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.”