Want to see what a “typical” Fitness Rebellion challenge consists of? Check out:
Rise 2 Fall: The Movie
Want to see what a “typical” Fitness Rebellion challenge consists of? Check out:
40 Fitness Rebels got together the summer of 2015 and took a trip to fitness Wonderland. This is that story broken apart into 8 chronological (mostly) chapters. Through this roller coaster of a journey 3 things have been constant and true… There is always an adventure to be had, a lesson to be learned, and a shoulder to lean on when you participate in life. So do it. Dare to grab life by the chutneys and demand the happiness you deserve.
Or dont… it’s up it you.
The assignment was to take a photo with the Rebel shirt I spray paint voodoo’d up for them… and that’s it! It could be whatever they wanted as long as the Rebel shirt is represented and it’s a photo that tells us who you are. The goal was to get all different kinds of photos from all walks of life and see multifaceted Rebel points of view, have a good time in the process, and share our fun at the end of it!
The Fitness Rebellion is home to every sort of character you can think of. If we were a co-ed boy band (which we kind of are… Click here… you know you want to…) we would have every spectrum covered. For those of you that know Justin Zuiderweg you know he fits the “loveable bad boy with a heart of gold” persona… only replace the brooding demeanor, disheveled hair, and sexy dance moves with super goofism, tough mudder headbands, and hashtags. Throw in a splash of sailor mouth and you’ve just baked yourself the ultimate beef flavored Justin cake (get it…. beef cake… TAAAAAHHHH!!!!).
If you don’t know Justin but have been keeping up with my Rebel Ramblings on the mind numbing task of getting prepared for World’s Toughest Mudder then you’ve heard about him plenty. He’s not only my partner in crime in the endeavor but the one I’m counting on to drag my scrappy ass across the finish line (don’t tell him that though… as of now he thinks he’s just training hard to get himself across the finish line… foolish man…).
A great friend, training partner, Rebel cohort, and all around amazing soul Justin embodies the Fitness Rebellion at its core in my eyes. With a story I knew about as well as a half crafted quilt I was eager to put the rest of the picture together and learn more about the man that has shed blood, sweat, and tears with and within the Rebellion the last couple of years. The opportunity arose the weekend of September 7th, 2014 as we drove back from our 3rd (and most brutal by far) World’s Toughest Beach Workout. As we settled into our 40 minute car ride I took out my “Hulk” journal, purple Anytime Fitness pen, and started our recollection the same way I start every interview;
He paused only briefly as I had asked him the same questions before we started our workout so he had 2 hours to think about it.
“Things weren’t crazy at all really growing up…” he started.
“I was born in San Francisco, raised in Santa Rosa off West 3rd until my parents sold their house and built a home in Spring Valley up in Lake County. It was the typical set up, you know? Into sports, church, family get-togethers… Average American family type stuff. Nothing glamorous or anything like that.”
He squinted as he drove along.
“For me though, I was a trouble maker… I was always getting into some sort of mischief and was a stereotypical problem kid. Not really sure why, I just had a habit of mouthing off to everyone. I didn’t really have respect for anybody and ended up getting suspended a lot… all stupid stuff really, nothing worth it. I was almost expelled in 8th grade.”
“From what?” I asked.
“Just getting suspended too many times. Like I said, stupid shit. Nothing big… I just had a problem with everybody. If I hadn’t gotten home schooled for 8th grade I wouldn’t have graduated Junior High. It wasn’t long after that I started getting into drugs which only made things worse as I’m sure you can imagine.”
“How old were you?” I asked with my head bent as I battled the bumps in the road to get it all down.
“15. That was when I started smoking pot at least. Weed for me was definitely my gateway. My attitude just got worse as high school went on. By 17 I was getting heavy into drinking. I’d steal my Dad’s booze from the cabinet and one day he comes up to me and asked ‘You been taking alcohol from the cabinet?‘” He smiled as he reminisced.
“‘No… why?‘ I said even though I was lying my ass off. ‘Because see that line on the back of the bottle I drew? Good job filling it back up with water but you filled it up too much dummy.”
“Whatever, I was young, dumb, and stubborn… I was gonna do what I wanted.” Justin stated.
Which is what led to him moving out on his own at 18 to Santa Rosa, CA. Not too far from his parent’s home… but far enough. Justin has an almost mythical work ethic which assured him not running into the typical financial problems a lot of us face when we first venture out. After all he’d been holding down at minimum 2 jobs since 15 years old so finding work wouldn’t be an issue. No… The issue, although he didn’t know it, would be the people met along the way and the spiral affect they’d have on Justin’s soon-to-be kamikaze mindset.
With new found freedom combined with an 18 year old rebellious attitude it wasn’t long before he started going off the rails. Er… ather, doing rails… Cocaine and speed became routine leaving Justin swimming constantly in between seas of highs and lows. He took trying to “even things out” to the extreme. Too high strung? That’s what weed and alcohol is for! Need a pick-me-up? That’s what coke and speed is for! Never quite knowing how to just sit still and deal, his brain was constantly racing from one thing to the next in an attempt to take his mind off reality even though it led to a daily destruction derby and treating his body like a dumpster.
“I had a lot of shit swirling around in my head that I wasn’t mature enough face head on and figure out. I didn’t care about myself at all and finding an escape became a constant theme for me and stayed that way for a lot of years… Most of my life.”
By the age of 19 Justin found himself riding his youthful invincibility straight into marriage. Young love and the desire to be a little more responsible did little to shed light on his self destructive ways and the demons he was battling however. A licensed big rig driver and closet tech junkie meant that along with the overflow of nonstop bills and spousal duties Justin constantly had his hands full, which only exacerbated his lack of getting a handle on himself. Throw in the drinking, drugs, and hard living and you’ve got yourself the perfect recipe for disaster if I’ve ever seen one (and trust me, I’ve cooked up my fair share of disasters). Justin was sadly too clouded to ever begin the self reflective process long enough to figure out what was truly wrong with him and why he cared so little about himself.
What made this all the more ironic is Justin is the type of guy that would give you the shirt off his back if you needed one then go home and bring you a few more so you have extra for next time. His dirty sailor mouth is matched only by his heart of gold and pension for taking care of all of those around him, so why not himself? I know a lot of people who relate to that one…
As time went on and Justin got older he seemingly got a handle on things.
“I dabbled in ‘substances’ when I needed to ‘disappear‘ but had work to worry about too. I was always worried about something, bro.”
It was at the age of 27 on October 13th, 2005 that Justin’s entire world changed. It was this day that Trent, whom Justin affectionately refers to as “Spongebob,” was born. A new focus. A new heart to cherish. A new love.
It would be neat if that meant that everything became crystal clear as rays of sunshiney realization burst through the haze and infiltrated Justin’s brain like a less intense version of the movie “Alien” but… no. A major turning point in one direction usually causes a swing in another, such was the case with his marriage… After 10 years of making it work their relationship had run its course and at 29 Justin found himself freshly divorced.
This was the domino that sent all the others toppling down.
“I couldn’t handle the heartbreak and stress of it all and got on the fast track to seriously killing myself. I didn’t know it then, but that’s what I was doing…”
The scary part is that you never would have known. Good job? Check. Beautiful healthy son? Check. Friends? Check… even though a few of them needed to get kicked to the curb… Nonetheless a dark spiral turned darker daily as he succumbed to any and every drug he could get his hands on. He’d play the role of dutiful father, good friend, and diligent employee when needed but once he was alone he’d chip away at himself drink by drink, pill by pill, pipe by pipe… and with vigor. An enthusiasm for misery. A thirst for behavior so toxic he could drown in it.
It’s in these darkest of moments when even the tiniest bit of light can shatter the blackness and refurbish your will. For Justin, his light came from the strike of a lighter on a crack pipe.
6 months after his divorce Justin was sitting on couch in his apartment by himself. He’d been drinking heavily, throwing pain pills back like candy, doing blow, and smoking weed all day because… what else was there to do? The only thing missing in this fiesta was something Justin had only recently decided to add to his depression weapons… Crack. Even though he had plenty of friends who raved about it Justin never wanted to be “that guy.” No one ever gets up in the morning and says “I think I’m going to make the transition into crackhead today!”
Yet here he was.
“I could see the big deal about it” he said. “It hits you like a rush but that didn’t last long for me… I had a breakdown instead.”
Justin went on to describe the reality of the situation hitting him like a tornado full of bricks and twice as heavy. Somewhere within the murk of the drinking and drug cloud he was swimming in came clarity… Trent. Shining like a lighthouse his self abuse illuminated his relationship with his little boy and everything it should have been… but wasn’t. He wasn’t being the father he should or could be and was knocking on hell’s door like a cop with a warrant in the process. He was literally destroying himself when he was alone but somehow couldn’t find a care about it until now… A tidal wave of awareness brought with it streams of tears as Justin had hit his rock bottom and knew it.
I asked him what he thought made that day different.
“I guess it was just time for the light to turn on.”
When Justin puts his mind to something… it gets DONE. It only took a drug induced slap in the face for him to realize that caring about himself IS caring for those he loves most. It’s impossible to love others properly without loving yourself and with this newfound epiphany Justin sought after becoming a better father, son, brother, friend, and overall person like a pitbull on a pork-chop. He got rid of all the “bad friend” contacts that weren’t serving him. At the urging and support of his sister and brother-in-law he joined a gym and got into running! Cutting out all substance abuse and keeping to drinking socially Justin steadily started taking control and gaining confidence… Something he hadn’t experienced in quite some time.
I asked him what made this different than past futile attempts at taking his mind and body back;
“This was something I’d never done before. I’d never taken care of my demons and faced them head on, I’d only ever run from them and used them as crutches. I wasn’t used to it… but once I started getting used to it and cut out all the bad shit I knew this was the path I was supposed to be on. Working on yourself takes time but it’s worth it.”
Coincidentally enough it was at the gym in 2011 where Justin met Maggie. He was already on a treadmill when Maggie hopped on one right next to him. Describing the moment he met her as “the longest I’ve ever been on a treadmill in my life” the two hit it off big time.
Also in a moment of complete serendipity Maggie was the one to introduce Justin to the Fitness Rebellion. Maggie has been a part of Hulk/Rebel since the very beginning and we were stoked to meet the new fella! Boy… he sure didn’t disappoint! Between Trent, Maggie (and her wonderful little ones Lily and Lucas), his career, healthy friendships, and the Fitness Rebellion Justin has been kept grounded, blessed, and humble.
“I’m pushing GOOD limits now which is something I’m still getting used to. 5 years ago if you had told me I’d be doing the stuff I’m doing with the people I’m doing it with now I’d have laughed in your face and called you crazy.”
In the last couple years Justin has run 11 Tough Mudders, 3 Spartan Races, countless “fun runs,” The T25 and “Insanity” programs, 3 Rebel challenges, and inspired countless people in the process with his endearing passion for social media. His love for baseball has been passed down to Trent whom he’s now coaching when he’s not driving freight or training for World’s Toughest Mudder. Recently he got to combine the two:
As we pulled up to my house. I asked Justin if he had anything he wanted to add and he says “yeah, I want to add something for anybody thinking about joining Rebel or anything else that might be the change they need.”
I couldn’t wait to hear what he had to say. He did not disappoint.
“If you’re trying to talk yourself into doing something hard, outside your comfort zone… then do it. Sure something like a 60 minute workout sounds impossible when it’s not a regular part of your life but you need to give yourself a chance! Sometimes that’s all you need… just one chance… That chance can be where you find yourself. In the end it’s always worth it.”
Amen, my man…
As a former “fat kid” in physicality growing up and current “fat kid” at heart (while still attempting to grow up) I had an opportunity not too many in my position often get a few weeks ago. It was an experience that I longed for like a slow burning ember stashed away in my heart walls that I had no idea even resided there until a good friend asked if I’d be willing to do it nearly a year ago. As one of the coordinators of Windsor Middle School’s annual school year “Spartan Stampede 3K,” a fundraiser for the PTA that doubles as a much needed chance to spark today’s youth into being active in the process, Hillary Miller was wondering if I’d come in as a guest speaker for the kids to get them fired up for what had apparently become an “oh, this again? Ugh…” sort of mentality amongst the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.
I couldn’t answer “absolutely” fast enough.
For many, going back to their old middle school would be a tangible nightmare. It’s been my observation that most people are either apathetic or bitter at revisiting their old grade school in any capacity, let alone actually getting up in front of the whole school and saying “hey y’all! I used to go here before any of you were even born yet! Here I am again!” To me though… that was the very moment I was unexpectedly craving until the situation serendipitously presented itself.
Here it was… a chance to go back and reach out to the kids with a message that I wished upon many a star for someone to come and give to me when I was their age. A moment to draw them in and even if just for a brief moment in time let them know that no matter how hard things get they are not alone and that everything gets better, you’ve just got to work for it. A shot at giving the gift of self-affirmation that has personally taken me a literal lifetime thus far to gain myself. Not redemption, but rather paying it forward; taking everything I’ve come to learn the hard way to this point and hopefully saving some of the hardship for others so they can focus on all the other guaranteed stresses they’re going through that have nothing to do with self-worth, anxiety, seclusion, and self-esteem.
Life is hard enough. There is absolutely zero point in being your own worst enemy.
Beyond just speaking to the kids, I was hoping to be a representation of hope. An embodiment that the words I’m saying are actually true and that I’m not just some weirdo adult (emphasis on the words “not just”) coming in and spouting off a bunch of words that I think they want to hear but rather someone who truly knows the hardships of being overweight, dealing with an eating disorder, battling self-mutilation, and getting bullied to the point of tears daily while redundantly asking “why me?” yet not having quite the mental fortitude to realize it ISN’T you… it’s them. I didn’t want to just come in and say things get better… I wanted to show them!
The date of the assembly was May 8th, a Thursday. I showed up on campus strapped with a Rebel shirt on my back and a shovel in the backseat just begging to be hoisted. It felt surreal since I hadn’t been there in who knows how many years but my shaky nerves told me I was ready. All good things carry nerves behind them so I took it as a sign the Universe was watching and waiting.
This is the point of the story where the tide shifts and I’m no longer the magic maker but instead the recipient of something so personally profound that there will never be enough words to explain how much powerful beauty resided in one simple statement from the mouth of a 6th grader.
I want to be very clear… I have no disillusions about the confusingly flamboyant and “out there” caricature I can be with my shaggy hair, brightly spray painted shirts, knee high socks, crazy bandanas, all accented with the energy of a hummingbird/silverback gorilla lovechild. Add a shovel painted up like a watermelon into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of funny looks and murmurs. Not only do I completely understand but from time to time will even let out an “I know, right?!” to the onlookers and whisperers (mostly because it’s fun to catch people off guard but trust me… you’d be surprised at how quickly someone’s perspective on you changes when you acknowledge it rather than fight it).
As I stepped through the gates and onto the actual campus itself the gawking, giggling, and subtle cat-calls immediately started in. Totally ok with me though… Since the last time I was there I’ve had quite a bit of practice at dealing with this scenario. With my chest puffed out like a Spartan shield and my sword drawn in the form of a toothy grin you couldn’t knock off my face no matter how hard you tried, I walked around campus in a “soak it in!” manner while mentally preparing for the task at hand. One boy even gazed up at me in bemused bewilderment and asked “Who are you?”
“You’ll find out soon enough, young buck!” was all I said as I high fived him and kept on movin’.
Near the multipurpose room doors was a planter box with benches on all sides of it that happened to be occupied with quite a few 7th and 8th graders who seemed to be the “ring leaders” in terms of making fun of the “weird guy.” I made sure to look them all in the eye… Not in a vengeful manner but instead stating without words “I see you and I’m unaffected by your taunts” before high fiving the boy nearest me and saying “how you doin’ man?!” His reply was a snicker followed by a “good…” I asked a couple other kids close by the same question and they all gave essentially the same answer.
It was as I was walking away when I heard the words that will stick with me forever.
With my back turned to the planter box as I walked to my inevitable destination merely a few feet away I heard a girl’s tiny, feisty voice cut through the schoolyard clutter clear as day:
“DON’T BE MEAN JUST ‘CAUSE HE’S COLORFUL!”
I stopped abruptly and did an about face before it even dawned on me I was doing it. I searched for the body that the voice belonged to but to no avail. I was in disbelief at what I had just experienced… In a cage full of lions rose a single, solitary voice fully intent on taming those beasts. She had no reason to… She could have kept quiet, ignored what was happening, and moved on like everyone else. She COULD have, but didn’t. I’d made it very apparent I needed no fending for, yet she spoke up anyway. She had no idea who I was, but it didn’t matter to her. I was a person. Not young, not old, not fat, not fit, not anything but a colorful human being that she decided to take into her own hands to speak up for when nobody else would.
It’s hard enough for damned ADULTS to do that, but a little girl?! She surely wasn’t going to make any friends by making such a defiant statement in a schoolyard shark pit that thrives on the first scent of “blood.”
When I made it into the assembly room I thought to myself “something just happened that completely changes everything I’m going to talk to these kids about…” I was still awestruck by what had just happened when I decided to walk around the campus for a bit before the Circus got started. Shovel in hand I set off towards the playground, my mind racing with the change in circumstances.
As I was rounding the building I walked past a few girls making their way towards their classroom before the final bell rung. One of them says “Hey, what’s your name?”
I knew that voice…
“Josh, nice to meet you! Hey, were you the one who yelled out ‘don’t be mean just because he’s colorful!’?” I asked hopefully.
“Yeah!” she said as her and her friends giggled at the recognition.
“That was AWESOME! What’s your name? What made you say that?” I pondered to her, excited at what her sage-like reply might be.
“I dunno… People shouldn’t be mean. Oh, and I’m Erin” She nonchalantly said back before more excitedly wondering “What are you doing here?!”
“I’m here to fire y’all up for the Spartan Stampede next week!” I shared as the final bell rung, they sped up their pace, and we exchanged our “see ya laters.”
This is where I’ll leave it. Not because that was the end of noteworthy events that I was blessed to be in the presence of that day… but because this tiny voice of love cutting through the deafening voice of judgment deserves to stand alone. It deserves to be highlighted, shared, celebrated, and emulated. It deserves to be downloaded into your mental data banks for those moments when you need a little bit of Erin’s courage to make a brave stand in any dire situation you may find yourself in.
The morning started as an eager opportunity to showcase hope but ended with me detailing a wonderful point in time in which hope was already present. The “Erins” of the world deserve the moon and stars for the beacon they shine. They flicker their light and chip away at the darkness so that all the other love warriors around who maybe aren’t “there yet” have not a reason to stand up… but instead a person to stand up with. Linked arms will ALWAYS be stronger than malicious ones.
Erin, I will always and forever take a stand with you.
Who’s with us?
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;
“I’m unwilling to be a helpless victim. Sure I’m scared sometimes, but I force myself to do what I have to do. It’s not the things I’ve done that I’m proud of, it’s the stuff in my head I’ve had to fight through to do it.”
Those were the first words to come out of Cheryl’s mouth when I asked her what she wanted her story to say once people had the chance to catch a peek through the kaleidoscope that is her. Simple yet powerful her statement cuts like a knife through the gimmicks and trickery often sought after to “make it through” life by trimming away the bullshit and leaving you with a foundation you can either choose to accept or deny; you have the choice to be life’s victim when it attacks unexpectedly and relentlessly but rest assured that throughout that decision making process it will be terrifying beyond belief. We ALL have felt the mind and body blows of that last statement, but it’s what you do with yourself as the dust settles that defines who you are at your core… How do you respond and what actions do you take? If you’re Cheryl you respond like a cat with nine lives and the tenacity of a tornado… This is a glimpse of Cheryl’s storm.
If you were to catch snippets of Cheryl’s life growing up you’d swear you were watching reruns of “Leave It to Beaver.” You’d see a loving family with a nice home in Northern California that recycled before it was cool. Church every Sunday with full societal calendars for the whole family in between… they were the epitome of the American dream. A dual parent household with one daughter and one son that ate healthy, exercised regularly, exceled in work and school, adorable family dog… I think you get the picture. Don’t get me wrong, per all circumstances her upbringing carried with it the “usual suspects” regarding growing pains and tumultuous times but to her own admittance nothing too extraordinarily tragic beyond that.
It was while she was attending grad school at the San Jose campus of the University of Phoenix when Cheryl’s Americana upbringing suddenly took a turn towards “The Twilight Zone” of the television spectrum. It started with a hospital trip and the two reasons that prompted her to take it; a bruise resembling a black and purple vortex that showed up out of nowhere on her hip and the nonstop bleeding that occurred after casually scratching an itch on her head. Combined with the extreme fatigue she’d been feeling (among other symptoms) she decided it was time to promptly get checked out so she stopped her dinner preparation for that night and had a friend bring her to the ER.
She never made it back home that night.
After having some tests run Cheryl could hear her name announced over the intercom with a tone of urgency that instantly made her anxiety swell. Her husband at the time was working night shifts which left Cheryl by her lonesome to deal with the fear bouncing around in her head like pieces of shrapnel.
“I was in the waiting room for the longest time. While I was there my greatest fear was that it could only be one of two things… cancer or AIDS.”
A lot of us have gone the “Web MD” route in our brains of figuring out the worst case scenario and convincing ourselves that’s EXACTLY what we’ve got, but when it turns out to be true… it can be profoundly soul shattering. Unfortunately, it did end up being one of those two things… leukemia. At the very least she had an answer to the suddenly surging ailments she was experiencing; it just wasn’t the answer anybody ever hopes for. Boot straps were pulled up as treatment started immediately and aggressively. With her grit to keep moving forward and the support of her family Cheryl went about trying to beat the cancer that had suddenly found its way into her family’s home.
Progress was swift and after only a few months of dedicated cancer management (radiation therapy included) the cancer began reverting course! They’d beat the cancer into remission! It was an optimal situation because it gave them more time to get it gone for GOOD.
That lasted 3 months.
The beginning of 1998 did not bring good tidings as the cancer came back with a vengeance in January forcing Cheryl and her family to get right back into defense mode. It would only be fair for Cheryl to deal with one life-altering catastrophe at a time but as we all know life is FAR from fair and it was April of 1998 when life dropped another sledgehammer driving Cheryl even deeper between the rock and hard place she’d already found herself in… On the day Cheryl was scheduled to have her annual bone marrow biopsies from the diagnosis a year prior, she had a stroke.
“After the cancer came back I harbored a LOT of anger. When I had the stroke though… It was bad… I mean I’m 29 and I’ve suddenly lost the ability to walk, talk, drive, ski… I thought I’d never be able to go to work, travel, or get on a plane ever again…Things you can take for granted until all of a sudden you can’t do them anymore.”
Awhile back Cheryl and I had a conversation about the daily planner she kept at the time of her stroke. Cheryl detailed how she kept track of everything in this agenda; work obligations, social events, and medical appointments filled the bylines within the weeks up until the day where she was set to have a bone marrow biopsy which was cause for a very powerful moment when she showed me the point of stoppage. It bore a symbolic resemblance to an author stepping away from writing a carefully crafted book mid-paragraph.
With the leukemia coming back around a second time and in rapid fashion the bone marrow transplant was a necessity still regardless of this newfound “kitchen sink” life had just rocketed Cheryl’s way. After gaining some control on the stroke situation the transplant was pushed from April to July. It was during those months Cheryl found herself dwelling on what she’d lost in her life and reveling in the anniversaries of bad occurrences for a long time afterwards.
“When I was in the hospital my Dad brought in a ‘PEOPLE’ magazine for me and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t read it. I remember thinking ‘I JUST WANT TO READ THE F*&@!ING MAGAZINE!!’ but… nothing. That was hard.”
When the time came for the transplant fingers were crossed and prayers were sent out that Cheryl’s body would accept the new bone marrow and an immediate road to recovery could begin so they could put as much of this awfulness as possible behind them. At this point in the story I’m sure you’ve picked up on the tone that things hadn’t taken a lucky break yet and I’ll tell you they weren’t about take a turn in that direction now. With her body rejecting the transplant Cheryl suddenly found herself in yet another situation where she wasn’t sure she was going to make it out alive. Things got so bad physically she nearly needed a feeding tube to combat the inability and lack of desire to eat. Luckily Cheryl found herself able to stomach grilled cheese sandwiches which is essentially what she lived off of from July of 1998 until February of 1999, the date she was released from the hospital with her body finally accepting the donor marrow.
Once released from the hospital the fight was far from over, but things were at long last starting to look up. With the bone marrow transplant going from being rejected to being accepted it wasn’t longer after Cheryl was deemed cancer free. The rigorous, aggressive, and draining treatment paid off! Sure, she had to get annual marrow biopsies for 10 years (they have to drill a hole in your hip to put in perspective those unfamiliar on how “not simple” this task is) but that’s better than actually having cancer! Cheryl’s spirit, however, was far from healed… The unexpected and sudden loss of abilities coupled with the weight gained from the drugs she now had to take left her in a dark, defeated place.
It took a fateful crossing of paths at church with a single mom who had multiple sclerosis that started the revolt against her own demons keeping her down.
“What I really admired about her was that she never let the MS get her down. I started going with her when she ran errands and even went to the gym with her. She helped introduce me to people after I’d been in a cave for so long. She showed me that things could be different…”
Bit by bit Cheryl started to crawl out of her shell as the days went on. She even started to do some volunteer work at her Church again! Over the years Cheryl dug deep to regain her life back even though the realization that it wouldn’t be the same life she had before had a tendency to send her on a roller coaster of ups and downs. Through the rough times Cheryl retaught herself how to drive, how to walk, and how to eat healthy again. She got herself back to work, travelling with the family, and even joined several gyms with yoga becoming a new favorite therapy for not only her body but her mind, too.
Getting back to everything she was able to do before sometimes means needing a cane or motorized transport to aid with the devitalized left side of her body, but it all goes back to the first words Cheryl said when we sat down to put the pen to paper on this;
“I’m unwilling to be a helpless victim. Sure I’m scared sometimes, but I force myself to do what I have to do. It’s not the things I’ve done that I’m proud of, it’s the stuff in my head I’ve had to fight through to do it.”
It was 2009 when Cheryl found her way to Anytime Fitness.
“I’ve belonged to a lot of gyms in my life, but none of them hit like Anytime did. It was different… I found myself actually wanting to go and really liking the people there. I also remember thinking ‘who’s the weirdo who yells a lot?’”
(Spoiler alert: I was am that weirdo who yells).
Wasting no time she joined up with a transformation challenge that just so happened to be on the verge of starting and wouldn’t you know it… she won the damn thing. She even lost 20 lbs in the process! It was soon after that when Cheryl, who was once told she wouldn’t ever regain the ability to walk all that well ever again, trekked across the Golden Gate friggin’ Bridge.
“When I walked the Golden Gate, it wasn’t exactly something I’d been fantasizing about for years and years or anything… It was that things were going really well and I wanted to make a bucket list to give myself some goals and aspirations. I needed that, or else I wasn’t going to keep pushing myself. You need to have goals to work towards or else you won’t do anything.”
To know Cheryl now means most would be surprised finding out that for as gregarious as she is, she still sticks to her reclusive tendencies (only they are much healthier now). From that initial challenge in 2009 Cheryl has joined damn near every single Hulk/Rebel challenge since (missing one due to hip surgery in 2011), putting her up there as one of the most tenured Hulkster/Rebels there is. Her presence is coveted and her inspiration is legendary as she’s shown more people than she knows the true meaning of strength, inside and out. If you ask her about her inspiration and her take on it though, you get a much different and humbled response:
“I get it, you know… People being happy for people with disabilities being able to make it past them, but I don’t see it that way. In my head I don’t see myself as disabled… I’m Cheryl.”
At the end of every challenge, a slideshow is presented depicting the adventure each Rebel just got done experiencing. Set to the music that over the last 3 months has come to be more powerful than just a simple song, each picture is a memory frozen forever. A story to be told with fondness, fatigue, and growth at the heart and soul of it all. I hope you enjoy watching the journey these Rebellious love soldiers trekked upon, and if all goes well you might even find a little bit of inspiration…
We are the bad news bears. The self proclaimed rejects and defects; puzzle pieces with unique edges that when brought together complete a grander picture. We are the Rebellion. We are here.
To get the full slideshow experience with about 10 minutes of extra video footage and secret Rebel cameos, watch the full slideshow above. If you’d like to jump to a certain section of the slideshow without the bonuses in between, feel free to choose which segment below (they’re in order of start to finish)!