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Overcoming Parkinson’s disease, he lands on ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Video by Rahul Parikh

Jimmy Choi can do push-ups with someone standing on his back.

He can swing on rope and do chin-ups as the veins bulge in his arms.

But the Bolingbrook resident struggles to button his shirt or tie his shoes.

Choi has Parkinson’s Disease. It causes him to tremble; his muscles can stiffen, and he can lose his balance.

Last month, though, Choi made his second appearance on the NBC television show “American Ninja Warrior.” Contestants traverse an obstacle course requiring them to climb, jump, swing over water and perform other feats of of strength and agility.

Video by Rahul Parikh

He’s lived with Parkinson’s since 2003. But after eight years of inaction, during which his condition worsened, he “chose to fight back.” In 2012, Choi ran his first full marathon — and started on a path that, by 2017, led to Ninja Warrior.

“The way that I approach obstacles is different from all other ninjas,” he said. “I have to keep my brain one step ahead of my body. … Not all the messages my brain sends to my muscles are received. I have to be very mindful about my movements before they happen.”

Choi’s never been more active. It’s a testament to the strides experts say can be made when Parkinson’s patients use exercise to manage their symptoms.

“The tremors will always be there for me,” Choi said. “But a lot of times when I engage my muscles, the tremors stop.”

Tremors happen in a resting state for most Parkinson’s patients. However, routine exercise keeps the body actively prepared to deal with the effects, according to Rachel Dolhun, a movement disorder specialist for the Michael J. Fox Foundation — an organization dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson’s.

“Exercise tries to help … get back some of that balance, some of that coordination, some of that flexibility so you sort of retrain that muscle memory,” Dolhun said.

But back up just six years. Choi was overweight and walked with a cane. Simple tasks were his obstacles then — he dealt with persistent pain, and his muscles would often freeze up in mid-movement.

After he was diagnosed at just 27 years old with Parkinson’s — an incurable disease that usually doesn’t surface until much later — Choi said he faced problems not just physical, but mental.

“I went into denial immediately,” Choi said. “I just shut myself out from the world. I didn’t even tell my wife for a good 3 or 4 months after.”

In 2010, Choi stumbled and fell down a full flight of stairs at home while he clutched his 10-month old son, Mason. While they weren’t hurt badly, Choi said that was his “rock bottom.”

He enrolled in numerous clinical trials for people with Parkinson’s. Choi said he hoped his case could at least help future sufferers. But the physical therapy he was put through during the trials helped with his symptoms, so he continued exercising.

Now, Choi has run countless 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer races, not to mention triathlons and marathons. He’s also the first person with Parkinson’s to finish a 100-mile bike ride in fewer than 5 hours. He’s also raised more than $250,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation through its fundraising arm, Team Fox.

Jimmy Choi battles his Parkinson’s with routine exercise. Now, he competes in triathlons, runs and bike rides on a regular basis. | Courtesy of the Michael J. Fox Foundation
Jimmy Choi battles his Parkinson’s with routine exercise. Now, he competes in triathlons, runs and bike rides on a regular basis. | Courtesy of the Michael J. Fox Foundation

And then there’s his back-to-back appearances on Ninja Warrior. Choi credits the persistence of his 11-year-old daughter, Karina.

She badgered him for a while, Choi said. Then, as they watched Ninja Warrior’s first Parkinson’s contestant, Allison Toepperwein, compete on television, Karina immediately turned to her dad and spit out “What’s your excuse?”

Since he embraced exercise, Choi has reduced the dose of medication he takes for his disease. He now speaks at conferences nationwide, touting the benefits of staying active.

“I can’t do the little things that people take for granted. … Movement is a gift,” Choi said.

Still, “you can make yourself better by working out,” he added. “Whatever situation you have, don’t let it define who you are. Yes, I have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s does not have me.”