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From Denial to Determination: Jimmy Choi’s Parkinson’s Journey

Living with Parkinson’s isn’t a choice, but you can choose how you live with it. That’s the philosophy of American Ninja Warrior Jimmy Choi.

Jimmy Choi has been living with Parkinson’s disease for 17 years, but he spent the first half of those years in denial. Diagnosed at the age of 27, he was newly married and starting a successful career in the technology sector during the dot-com boom.

“I just didn’t want to believe the diagnosis,” Choi said.

“I thought Parkinson’s was a disease for older people. I couldn’t wrap my own head around it even though I was told by three separate neurologists. They gave me medicine, and I reacted to it in a positive manner. That’s how I was diagnosed.”

Choi continued taking the medication without making changes or going back to his doctors for updates with the hope that “it would all just go away.”

He hid the diagnosis from his wife, Cherryl, for three months. He refused to tell his immediate family for three years or his close friends for another two years after that.

“There’s definitely a shame factor you have to deal with,” he said.

“It seemed like living with a chronic illness might be perceived as a weakness, especially at the workplace or even in a social situation. I struggled with the fear of what others would think and whether or not they would treat me differently because of the diagnosis.”

The moment that changed everything

Choi’s wakeup call came when he fell down the stairs carrying his son Mason. Both were unharmed, but “that was my call to action,” he said.

“I put my son in danger simply by carrying him. The first thing I wanted to do after that moment was to help find a cure. I knew I didn’t have the funds or smarts to find a cure myself. So the next best thing to do was give my body up for science and started signing up for clinical trials.”

He noticed a reoccurring theme at these clinical trials – that exercise was the best medicine for Parkinson’s disease. He also read an article in Runner’s World magazine about a gentleman with PD who was running marathons and thought, if he can do it, so can I.

Choi is quick to admit, “I was in no shape for running.” He weighed 250 pounds and was walking with a cane.

“I started walking around the block and when I felt confident, I would leave my cane at home and see how far I could go until I lost balance. I put one foot in front of the other and kept going until I felt comfortable enough to jog. Every day I tried to beat myself as far as milestones.”

Once Choi became more physically active, he changed the way he ate and switched to a more nutritious diet. The weight started melting off, and by 2012, he was running his first marathon.

Since then, Choi has completed ultra-marathons, multiple triathlons and was the first person with PD to complete a 100-mile bike ride in under five hours. He found his calling as an activist for Parkinson’s research and has raised more than $250,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

From ‘runner fit’ to ‘ninja fit’

So how did Jimmy Choi go from running marathons to competing on American Ninja Warrior (ANW), a TV show designed to test some of the world’s toughest athletes in front of an audience of 5 million viewers per episode? We have his daughter, Karina, to thank for that.

“It was her favorite show. She begged me to take her to gyms in the area that had obstacle courses so she could play. When she was 6 years old, she said, ‘You should try out.’ And I gave her all the excuses in the book,” Choi recalled.

“But when we watched Alison Topperwein (the first athlete with Parkinson’s to compete on ANW) compete during season 8, my daughter turned to me and asked, ‘What was your excuse again?’ From that moment on, I had no more excuses.”

When Choi applied for the show, he didn’t think he’d get on. “Up to this point, I was a fit person running marathons. I was runner fit, but not ninja fit. And since they had already done a Parkinson’s story, I didn’t think they’d do it again,” he said.

In fact, he was so certain he wouldn’t get on the show, Choi didn’t even bother training for ANW’s grueling assault course until he got the surprise phone call notifying him that his episode would film within six weeks. That left him with only a handful of weeks to train.

Competing on the show in July 2017 “was the most terrifying and exciting thing I had to do at the same time,” he described. But he fared well, overcoming the first two obstacles before falling at the notoriously difficult “broken pipes” section. A fan favorite, Choi wound up competing on the show for three seasons.

“People know me as an endurance athlete, but what they don’t see is that I’m constantly building on my abilities to prepare my body to be able to do these things. For instance, I used to fall a lot, so I started using burpees as a training method to teach myself how to fall safely and then build the strength to get back up,” Choi said.

“I get asked all the time, ‘What would you change knowing what you do now?’ Well, I would change those first years of denial. Living with Parkinson’s requires a whole lifestyle change. It is not something you can do for a short period of time and think it’s sustainable. You have to be all in and fully committed to making the changes you need to make in order to live your best with Parkinson’s.”

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