Perseverance puts veteran on road to fitness

Downtown resident won't let disability stop him from achieving his best

Health & Fitness

April 11, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

One in an occasional series about the fitness habits of Marylanders.

Three mornings a week Mike Tate maneuvers his "little Jaguar" through downtown traffic, making the short trip from his apartment near Camden Yards to Power Plant Live.

Most of the way he rides on the sidewalk.

Reckless driver? A guy with serious pedestrian issues? Not at all. "Jaguar" is one of the nicknames Tate uses for his high-tech, ultra-cool, $10,000 motorized wheelchair. But even more impressive than the mode of transportation (disc brakes, mag wheels, a rockin' max speed of 6 mph) is his destination: Gold's Gym.

Walking may be a problem for Mike Tate, but motivation is not. In a country full of able-bodied couch potatoes, he's beaten the mobility odds and become a health club junkie.

"I love the gym," says Tate. "I love seeing what it does to my body. I love the whole environment."

Interestingly, he got fitness religion late in life. Tate, 54, grew up in Baltimore, served four years in the Air Force, and then embarked on a career in computer programming, eventually settling in California. He jogged and cycled, but didn't develop any kind of workout routine.

"I was never muscular," he says, "but I had a physically fit body."

His nerves were another matter. In the early 1990s, Tate was living in Los Angeles. Rattled by both the Rodney King riot and the Northridge earthquake, he started having anxiety attacks. In the fall of 1997, Tate says a doctor abruptly pulled him off his prescription medicine rather than implement a phased withdrawal. It was a decision, he believes, that triggered severe side effects.

One day, Tate had a violent seizure and blacked out. He fell, which caused his right hip to "shatter," necessitating hip-replacement surgery. He temporarily lost use of his right arm. A month later, he was knocked flat by a second seizure, which fractured his left hip. His muscular-skeletal problems progressed to the point where his legs began to seize up, contracting into a fetal position.

"I could feed myself and that was all," Tate says, who is single and suddenly found himself nearly helpless.

A brother and sister (Mike's the youngest of 13 children) who live locally helped get him admitted to the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

It wasn't until March 2001, after four more leg surgeries and extensive physical therapy, that he was able to live on his own again.

Weak and in constant need of a wheelchair or walker, Tate had to stop working. He volunteers at the veterans hospital, but was looking for something else to occupy his time. He spotted a flier advertising Gold's Gym. Why not give it a try? He cruised down to the Power Plant in his wheelchair.

Clearly, this was not Gold's typical target client. Tate's legs were atrophied, his arms spaghetti-thin and he had a pronounced belly.

"He was what I call 'skinny fat,' " says Rob Kowalski, the club's general manager. "He had every reason to get discouraged and quit."

It took Tate a year to build the confidence, discipline and strength to become a Gold's regular. In the beginning, he needed help just getting on and off the machines. He would tire crossing from one side of the gym to the other, inching along with his walker. "It was terrible," he says. "It was like walking from here to California."

The nice thing about gyms is that they don't play favorites. If you keep showing up, keep grinding away, good things will happen. For example, Tate chugs along at a slow, but steady 1.5 mph pace on the treadmill, but his endurance has increased from 50 seconds to more than four minutes. With a couple of short breaks, he can go for 15 minutes at a stretch.

Likewise, he's improved from 35 pounds to 87 pounds on the horizontal leg press; from 45 pounds to 90 pounds on the chest press. He currently weighs 168, an increase of about 16 pounds, but the potbelly is gone and his flab has started turning into muscle.

Progress, however, isn't always measured in numbers. Tate's biggest gains have come in quality of life, in the simple but spectacular strides made toward self-sufficiency.

He sleeps better and has more energy. He can move around the apartment now without his walker, open the refrigerator by himself, get dressed and undressed without a helping hand. All of which takes a load of worry off the minds of friends and family.

"He's determined to be the best that he can be, to be as independent as he can," says Earlean Hairston, Tate's older sister who lives in Forest Park. "If my parents were alive, they'd be so proud of him."

Tate is no gym-floor fashion peacock (he usually works out in a plain white T-shirt, plain black sweat pants and a baseball hat with the words "God First"), and he doesn't throw around the heaviest weights. But he has earned some serious Gold's Gym respect.

"He's the only person here with a disability like that," says Kowalski. "He inspires other people to live a healthier lifestyle. It's awesome. I don't know if I could be as positive as he is."

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