By SPENCER GLEASON
Daily News Sports Editor
Working out can be a remedy, of sorts. There’s something therapeutic about grinding through an exercise, and fulfilling a sense of achievement — zoning out and pushing oneself as far the body will allow.
It can help clear the mind.
“Treat exercise as like a medication,” John West said. “It helps keep the body in working order, and keeps it young and fit. … But you have to push yourself.”
West knows about pushing himself. It’s all he’s ever done.
From his days growing up as a farm boy in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, challenging himself among his siblings — like who could carry the most bales of hay from one barn to another — to suffering from a stroke and fighting the dark days, only to come out stronger tomorrow, West has always kept that inner fortitude.
So when he was challenged to take part in a social media pushup contest during the month of September, West, who turned 60 last week, knew the importance of participating. September was Suicide Awareness Month.
According to ActiveHeroes.org, the Department of Veteran Affairs found during a study in 2012 that 22 military veterans a day take their own lives. That was changed to 20 veterans a day during a second study in 2014, according to the website.
But that number — 22 — prompted a 22-pushup challenge — one for each veteran who takes their own life, every day — for 22 days in September.
West accepted the challenge, of course — like he’s accepted every facet of life that’s been thrown his way. And he completed it with his own flare for fun, along with the help of friends — mixing in different variations of pushups, while inventing some of his own.
But while doing his part to help bring awareness to veteran suicide, West — and perhaps more symbolically — used the pushups as therapy. As a way to zone out, and push himself as far as his body would allow.
Here was a 60-year-old doing different variations of pushups he hadn’t done in decades; a stroke survivor lifting his spirits.
From the depths of a downward spiral, West has pushed himself back up to a level of happiness he hasn’t felt in years.
The hole in his heart had been there since birth.
“They said I was just a walking time bomb,” West said of the doctors during a September afternoon inside T.N.A. Fitness — the same gym he’s gone to for eight years. “It was just a matter of time before I had a stroke. It wasn’t ‘if I was going to have a stroke.’ It was ‘when.’”
West suffered from his stroke in 2012 — at 52. He had only lived in Ketchikan for a year.
“Before I had the stroke, I didn’t think there was (any) end to what I could do,” he said. “I knew age (could). … I turned 50, and that was like a wall. I mean, 50 was huge. But then I had a stroke at 52, and that was a huge wall. And I didn’t know if I was going to come out of it.”
Shortly after returning to town from the hospital, West ran into a friend.
“He said, ‘I didn’t even recognize you. You look like death walked into the room,’” West joked, remembering their conversation from nearly a decade ago. “He goes, ‘I thought it was some old guy coming up to me, and then I saw it was you.’”
But aside from his outward appearance, the stroke had affected West inward, looking out.
His vision wasn’t the same, bouncing between triple to double vision, and he felt a constant buzz, like he had had too much alcohol to drink — similar to a hangover, 24-7 — but he hadn’t drunk a lick.
“Your brain tells your eyes what they’re seeing, and when you lose that connection, it’s not telling (your eyes),” he said. “That was tough.”
Even once West could see single vision again, he couldn’t see up or down.
“I couldn’t look down at the ground or look up (very far),” he said. “That was black when I looked up.
“So when I’d come home, and I was unloading the dishwasher, I’d go up, and I couldn’t see where to put the dishes in the cabinet. So I’d take everything out of the dishwasher, and set them on the counter. And then when I got them all on the counter, then I could take them and put them in the cabinet. But if I looked from down to up, I didn’t have enough time to adjust.”
And that caused him to keep his eyes focused on the ground.
West spent so much of his time watching where his feet were going — being careful not to trip — that he would get lost in the woods. So to help, he’d place ribbons around trees. Every 50 yards, West would tie bright orange ribbons on the trees in the Tongass National Forest.
“I used to hunt a lot,” he said. “... But after the stroke, I had to concentrate on my walking so much, I’d walk 100 yards and look up, and I didn’t know where in the (heck) I was. I mean, I was lost.”
West was silently struggling inwardly, too.
“Some dark days,” he said. “They talk about the (suicide prevention) number, and calling the number. But when somebody is going through that, they’re too embarrassed to call and talk to somebody. And so, most of it is just being aware — being friendly toward them.”
West had always found that friendly environment at a gym, so six months after suffering his stroke, West joined T.N.A. Fitness. He’s worked out there ever since.
“They’ve really helped me,” West said. “My wife’s helped me. After having the stroke, and you know, you get depressed.”
His eyes started to well up.
“And you get that thought of suicide,” he continued. “Like nothing’s ever going to be the same.”
That’s why the 22-pushup challenge hit close to home for West.
As much as it was in remembrance of military veterans who had claimed their own life, West felt an inward connection to that same silent struggle.
“It started out (honoring) veterans, and I can understand it being about veterans,” he said. “But I (also) see things can happen in your life.”
Farm boy strong
West was never in the military, but his dad was. His dad had spent time in the United States Marine Corps, and his service to the country was something West thought about when he competed in the 22-pushup challenge. His dad spent time in Japan during the 1940s.
“He was a farm boy, too,” West remembered of his dad. “He was super strong.”
West’s dad would milk 50 head of cows when he was younger.
“When he went into the Marines — he hated fighting,” West recalled. “But he said every time they went to a port — and all the ships were there — they took their toughest guy from every ship and had them fight. And he hated fighting. …
“He said the toughest he ever came across was a lumberjack,” he continued. “He said he never lost a fight. But the toughest he ever came across (were) lumberjacks and Norwegian fishermen.”
And so fist fights in a harbor ensued between lumberjacks, Norwegian fishermen and West’s dad — a farm boy from the Midwest.
“They all had upper body strength from swinging an axe or pulling nets, or stuff like that,” West said. “But (my dad) was a farm boy, and he hauled hay or milked cows. So he was strong all over.
“When he was fighting, he said, ‘… and I just told them, ‘Don’t hit me in the face or you’ll (make me mad),’” West remembered of his dad’s stories. “He was — he was just brutally strong.”
West was brutally strong too, as were his siblings. West was the sixth of seven children — five boys and two girls — and every one of them worked on the family’s 110-acre farm.
“By the time I was 7, my childhood was over,” West said. “You’d ground feed; you hauled hay.”
The morning’s list of chores started at 4:30 a.m. West milked four cows a day — a far cry from his father’s 50.
“I milked four cows a day, and that seemed like a lot to me,” he said. “But when you’re milking cows, your hands cramp up and you got three more to milk. You’re not going to quit, or you’re not going to make school. So you just keep milking. It’s a huge workout.”
And that strength became well-known around school.
Every day, during lunch time in high school, a different senior would challenge West, a freshman, to an arm wrestling match. West won every one — but not by swinging the opposing teenager’s arm hard down on the cafeteria table — but by squeezing their hand, as hard as he could.
The farm boy was as strong as an ox.
“I didn’t even try to put (their hand) down,” he said. “I’d just try to hold it right there and squeeze their hand.
“Every once in a while, you’d get somebody that was pretty tough, and I’d just keep squeezing their hand and finally they would quit,” West continued. “The ones that held on the longest, when they quit, my finger was indented into their hand, like a quarter-inch. You could see my grip in their hand. They never came back for seconds.”
And on the farm, competition within the family was a daily occurrence.
“Dad always challenged us,” West said. “We had trucks; we had tractors. We had everything to haul hay, but if we needed a bail from one barn to the other — and they were probably 600 yards apart, at least — you’d have to take a bail up there, and (dad) goes, ‘Well, if you can carry one, why don’t you carry two. If you can carry two, why don’t you put one over your head.’
“And so we challenged each other.”
West has always been up for a good challenge.
It sounded easy — just 22 pushups a day. But then the days in September started to mount up.
“What I didn’t realize was in our normal workout — we worked out six days a week — but we work out different body parts, so that (other) body parts have time to rest at least a day or two between,” West said. “When you’re doing pushups every day, nothing gets time to rest.”
The 22-pushup challenge — done to bring awareness to military veterans who have taken their own lives, as well as honor all military service members and veterans — is a social media campaign that went viral in the past decade.
Participants are filmed doing 22 pushups for 22 days, and then nominate others to do the same.
“I thought, ‘There (aren’t) enough people in Ketchikan to ask 22 people to do 22 pushups for 22 days,” West said. “So I just backed off on asking people (and) I decided that I would do some more extreme pushups, and … when I ran out of pushups, I would do a set of pushups for every person I was supposed to ask. So that was 488 on the last day.”
West made it game-like — a challenge within the challenge. What kind of push-up could he do next?
“People would come up, ‘Why don’t you try this (way).’ Or, ‘why don’t you try (that way),’” he said. “So I tried different pushups, and some of them I haven’t done for years.”
West tried the plyometric pushups — clapping in between each one.
“I used to clap three or four times in between pushups,” West said. “I was doing one clap, and I thought, ‘On my last one, I’m going to try (more).’ I went down, and I thought, ‘Nope.’ And I couldn’t do it.”
He’d balance on balls, and put his arms in different positions.
“I did a one-hand pushup. … I hadn’t done those in 40 years,” West said. “The first time I did that, I went down to do a one-handed pushup, and I just landed on my chest.
“(I did) a cross-arm pushup. I’d never done those,” he continued. “But it’s a tricep workout. … I thought it was going to be easy, but it’s harder than it looked.”
And of course, there were technical difficulties along the way. His phone’s camera would capture just his head and not his body, or randomly switch to slow-motion.
“I thought, ‘I can’t put that on Facebook.’ So I did another 22,” West said. “When I had somebody help me, I didn’t have to do so many retakes. But trying to do it myself, some days I did like 66 extra pushups.”
West had help recording his pushups at T.N.A. Fitness most of the time, especially when the pushups were more of a production.
He did a set of 22 with a 100-pound tractor tire on his back. He also had people sit on a wooden pallet, using them as weight to hold.
West even did a set with his grandson. Unprompted, his grandson crawled underneath West’s chest, between his arms, and stayed on all fours while West went up and down.
“The tire, that started out as a joke,” West said. “And the board, it was like, ‘Why don’t you put a board across your back, and see how many people you can get (to sit on) it.’ It was just one thing led to another.”
And the days led into one another, too.
“I didn’t think I was going to make 10 days,” he said. “… But I ended up finding 22 different versions of pushups, and then the last day I did just the regular pushups, but I did 488 of them.”
West did them in sets of 80.
“When I first started, I thought, ‘Oh, this will be a piece of cake,’” he said. “I thought I was still 20. But after I got through, I felt more like I’m 60. I felt my age by the time I was done.”
Life these days
West admitted that the vision is the longest side effect he’s had to deal with since suffering from his stroke eight years ago. But the buzz is gone.
“I went to (get) acupuncture … and I told my wife, ‘That buzzing’s gone,’” West said. “And I had never felt it gone before. … But the vision of that is the last part to leave. The only time I ever really notice it is if I get real worked up, or if I work up high — like if I get on a 12-foot ladder or something. I got to really watch myself. But other than that, I don’t notice it as much.”
His vision didn’t bother him during the pushup challenge — and to see him walk now, nobody would know the struggle that it was several years ago.
Last November, West and his wife visited Egypt, and walked the Great Pyramid. They were the only people on their tour that went everywhere, and did everything they possibly could.
“We went to Jordan; we went all over,” West said. “… It was phenomenal.
“… (In the Great Pyramid), you go down and you go up, and you’re bent over the whole time,” he continued. “It’s a long trip through that pyramid. ... It’s a pretty good workout. (They have) planks — boards every foot to keep you from sliding down.”
Since suffering from his stroke, West has competed in weight lifting competitions and worked on his physical fitness certification, for bodybuilding, powerlifting and nutrition. And through that, he’s learned about mistakes he made when he was younger.
“(It was) not knowing,” West said of his approach in the gym before. “… You can’t do the same thing for five years and expect results. You’ve got to push yourself. … I did the same thing for 10 years, and I got good at it. But nothing ever hurt. But now, it hurts all the time, so you’ve got sore muscles all the time.”
But through the pain, strength grows — both outward, and inward, as well.
“If I was left to my own devices, I don’t think I would’ve recovered from the stroke, and make as good of a recovery as I did — with the gym here, the (people) here and my wife,” West said. “All of them helping me and pushing me. It’s been the difference.”
He’s on a different level than he was before, too.
From the depths of a downward spiral, West has pushed himself back up.
“I don’t know if I’m where I would be if I wouldn’t have had the stroke,” he said. “But I’m happy that I made it back as far as I did.”