Three years ago, Ponte Vedra Beach resident Kristen Gray was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease at the age of 42. But today, with boxing gloves in hand, she’ll tell you she’s winning the fight.
In January 2017, Gray founded Rock Steady Boxing Jacksonville, a nonprofit organization that gives local people with Parkinson’s disease hope by improving their quality of life through non-contact boxing-based fitness training.
“This program brings back hope, it gives back confidence and it gives back movement,” said Gray, who lives on Ponte Vedra Boulevard. “Parkinson’s on a daily basis is trying to take all those things away. This actually brings it back.”
Shortly after Gray’s diagnosis, she and her family moved from Atlanta to Ponte Vedra to live by the beach and experience a better quality of life. As a career speech-language pathologist who treated patients living with neurological diseases, she knew all about the disabling course of Parkinson’s, and she wanted to do everything in her power to fight its path of progression.
Research connected her with the greater Rock Steady Boxing nonprofit organization, which has several affiliates around the country but lacked a presence in Jacksonville. She decided that she couldn’t be the only person in the area who needed and wanted the boxing program to combat the disease’s symptoms, so she founded one herself.
In 39 days, Gray raised $12,000 to start the organization. She also connected with Giles Wiley—the owner of Jax Muay Thai who opened his doors to the nonprofit— as well as Nate Campbell—a three-time lightweight champion and Jacksonville native who signed on to be the organization’s trainer. Nine months after its founding, the organization boasts 39 “fighters” between the ages of 45 and 88, doing what they can to fight the symptoms of the disease that has dramatically altered their lives.
“Parkinson’s turns you into the Tin Man,” said Gray. “You become stiff and rigid. You lose your ability to rotate in your head and waist. We work on all of that.”
According to the nonprofit’s website, Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disorder affecting one in 100 people over the age of 65. With no cure for the disease, the only known power to fight it is through movement.
Members of Rock Steady Boxing Jacksonville meet at Jax Muay Thai on Beach Boulevard do just that by participating in boxing-based fitness training programs. On Monday and Friday mornings, the “fighters” exercise beyond the tremor, rigidity, pain and slowness that characterize their disease and work on many of the same elements that boxers condition to improve, including speed, agility, muscular endurance, accuracy, balance, coordination, footwork and strength. Training programs are available to meet the fitness levels of all stages of the disease, from the newly diagnosed to those who have been living with it for decades.
According to the organization’s website, the intense workout that boxing provides can reduce, reverse and delay Parkinson’s symptoms, as well as provide the “fighters” with a stress reliever, confidence booster and overall a source of fun.
“My goal is to have them be able to do everything they did once before, all over again,” said Campbell. “Some people have different issues I can’t combat with boxing. But if I can give them hope, if I can give them something to believe in, I’m good with that.”
Gray explained that the program has already transformed several lives. In January, she said one of the group’s “fighters” required two people to help her get down or up from the floor. Four months later, Gray said this same person eases herself down to the mat for core exercises and stands without assistance to continue workouts. This “fighter,” she said, lives alone, so maintaining this independence is crucial. And overall, Gray said several of the organization’s participants can now turn or walk backwards after previously not being able to do so.
“It’s an emotional experience to see how everyone…” said an emotional Gray, pausing mid-sentence when explaining what it’s like to witness these transformations. “Their smile comes back. Their personality starts coming out. They start becoming more social because their confidence comes out.
“They’re living again,” she continued. “They’re not dying of Parkinson’s. They’re living again, and every day that we can be doing that, we’re winning.”
For more information on Rock Steady Boxing Jacksonville, visit https://www.rsbjax.org/.