Living With Disabilities

I asked the question on social media, “What topic would you like to read about most?” The majority of people asked me to write about business, but there were a good number of respondents who requested I write about living with disabilities. I should note, I’m hesitant to state that I have a disability. There are so many millions around the world who have much more restrictive afflictions than me. I don’t consider my life to be restricted by my disability, however, that does not mean I do not have to cope with incredible discomfort, pain and mobility issues all the time because of autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are very prevalent today. Over 24 million (or 7% of) Americans suffer from an immune system disorder and there are over 80 autoimmune diseases that have been identified, including Lupus, Type 1 Diabetes, and Rheumatoid Arthritis. I live with a form of reactive arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis in which my joints, my spine and hips in particular, are plagued with long-term inflammation and pain. This disease can lead to fusion of the vertebrae as well as damage to the eyes, bowels and heart in some cases. Most people that live with this condition have terrible back pain, stiffness and fatigue almost every day. The limited mobility of many sufferers of this disease can lead to vascular disease and reduced life expectancy is severe cases.

This disease, which I think is fair to call a disability, used to control my life. After my diagnosis, I used to take anti-inflammatories daily in addition to other painkillers. (An interesting side note, I did not do this before I was properly diagnosed. I used to just deal with the pain.) The quality of my life from medication had decreased significantly. I was depressed, I was angry and I felt like a zombie. Moreover, my pain did not lessen. My rheumatologist recommended I take immunosuppressant and chemotherapy drugs, and to never lift weights or work out with any sort of intensity. Based on how I was feeling just from painkillers and over the counter medications, I decided against taking these to further to modulate my immune system. To be frank, part of this decision was based on sitting in a waiting room full of people on these drugs who looked tired and miserable. I decided I did not want to further alter my immune system and instead I turned my life’s work to exploring how to ease my pain with diet and exercise. Funny story, after the doctor suggested that I not engage in sports or lifting weights I told him that if I was going to be disabled, I at least wanted big muscles so I could push myself around or pull myself up if need be. Fast forward 14 years and I’m now a professional bodybuilder who still plays sports, plays with my kids, and obviously lifts weights. I still have pain and stiffness, but it is nowhere near what it used to be. My mobility is decent (could be better) and I have more than enough energy to get through the daily activities of life and the demands of physical training. I get questions on how I have been able to carry on a normal life without the aid of prescription drugs. I believe there are a few decisions I made that have allowed me to persist which I will share here.

I made the decision to not let my disease or disability define me as a person. In fact, I rarely even think about my condition. Even when I’m feeling pain or stiffness, I focus on how to get myself into the physical state needed to accomplish what I need to get done. When I think about myself, I don’t think about a man with a disease. I refuse to give anything that much power over me.

I made the decision that I would exercise all the options within my control to ease my symptoms. I believe that we always have choices available to us. In fact, I believe that it’s not what happens to us in life that defines us. Rather, it is how we choose what to do about what happens that defines us. For me, I knew there were a number of choices available to me that I could control including diet, physical therapy, supplementation and physical exercise.

I made the decision that I would always try to feel my best rather than focus on how bad I am feeling. I knew this meant that I had to go full tilt with my physical training because I always feel great when I am lifting weights and my muscles are pumped up. Lifting weights makes my body feel powerful and that gives me an emotional high. Motion is the root word of emotion. When I’m in motion, my emotions are positive and this allows me to think clearly. Even when I’m in pain, I make the decision to move something. I have found there is always something I can do to feel better.

I became obsessed with researching ways to alleviate my symptoms. It’s the body that is responsible for all the healing that takes place. I knew that whatever was wrong with my immune system, at the end of the day I had to give the body what it needed to facilitate healing. This is why I consider myself fortunate. Despite my affliction, I still have the ability to aid my body in healing itself through movement, diet and supplementation. Others with disabilities do not have this option. By remembering this, I remain grateful. By the way, what has worked for me may not work for you, but I suggest you research all options available to you. There are often more options than we can initially conceive.

I decided to never, ever, ever give up. Living with a disability or battling a disease is a scary proposition. When I was diagnosed I decided that my best option was to take action and try to heal myself to the best of my ability. I knew that I was going to deal with this disease for the rest of my life in one way or another. Given that prognosis, I believed this meant I had to fight daily to live the life I wanted, rather than become comfortable in a life I didn’t want. Some days this battle is harder than others. I still deal with pain, stiffness, fatigue to a certain degree, but this simply means I have to take more action to achieve what I desire.

I decided that I could become a better person because of this disease. Having spondylitis has allowed me to learn a great deal about what I am capable of and what type of person I am. Sometimes we don’t really know who we are and what we are capable of until we are faced with incredible adversity. All growth comes from discomfort and perhaps the greatest discomfort in life is being afflicted with a disability. As strange as this sounds, I believe my disease has become an asset for me. It has forced me to examine my life in new ways. It has reminded me daily that I am mortal and I can be hurt. This alone has put much in perspective and inspired me to live better. Spondylitis has helped me to empathize with others in pain. It has also allowed me to meet and even help others that live with similar diseases. Lastly, I changed the direction of my life from entertainment and communication to health and fitness. This led me to become a personal trainer, bodybuilder and eventually open a successful health club chain that helps thousands get stronger daily.

This disability is something that I will live with forever, but it does not define who I am. Again, I am usually hesitant to even acknowledge that I have this affliction. Not that I want to live in denial, but I find it a waste of mental energy to even think about it. I have it. I can’t magically make it disappear. All I can do is what is in my control to design my life the way I want. So I focus on what I can control and try to keep my mind off of what I cannot. I think it is worth repeating what has worked for me may not work for you. There is no guarantee my current actions will even work for me in the future. Things change over time and I may have to adapt and evolve my methods for living. I suggest you research and find what works for you and decide to keep on taking action daily to design the life you like. That’s all we can really do! Life is a battle for us all, especially those living with disabilities. Keep on fighting and live an incredible life.

In Heath,

Sean

How I Turned Pro (In 5 Steps)

On the left: How I looked seven months prior to earning my Pro Card.
On the right: Earning IFBB Pro Card at the USA Championships.

It may or may not surprise you that one of my dreams as a kid was to be a professional in sports. I think that most kids, especially boys, share this dream. There were a few problems that I realized would keep me from fulfilling this dream. The first was that I have been plagued with severe asthma since I was one year old. I spent a great deal of my childhood in and out of hospitals and on various medications for breathing. Another obstacle that stood in the way of me becoming a professional athlete was that I was a small, skinny kid. My hand-eye coordination was great, and I was fast, but I lacked the mass for football and the endurance for most other sports. In my eighth grade year, I began lifting weights pretty seriously with my father and I was able to gain significant strength. Then, in ninth grade, I made the wrestling team. This sport actually suited me well because I was short and a little stalky. Not long into the season, however, I developed severe back and hip pain. I struggled with this pain for two years, all the while popping ibuprofen like candy.

After I graduated high school, I was misdiagnosed with RA, rheumatoid arthritis. I was prescribed Percocet, Darvocet, and a steroid to keep the pain under control. I nearly became addicted to these compounds. To say that I walked around like a stoned zombie would be accurate. Not only that, I stopped lifting weights. After losing lots of muscle tissue and feeling miserable most of the time, I decided to go back and see a specialist. This time, Holly, my girlfriend at the time and now my wife, went with me. The doctor properly diagnosed with with AS, ankylosing spondylitis, a form of reactive arthritis that attacks the joints and organs. People with this specific disease actually carry a genetic marker, HLA-B27. The recommendation of the doctor was that I stop exercising and begin immunosuppressive drugs along with chemotherapy drugs to lower my immune system and reduce the pain. After hearing this news, along with seeing how sickly the people in the waiting room were, I decided to completely ignore his advice and embark on a journey of health and wellness. No drugs. Lots of weight training and exercise. I would also try to identify foods that were making me feel bad. I knew that most autoimmune diseases are at least exacerbated by poor diets. This led me to becoming a personal trainer and opening my first full-service health club at 24 years old. In 2008 I competed in my first bodybuilding competition. I won my classes as a novice bantamweight and open lightweight. I did two more shows in 2009 and 2010. I won the lightweight class in both of those shows as well.

After 2010, Holly and I decided to focus on the business and start a family. I’m happy to say we have been very blessed with two kids and a successful chain of health clubs. In 2017, my wife Holly decided that she wanted to push herself to do a figure show. I researched a great deal to find her a coach that I thought would be a good fit and she took Holly on as a client. After two weeks of watching Holly’s body transform, I decided that I wanted to test the water again and see if I could make a return to the stage. I reached out to IFBB Pro Bodybuilder Jon De La Rosa, who has long been my favorite bodybuilder after watching him turn pro at the USAs in 2011. Honestly, I was nervous that he wouldn’t take me on as a client because I wasn’t in contest shape and I only had nine weeks to pull it all together. But on April 1st, 2017, after putting in the work and giving it our all, my wife and I competed together at the Governor’s Cup in Sacramento. She took second in her class in her very first show (and many had her winning the show). She look absolutely amazing and I knew that she had a bright future. I also won the lightweight Bodybuilding division and the new Classic Physique (classic bodybuilding) A Class, under 170 lbs. Right away my wife called her coach and told her she wanted to do the NPC USAs, just 13 weeks away! I agreed to continue on with her and compete then as well.

Long story short, Holly got sick and was forced to pull out of the show, but I was able to carry on and earn my Pro Card, becoming a professional athlete. My childhood dream had been fulfilled and the best part was that my kids and coach, (now one of my very best friends) Jon De La Rosa, were present to watch me earn pro status. So how did I do it? A weak, sickly kid with arthritis and asthma?

HOW I TURNED PRO IN FIVE STEPS:

  1. I first assembled a great team around me. I had my wife, kids, parents and my amazing coach. As Jim Collins says in the book Good to Great, “First figure out who belongs on the bus. Your team. Then you can figure out where the bus is going.” I didn’t know I’d be turning pro this year, but I assembled the right team to do so first.
  2. I trusted the people on my team. When push came to shove and I had to cut carbs, change my training style and add more cardio, I didn’t complain. I did the work as prescribed, knowing that my team cared about me and had that best plan for me. This is very difficult for most people and quite frankly, honest, caring coaches who are qualified and hungry to see others do well are very rare. So, I was lucky in a way.
  3. I believed in myself. If there is one trait that I have that has made me successful in any way, it is my capacity for faith, or belief, if you will. I have always had faith in myself, and those around me, that the best possible outcome will happen. I have never doubted my abilities. I don’t consider myself cocky, but I see obstacles as more of a challenge. Having beaten AS and asthma, I love a good challenge. A Napoleon Hill said, everyone has the capacity for faith, but most are using it in reverse gear and getting the things they don’t want in life, the things they fear. I agree. Have faith you can get what you want and then take massive action to get it.
  4. I had a clear vision of exactly what I wanted and desired. Clarity and focus are crucial to achieving anything. I firmly believe that most people don’t know what they want in life so they resign themselves to boring lives of quiet desperation. In the days leading up to the shows this season, I would meditate and read to control my mind and focus it on my outcome. I think that outcome-focused people avoid becoming problem-focused people. The biggest drug in the world isn’t in pill form. It is problems. We become addicted to our problems because we focus on them instead of what we actually want our outcome to be.
  5. I let fate take its course. This may sound counterintuitive considering the previous four steps, but the truth is that some things are outside our control. This is especially true in the bodybuilding world. It’s a subjective sport where opinions matter, not facts. While this may be difficult to handle, the truth is we live in a world where bad things happen to good people, the best don’t always win, and terrible things occur. Paying too much attention to things outside our control is a sure-fire way to depression and dissatisfaction. Instead, as the Stoics believed, I spent all the time and effort I could doing the things that were in my control and I let fate take it from there. That doesn’t mean settle, by the way. I’m simply saying that we should identify what we do have control over and what we don’t, and spend all of our energy on the things we CAN control!

So there it is, my long journey to becoming an IFBB Professional Classic Physique Bodybuilder. If I’m being honest, it’s still a little unreal. I’d like to thank all my family and friends again for their support. I’d like to thank my clubs, Fitness System, for being the best place to train in California. I’d urge anyone looking to have an incredible coach and human being in their life to look at http://www.jondelarosa.com to find out about his services.

And above all, I’d like to thank my wife Holly and kids for sticking with me through this journey. There will be more adventures to come.

In health,

Sean Covell IFBB PRO