” quits.
“When I hung up the phone, I knew I’d found my husband.” Michelle said with the biggest smile I’d ever seen as she recalled the 1st time meeting Owen. She proved that her smile still had room to grow when she said “3 weeks later he left Florida and moved to Philly.”
“He just up and left? Job and all? 3 weeks, really?” I asked, surprised.
“Yup, June 25th was the day he came to Philly…” Michelle beamed as she stared off slightly, reliving the memory.
As I reveled in her memory and she soaked in the recollection, she was the first one to break the warm silence.
“My life is made up of June… I joined Rebel in June, did you know that?”
“Yeah, I’m seeing a lot of June popping its head up. The Universe has a way of talking to you, that’s for sure…” I said.
“Yup. June 1st, 1998 was the day of that phone call. June 25th was the day he moved to Philly. June 19th the next year we were married. June 10th, 2010… that was the day I lost him.”
* * *
Growing up Michelle had 3 main aspirations that fueled her fire like a never ending propane tank; always be involved in sports, finish school, and become a Doctor. With a loving family and true East Coast determination Michelle attacked those goals like a warrior with a thirst for conquest and quench that thirst she did…
“Sports? What sport didn’t I play… My favorites were softball and bowling, but I played volleyball, basketball, competed in track and field, practiced Tae Kwon Do and did some fencing. You know when they were picking kids on the playground for teams? I was usually picked first or close to it, even over the boys. Some of them would be like ‘What? You’re gonna pick her over ME?’ and they’d be like ‘yeah, you’ll see…”
She went on to explain that not only was she athletic, but she’d always been on the thicker side to boot which took away any “fragility” that could be held against her. It was a double edged sword though because that meant she always had to be doing something in regards to being active or she’d gain weight just by damn near thinking about it.
“If I had to pick a demon I’ve always carried with me, it’s my weight. I was picked on as a kid for being a little bigger and “straight laced” but it was ok, I knew it was my path in life to succeed. Even still, it was hard shopping in the little girl’s ‘pretty plus’ section because even as a kid you know what that means… Why can’t you just be pretty?”
That love of sports carried over to college as she continued playing volleyball and softball at a high level. Her physical dominance was no match to her intellectual excellence, though. Spending a year at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science before moving on, Michelle graduated with Bachelor’s degrees from Penn State and Temple, the latter coming with “Magna Cum Laude” honors! For a little added awesome let’s throw in the fact that Michelle became an EMT at 16 until the age of 30, meaning that in between practices, games, homework, studying, finals, and family she was literally saving lives the whole time.
“I’ve always been very patient. I didn’t really date or do much else, I was too focused.”
Through her journey all the way up to meeting Owen and beyond, Michelle had experienced your standard hardships; tough financial times that make you scrape the couch for coins, battles with weight, adjusting to new jobs, moving away from family and feeling alone in a new place, and so forth… but throughout it all she persevered. She was careful to point out that she didn’t view any of her struggles as traumatizing but more so as standard fare.
“I didn’t have any significant tragedies growing up or anything, not more than the usual stuff. I just saw it all as a grind… you just gotta get through it. You have to keep going.”
That mindset was tested when a year into Michelle and Owen’s marriage when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although in earlier stages, it was malignant and required a fierce battle ahead… When most newlyweds were still gushing in the “honey moon” stage of their marriage, Michelle and Owen were letting their loved ones in on the heartbreaking news, getting set for the first of nearly 20 surgeries, undergoing radiation therapy (and the baldness that ensued), and figuring out insurance policies.
“Owen was perfect through it all… He truly was a great man. We stuck by each other every step of the way, and there was only one thing that ever caught him off guard. It was Valentine’s Day, 2001 and I had been going through chemo. You can only hold on to your hair for so long till it’s gotta go, and that day was the day. When he came home from work I opened up the door with a smile, bald and all, and said ‘hey baby!’ He had this shocked look on his face and he kind of stuttered for a second… then he just smiled at me and all he said was ‘alright then…’ We were good to go after that!”
It was 2006 when Michelle’s occupation brought the happy couple to California and subsequently away from family, friends, familiarity, and essentially everything they had ever known. After an aggressive treatment regiment, inevitable lumpectomy, and careful monitoring the cancer was held in check. With one blessing came another hardship however as being thrust into a whole new world was as difficult as you can imagine. Luckily they had each other and that meant there wasn’t a mountain too high to climb, river too deep to cross, or storm too harsh to weather on top of what they’d already triumphed through. They made a habit of rolling through the punches with grace and diligence… perseverance put into practice setting them up to endure any hardship thrown their way even when life tossed everything including the kitchen sink at them. After all, every survived experience is like a sparring situation getting you ready for your next fight and this transition to a brand new coast was simply the next step in swingin’ on. It wasn’t until 4 years later that the ultimate knockout rocked Michelle clear off her feet and did everything it could to keep her down for the count…
It was March of 2010 when the second breast cancer diagnosis found its way to Michelle and Owen’s door step. No easier to deal with the second time around it forced the already intense treatment to be stepped up another notch. A lumpectomy was no longer an option as a mastectomy was now required if she was going to have a shot at making it to the next “round.” Michelle opted to go with a double mastectomy (“I wasn’t gonna be a ‘uni-boob’” she quipped) and made it through a little less voluptuous, but alive none the less. Amidst it all Owen didn’t bat an eye once. Even when complications arose from the surgeries and infections started to flare that man was there every step of the way. One such memory provides a perfect depiction of the superhero Owen ended up being through it all…
On June 9th, Owen picked Michelle up from the hospital recovery room and safely brought her back home . He had the downstairs couch all set up for her to sleep since it was more comfortable that way for Michelle and proceeded to get her all situated for some much needed slumber. Once she was set, Owen tried nonchalantly handing Michelle back her wedding ring to put back on after she had taken it off and given him so as not to lose it while she navigating through her hospital day.\
“I told him ‘Nuh uh, that ain’t how you do it…’” she said with her trademark Philly sass, lighting up the same way she did when she was reliving the moment of meeting Owen for the first time.
“That’s when he smiled, got down on one knee, and slipped the ring back on my finger properly and kissed me like he was supposed to. He said he loved me, I said I loved him, and I watched him go upstairs with the promise we’d see each other in the morning.”
That was the last moment Michelle and Owen ever shared together.
“I knew something was wrong when I woke up in the morning and things just didn’t feel right.” Michelle shared. “I was an EMT for a long time and you learn to read situations like that…”
As soon as she stepped foot in their room Michelle instinctively knew Owen had passed. She tried in vain to resuscitate him after dialing 911 but in the back of her mind she knew it was already too late. Three months after her second cancer diagnosis and resulting surgeries Michelle was now unexpectedly on her own. Although her family was there every step of the way it was hard not to feel stranded and alone in what was still a relatively unknown home front. She’d lost her rock when she needed him most… It was now her duty to learn how to make it through life in California without her best friend, deal with the cancer (14 surgical procedures in the matter of a year and a half to put it in perspective), and continue to put one foot in front of another no matter what.
Weight was already an issue before the steroid-based treatments (on top of everything else) ballooned Michelle up to her heaviest weight at 352 lbs.
“It was hard because I never associated with being that person… in my mind I was still that really athletic and curvy chick with nothing I couldn’t do, and that wasn’t true anymore…”
About a year and a half had gone by since June of 2010 and Michelle was still looking for her ladder out of the hole she’d found herself in. As time marched forward life’s obstacles started shifting from battling cancer and dealing with the loss of her husband to putting more focus on getting rid of this newfound weight. Surviving cancer and the loss of Owen were defining moments for Michelle that would travel with her every moment from here on out, but it was time to take her life BACK rather than merely float through it numbly. That’s when the Universe delivered an angel of a messenger…
Tami Larsen, an original Hulkster/Rebel since 2009 and working at the Dental office Michelle had an appointment with one fateful day early 2012 happened to be that very ladder Michelle was searching for and although I want to go with the cliché “and she didn’t even know it” the phone call I got from her indicated otherwise. You know how certain things stick with you for some peculiar reason even before your brain is able to register it as significant? That was the case with Tami’s phone call;
“Hey! I met someone that would be PERFECT for Hulk… Her name’s Michelle and you wouldn’t believe what she’s been through… She’s coming off a lot of surgeries, dealing with cancer, and she just lost her husband. She’s trying to get back on track and I told her to call you.”
It took 2 months from that day for Michelle to give me a call. In her words she was “weak, hurt emotionally and physically, and needed to offload. It took me 2 months to make it happen and pick up the phone.” After talking with her for almost 40 minutes on my front porch (she is definitely blessed with the gift of gab!) we got her all good to go for the next challenge that was about to start… in June.
It was in the office at the gym when the nickname “Hulk” was first bestowed upon Michelle. For those of you aren’t familiar with the Fitness Rebellion in our neck of the woods, it used to be “Team Hulk” before I was simultaneously selected to be an Anytime Fitness ambassador for a “Rebellion” being started (1 of 50 from all over North America) and served a cease-and-desist from Marvel. Due to my lacking belief in coincidences I believe the Universe had a plan and in this case it was giving “Hulk” a new identity and spirit like a phoenix rising from the ashes. Well, it was smack dab in the middle of all of this when Michelle got herself signed up for the beginning of her Rebel journey. At the time everyone who wasn’t a member of the gym initially was input in the computer with “Hulk” before their last name so the office folk knew they were one of “my people.” When Michelle “Hulk” Huntley appeared on the screen we both thought it had a pretty snazzy ring to it… Little did we know it was symbolic of not only who she was going to become but more so who she had always been all along…
“Hulk” means the world to me not because I’m a fan of the comics and think it’s cool (that is just a bonus) but because of what he represents. We ALL have a beast inside lying dormant until provoked… Do we let it out or stifle it? Everyone knows what being stuck between a rock and a hard place feels like, but how do you respond? Do you submit and cower or do you Hulk out and Hulk smash? If you can’t excel with talent then triumph with effort, and that’s what the Hulk is… Raw effort that doesn’t always look all that pretty but NEVER gives up without a fight… Since Michelle joined up with the Fitness Rebellion a little over a year and a half ago from this write up she has exhibited every bit of that and more. For starters, she’s lost 73 pounds and counting since that day she became the ONLY person I refer to as “Hulk” (fun fact: she bowls with a 15 pound ball so for every 15 pounds she loses she views it as a “strike”). Her very first challenge she earned the coveted “MVH” given out to the “Most Valuable Hulkster” on each team. It’s essentially our Fitness Rebellion’s hall-of-fame induction when you earn that title. 3 completed Rebel challenges later she became the 4th overall recipient of the “Hulk Legend” award. Unlike the “MVH” title this prestigious title is NOT guaranteed to be given out and is only awarded when it happens. The criteria is simple: intangibly representing every aspect of being a Rebel in every way which means never giving up no matter what, upholding the “Rebel Code,” and supporting everyone around you with the heart of a lion in the process. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being a leader of love internally and externally in a way that history books make note about. Michelle has been forever written into the Fitness Rebellion history book and we’re just getting started!
To see Michelle work and “be” is like watching genuine magic. She doesn’t have an ounce of quit in her body and doesn’t accept it from anybody else around her either. Her severe asthma, residual surgery aftermath, and built up bodily limitations leave her needing to modify most exercises and it’s THAT VERY MINDSET that has made Michelle a Legend and a defining example of what “never giving up” truly means. If she can’t do something, she finds a way to do it anyways. “All or nothing” doesn’t exist anymore and in its place is the infinitely more effective “do something.”
“I’m no different than anybody out there. It can always be worse. I mean, I’ve survived 2 bouts of cancer, the loss of my husband, almost 20 surgeries, and more… but I’m alive. I have to take care of me because no one else is going to. It starts within.”
Forever humble through every moment Michelle is the type who you’d never know the accolades she’s achieved because she’d never tell you. Just the same she’ll shrug off what she’s been through as tough but noting that “there are other people out there who have it way worse… We’ve all got a story.” She’s quick to point out her parents as 2 of her most inspiring and shining examples of perseverance that showed her the proper way in handling the tribulations life slings at you. She’s just as speedy to point out that she wouldn’t have made it without her faith, either. The common denominator being she points her finger everywhere else but her when it comes to how amazing she is yet she said it best herself… it starts within.
“If you try to plan it won’t happen, but you can prepare the best you can. I do what I can control and accept what I can’t. I’ve got faith that where I’m supposed to be, I’ll be and that what I’m supposed to do, I’ll do. You’ve got to take it as it comes. It’s all about your mindset. Things will always be tough, and it’s ok to have your moment… but buck up when its time. You’re not going to make it if you don’t keep marching on.”
When Michelle and I first sat down I asked her what she wanted the tone of her story to be. I explained that these stories are THE most viewed component of Timetorebel.com, often garnering thousands of views in the first week alone due to the Facebook shares, retweets, and the Fitness Rebellion’s official Facebook page carrying the story as well… What did she want to say with such a dynamic platform? I wanted her to think about what she was hoping people will take away from her journey and apply to themselves. After a brief pause as she pondered a proper and scholarly answer, she looked at me and said one simple and definitive word I will from here on out always associate with Michelle “Hulk” Huntley;
My darling Michelle, My eyes tear up every time I think of the obstacles you have climbed and the courage you exhibited when Owen passed. When people tell me what an inspiration you have been to them, I think what an inspiration you have been to me knowing at your lowest point there is always hope. I miss you not being physically near your family, but we talk every day. Keep being the encouragement to others and yourself. Thank you Josh for a beautiful write-up. Love, Mom