At age 36, discus thrower Carl Brown was at the pinnacle of his career, a sponsorship from Nike in hand and his sights set on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Then he awoke one morning and couldn’t walk. A friend drove him to the hospital, where after two days of tests, doctors broke the news that life as Carl knew it was over.
The diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) “broke my heart,” recalls Carl, 42, a friendly yet formidable guy who stands 6-feet, 4-inches tall. “It didn’t break my heart because I wasn’t going to be an athlete anymore, or because I was going to lose my Nike contract. It was because I was Superman to my [six daughters], and I feared they might not look up to me anymore.”
The first six months after his diagnosis were a blur of fear, worry and depression. Carl wondered how he would make a living and whether he would be frail and wheelchair-bound like his father, who also has RA. But he found the energy to start offering physical fitness classes at a park by his home near Atlanta to a few willing friends and acquaintances – which developed into a personal training career. And he began counseling sessions with a therapist who helped him overcome the self-doubt that he’d carried long before his diagnosis.
“She always says to me, ‘Carl, everything you’ve ever done in your life, you’re like a cat – you always land on your feet,’” explains Carl.
His therapist was right. Arthritis wasn’t the first hurdle Carl had cleared. His home life was difficult as a child in Michigan – and it affected Carl in school. Still, he made it to college. And although he foundered there initially, a drug arrest that led to probation “saved my life,” he says. He refocused on his studies, earned an All-American title while still in school, graduated and traveled the world as a professional athlete. Along with winning nationals, Carl competed in two world championships and was the alternate for the 2004 Olympic team.
Although RA knocked him down for a while – taking its toll on his body and relationships – Carl is back on his feet again with the help of a traditional disease-modifying antirheumatic drug, a biologic drug and prednisone. And he’s found a new way to make a career out of his athleticism. Carl is building a personal-training business, Xtreem Training, in Georgia.
Five of his clients have arthritis. “They’re just loving me because they’re doing things they never thought they could do with arthritis,” he says. A few others who are overweight or have knee injuries “can’t believe that all they have to do is lift weights a little bit to get results.”
For his own workouts, Carl has had to stick with modifications to common calisthenics. Lacking cartilage in his wrists, he does push-ups on his knuckles with a pillow underneath and avoids overdoing it. It keeps him on his feet for his clients and his kids – the latter, of course, being more important to him than anything. “The biggest fear I have is not being able to be active with my children,” Carl says. “Other than that, nothing else scares me.”