Kevin Thompson is a World Champion martial artist and a distinguished member of the Black Belt Hall of Fame, along with Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. He was a member of Team Paul Mitchell Karate, a nationally recognized tournament team.
I met Kevin over 30 years ago when I first started competing. Later, we were teammates on the 1990 W.A.K.O. USA National Karate Team. He is what's known as a triple threat in martial arts -- a master of forms, fighting and weapons. As an elite athlete, his training has prepared him to excel in competitions, and now, in the fight for his life.
Kevin knew something was wrong when he was training for a tournament and slipped doing a basic form (Karate Technique) -- one he had been doing for the last 40 years. While he thought that was strange, he didn't think much about it and continued to practice. When he slipped again, he thought, there must be something on the floor. But when he slipped the third time, he thought, there must be something wrong with me.
He was later diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He explained the disease to me as such:
Amyotrophic stands for "A," the Greek word for no; "myo" means muscle; and "trophic" means nourishment. Translation: No muscle nourishment. (Without nourishment, the muscles waste away.) Lateral describes where the nerve cells that signal and control the muscles are located in the spinal cord. Sclerosis describes the hardening or the scarring from the lack of nourishment.
The symptoms of ALS include twitching, lack of muscle strength, and as Kevin first experienced, a loss of balance. There is no cure for the disease, and very few treatments.
I recently talked with Kevin about his diagnosis, and his indomitable spirit in spite of it. I want to share some of his inspirational words and how he is applying the lessons of martial arts to his fight against ALS:
"The punch that's going to hurt you the most is the punch you don't see coming."
The disease lies dormant in the body and symptoms surface usually between the ages of 40 and 50. Kevin didn't drink, he didn't smoke, and ate right to nourish his body. He was in his 50's -- and still in fighting shape, still training, still competing, when he experienced his first symptoms of ALS. You can only imagine how surprised he was when the doctor told him he had ALS. Just like martial arts training, when you get hit with something you don't expect, you still have to find a solution and fight back. For instance, after learning the disease attacks fat cells before muscle, he blocks the disease by eating enough to gain weight. He also exercises daily. In fact, he recommends anyone with the same diagnosis to start occupational and physical therapy immediately.
"When I am weak or need a boost of energy, or spirit, I yell, 'Warrior!'"
He invokes the martial arts' Warrior chant to push beyond his stopping point. When he has to do five more squats, he tells himself that he has to beat this disease and can't stop at two. It's a culmination of his training, work ethic, discipline, and character that gives him this motivation. He doesn't allow a day to go by without doing his push-ups or squats.
"To establish a non-quitter attitude, to defeat or accomplish anything, you have to have a strong, positive mind, and heart."
When he first received his diagnosis, he was on his own -- no medicine, no treatment -- just a referral to support groups. He has since taken Riluzole, but it's believed to only slow the progression of the disease in its end stages. What has helped: the mental and spiritual aspects of the Karate practice that Kevin draws from.
Kevin has no intention of giving up -- ever. He will beat this disease. He will keep exercising and doing push-ups. Why? His training helps his mind stay focused and stay on his journey of recovery.
He's not on his journey alone. Sure, he and his family picked up the torch, but the entire martial arts community has helped him in his battle against ALS. He gets strength and inspiration from all who reach out and contact him.
This month, Kevin will be championing for the estimated 30,000 Americans with ALS. People with ALS are overlooked when it comes to research and funding. "It seems like we are being thrown away since there are not that many of us," my friend tells me. On May 7th, he is heading to Washington with the The ALS Association Greater New York Chapter to speak to Congress about awareness and finding a cure for the devastating disease.
"I'm going to make enough noise to pull the mask off this disease," he says of his mission. "It's been too long, we need to find out more about what causes ALS, and how to cure it."
Click here to listen to the interview in its entirety.