Friday, November 20, 2015

Your Name is Brave Heart! - By Russell Smith, (aka Brave Heart)

In 2002, I told a colleague I wanted to start exercising. He couldn’t remember the name, only that the publisher lived in Crete…no, wait, Cyprus. “Russ, I got the strongest when I read that guy’s book and followed it.”  Of course, I tracked down Brawn by Stuart McRobert. To the best of my ability – or the best as I then understood it -- I began exercising. And I subscribed to Hardgainer. After a couple issues, a gym ad attracted my attention. It had a strange sounding slogan: “If you train here, you are not normal!” I noted this gym was located in Washington, DC – at that time, my home. Further, I noticed that the gym’s owner wrote an article in most issues of Hardgainer. Without looking back, I recall articles like “John Grimek Was The Man” and “Training and Eating in The Big Apple.”

These articles told tough tales about tough men and women. They espoused a no-holds-barred, kick-ass attitude; incredibly hard work; perfect form; and competing mostly with yourself and your mind. They exuded energy, enthusiasm, self-reliance, and swagger.  For many months, I pondered calling this author, “Maximum Bob” Whelan. A couple times, I chickened out. I called, then hung up before anyone could answer. The ads, the articles, the attitude intimidated me. I didn’t think I could train with the intensity Bob seemed to demand. That view came mostly from an inner feeling of weakness and a lack of confidence. But it had grounding in fact. 

Shortly after my birth, doctors diagnosed me with a heart problem called tricuspid atresia. The American Heart Association classifies it as a serious heart defect. In 1985, at age 10, I underwent open heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. It has and will always have a significant impact on my life. Notably, I have far less strength and cardiovascular ability than normal people my age. However, compared to patients with this condition, I live an extraordinarily active and independent life. And my parents never allowed me to become consumed with self-pity. They pushed me to participate in activities as much as possible, and attend summer camp far from home each year.

After a time, I realized that not calling Bob was a manifestation of self-pity. And so, in July 2003, I called him, setting up the new client orientation. We went through his usual briefing and Q&A. I explained my heart problem to him, but said within my limits, I would do my best. And Bob gave that Bob laugh saying, “We’ll take it SLOW, Russell. DEATHS are not good for business.”

         We did take it slowly. It takes normal clients three or four workouts to make it through the entire routine; it took me ten or a dozen. But I exercised twice per week, like Bob asked; and I started eating more and better food, like Bob asked. Before every workout, I prepared mentally, like Bob asked. I tried to do a tad better this time than I’d done last time. I attacked the iron. I channeled my anger – from whatever source – constructively in the battle with the iron. But still, I accepted limits: if I didn’t have a great workout, for whatever reason, I shook it off and determined to do better next time.

          As months drifted by, I noticed small but telling differences. I gained some weight, hitting 140 for the first time in my life. Bob would add a pound or two or five to a couple exercises whenever I earned it by my performance. It’d take a workout or two, but I’d lift that new weight to the max reps, demonstrating my new strength.  Perhaps most importantly, I noted an attitude change. I felt tougher – far in excess to the strength gains. I felt more confident and able – in the gym and in life.

          Toward the end of 2003, I came into the gym at 7am one morning. Bob held up his hand, stopping me at the door. He raised his voice above his usual volume and stated, half-laughingly, half-solemnly, “In this gym, your name is no longer Russell. In this gym, your NEW name is BRAVE HEART!”  Dumbfounded, I asked what he meant. “BRAVE HEART! You have a serious heart problem, and yet you work harder than most people, even most of my clients. You come in here each time, and you assault the workout. You have a great, positive attitude. You take this seriously. You do whatever I ask you – no questions asked. You do your best. THAT’S why your name is now BRAVE HEART!”

          So it was, from that moment until Bob and I both departed Washington in 2012. As a postscript, in 2014, my doctors recommended another open heart surgery. In pre-surgery tests, the docs noted the strength of my heart and my active lifestyle. (I went to Chicago myself for the tests; very few patients require no assistance.) In the months leading up to the surgery, I began exercising every day – not quite as intensely as with Bob – but regularly and conscientiously. I also worked harder at my cardiovascular exercise than ever before – in this case, walking longer and farther than ever before. And I also called on the master of mental motivation, “Maximum Bob” Whelan, to put me in the proper mental attitude. Tough but calm. Focused but immersed in life. The couple talks we had brought the old Brave Heart attitude to the fore, and I entered the surgery incredibly well-prepared, mentally and physically.

          The surgery went very well. In nine days, I left the hospital (it was 21 days in 1985, when far different technology and approaches to care prevailed). In about three weeks, I went home. I attacked cardio rehab aggressively and by the end, in March of this year, I felt back to normal. But then, Bob has always told me that I am “NOT NORMAL!”

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