Parkinson's Patients Take Up Boxing to Fight Disease

Kristy Rose Follmar, formerly the No. 3-ranked boxer in her weight class, made her comeback to a flurry of cheers and camera flashes.

The shouts from one group of fans wearing roses on their shirts were all the inspiration she would need for her exhibition bout at Indianapolis' Pepsi Coliseum.

"I just felt like they were up in the ring with me," she said. "I wanted to win for them and I wanted to win big."

Follmar's fight was nothing compared to the battle those rose-wearing fans wage every day.

All of them are her students at Rock Steady Gym in Indianapolis, and they all suffer from Parkinson's disease. The degenerative illness commonly strikes people in the prime of life, causing tremors and slowly robbing the body of its ability to move.


"It is just completely inspirational to be around these people," said Follmar, a former North American Boxing Council champion who retired from boxing three years ago with a 15-1 record, including nine knockouts.

She and former Golden Gloves champ Vince Perez run the training program at the gym.

"The thing they fight is their disease," said Perez, who is also one of the gym's owners. "It's so much more important than the million-dollar prize fight that you are thinking of. I mean, this is your life."

On a recent Saturday, Perez put 47-year-old Scott Newman through the paces.

Newman, a former prosecutor, was diagnosed with Parkinson's six years ago. He was depressed, debilitated, and unable to even write his own name.

"I was down for the count, absolutely down for the count," Newman said.

Fortunately for him, he had Perez in his corner.

"To realize your friend is dying, it humbles you to a point where you have to find the strength to not let that happen," Perez said, his voice breaking. "You have to tell yourself you will do anything you can to save him."

The only weapon Perez could think of was boxing. He decided to teach Newman how to fight, training hard, six days a week.

"I was merciless, because I told him, 'this is the most important fight you will ever be in — in your life,'" Perez said.

The results were remarkable. After months of training, Newman's tremors were less severe, and he regained movement and function.

"When I was ready to give up, he wasn't ready to give up. And I think he saved my life. He saved my life. It's just that simple," Newman said.

If boxing worked for Newman, he and Perez thought it could help others, too.

So they built a non-profit gym where Parkinson's patients now fight their disease — for free.

On Saturdays, the classes are packed with those dealing with a new diagnosis, and those who have suffered with the disease for years.

"When I first came here, I couldn't jump rope. I couldn't move left," said Linda Hinkle, who was diagnosed with the disease seven years ago. "I thought my life was over. I thought I would just stay home and vegetate, shake and die."

Now, Hinkle trains at Rock Steady three times a week. She says her balance and mobility have improved, and she even sleeps better.

"It's become my job to come here and work on my health," she said.

"I can't say enough about what the people that started this have done for her," Linda's husband Mike said. "They truly are heroes."

Across the room, Follmar wore mitts on her hands and shouted orders at Mary Yeaman, who was diagnosed six years ago.

"Hit it! Hit it! Knock somebody out! What have you got?" Follmar shouted.

Yeaman threw a flurry of jabs and uppercuts.

"I never did like boxing that well. Now, I think it's the greatest sport in the world," she said.

"It would be intimidating for someone to walk by on the street and look in here," Follmar said. "They don't look like people who have Parkinson's disease — they look like fighters ... I think they have probably found strength within themselves they never knew they had."

On the night she returned to the ring, Follmar took that strength with her — and made her fans proud.

"She symbolizes our victory, and it's a victory we win every day," Newman said. "Every day the disease does not get worse, we win that round. We go to the corner and we wait for the bell for the next round."