A Story About Life, Tragedy, and How Fitness Can Help You Get Through Anything
Today, I have a guest post for you from one of my clients. I’ve been sitting on this for a while now, but I finally feel ready to share it. As of this writing, I have had this post on hold for over a year. It’s been weighing on me, for reasons I’ll describe at the end of the post. I’m finally ready to share it with you.
The post is written by Julian Plescia, and is his story—how and why we came to work together, and the struggles he had to overcome. Personally, I play a very small part in this tale, or at least in the telling of it. I have made some edits here and there, but by and large left things unchanged and preserved his voice.
Julian is the author, narrator, and main character—and his is one of the most moving and powerful stories I’ve ever heard; tt’s definitely motivating and uplifting, but I do feel compelled to warn you that it takes a bit of a dark and sad turn. Though I don’t think you’ll “enjoy” it, I do hope you get something out of it; however prepare to shed a tear.
Still, it’s a beautiful story, and illustrates how powerful something as simple and trivial as fitness can be.
With that said, I leave you in Julian’s capable hands.
There are many reasons why I wanted to get back into shape, but those reasons became secondary towards the middle of the coaching program Roman designed specifically for me. I want to tell that story in full, but first you should know a bit of background about me.
I have been weight training since I was around 17 years of age and I have always been a pretty decent athlete, but never before has it been such a challenge to finish a training program. This has, without a doubt, been the most difficult program I have ever done, but not for the reasons that you may be thinking.
Our first and only child Luc (a gorgeous little baby boy) was born on 14 July 2011. After great pregnancy Luc suffered a lack of oxygen during birth, which left him with diverse bilateral brain injuries (which means everywhere in the brain). Nothing could have prepared us for this.
He spent the first 3 weeks of his life in the intensive care and he had an MRI on 3 August 2011. Listening to the neurologist deliver the results of the MRI was one of the hardest things any parent should ever have to hear. Every sentence started with “he may never…” followed by “sit upright, hear, see, recognize his parents, eat by himself” etc.
We were crushed, but when we got home we decided that we would love him and treat him like any other baby boy and do the best for him as his parents and boy do we love him. We heard of a place in Philadelphia that does remarkable rehabilitation work with brain-injured children—when Luc was only 2 months old, our plane touched down in the states and we went immediately.
They designed an extreme rehabilitation program, requiring 7-8 hours a day every day of the week. After the initial stages, it was decided that we’d have to return to Philadelphia every six months for a number of years. When we arrived home after our first bout, I went back to work while my wife stayed home to do the program with Luc. It was very intense, and took a lot out of all of us; everyone helped out with Luc’s program—my wife’s sister, our neighbors, church family, friends etc.
Despite the huge task that lay ahead of us, every day was filled with so much joy, laughter, hope and excitement. We loved being a mom and a dad.
Right around this time, Roman sent the first email about his book deal he stated that wanted 10 male clients of which 5 would be selected depending on their transformation and their testimonials. I had, at this point in time, used several of Roman’s programs, and gotten something out of all of them, whether it be results or just further education. But despite his talents, to be honest, it was Roman’s great physique the first made me look into his training methods a bit more.
I decided right then and there that I wanted to work with him. Knowing how competitive the program is, I figured it would be a race against the clock. I replied as soon as I could, but didn’t hear anything back for a bit. I assumed that the spot went to someone else. Then, on 10 May 2012 at 17:44 (don’t be alarmed; I don’t know this off the top of my head, but got it from the email Roman sent) Roman sent me an confirming that I was in. This was good day and I was really excited to work with one of the best trainers in the industry.
As I mentioned at the start I am not new to training, nutrition or supplementation and, despite being in the legal profession, fitness has been my hobby for 17 years. I followed EAS/Muscle Media from their early days and continue to read the works of Charles Poliquin, John Berardi, Joel Marion, Mark Rippetoe, Alan Aragon, Craig Ballantyne and a number of other experts.
Now, we get to the point. As I said, I’ve been involved in fitness to some degree or another for quite a while. I also said that I wanted to get back into shape. Over the years, I’d gotten a bit soft. But, since the birth of our boy and the increased pressures at work (delivering one of the biggest infrastructure developments in Europe) I had gone from bad to worse, gaining a tremendous amount of weight and letting my health slip away from me. As far as I saw it, this was the perfect opportunity take control again.
Once I had the program, I spoke to my wife and asked her if she would be okay with me doing the program, as it would mean that I would spend slightly less time at home. I have a fantastic wife who has always supported me in everything I do and this time was no exception.
And with that, it was time to get started. Roman sent Month One of the program to me on 2 June and I started on 4 June. I had two days to sort out the diet, training logs etc. Roman’s coaching programs were professional and cleverly laid out and covered training, nutrition and supplementation in detail.
I have to say that the way Roman designs his programs are quite brilliant. When you look at the program your first impression is that the volume is quite high and that six months’ of this kind of training would lead to overtraining, but it doesn’t. What you come to realize over the course of the program is that every month is uniquely designed to take you onto the next month.
You don’t just feel stronger and look better from month to month, but your conditioning improves and you become more capable of getting more and more out of every workout. It was hard, but I loved it. I took pictures every two weeks and it was clear that the fat was being obliterated.
The other aspect Roman gets spot on is the integration of the nutrition with the training program. He carefully cycles carbohydrates placing them where they are needed the most and he restricts calories so that the impact on hormones like leptin (for example) is less. Cheat days (over feeding) are also not just randomly thrown in but strategically placed throughout the six months period.
Training was going well and I meticulously recorded every single training and cardio session which included, weights used (which were increased every week where possible i.e. progressive overload), time, calories burnt, Max HRT and Average HRT. However, during month four of the coaching program on the morning of 23 September 2012 disaster struck.
Even writing this is difficult, so please bear with me.
Luc was 14 months old and he had a chest infection. He had already been to the doctor three times that week and he was on antibiotics. On Saturday night, 22nd September my wife said that she would sleep down stairs on the couch with him (she often did this so she could sleep more upright with him which seemed to help). As I closed my eyes that Saturday evening nothing could prepare me for what lay ahead the next morning. A loud scream from my wife pierced the morning silence and, at first, I thought that I had been dreaming, but when I heard the scream the second time I ran down the stairs. My wife was holding Luc in front of her screaming hysterically that wasn’t breathing.
I placed him on the floor and immediately started CPR. His lips were blue. I told my wife to phone 999. It was no more than 2-3 minutes when the ambulance stopped and took over. My wife followed in a police escort while I travelled with Luc in the ambulance. When we got to the hospital they took us through to one of the rooms where we watched how the doctors tried to revive our son. For the first time in the midst of all the chaos I looked over at my wife…she didn’t even have her shoes on – a tracksuit and a t-shirt in the middle of the winter.
After 50 minutes the doctor said that his heart was still not beating and that they will try one more thing but if that doesn’t work then there is nothing more they can do. They were still working on Luc when my wife gently pushed the doctors aside and grabbed Luc in her arms. She knew it was all over and so did I. Our boy had died. Nothing can describe the pain and devastation of losing a child – we were (are) crushed.
It’s very strange, the things you find yourself doing in the midst of tragedy. Something so emotional and raw brings with it all sorts of practical issues. Before you can grieve, you have to get things in order. There are tasks no one but you can do. Planning a funeral. Making travel arrangements. And emailing your coach to tell him what happened, and that you’d have to take time off of the gym.
Roman’s email back to me was short, but filled with feeling. He was obviously at a loss for what to say. He offered his condolences and told me that he would pray for us. We set about grieving and making arrangements.
Although we have been based in the UK for 12 years we are originally from South Africa and parents, brother and sister, friends arrived the next day. We waited two weeks for the post-mortem before we could burry him which confirmed the cause of death as bronchi pneumonia. After we had Luc’s funeral people slowly started departing back to South Africa and very soon the house was deathly quiet.
How are we going to get through this? Whenever I have gone through difficult times in my life I have always relied on my faith in the God, my wife, my family and fitness (in that order). Now although fitness appears last in that list it cannot really be placed ahead of any of the other items of importance that I have listed – not for me anyway. I love training but I love my wife and my family more. It is only now that I stand back that I truly appreciate how much finishing my coaching helped me carry on.
It had been 4 weeks since I set foot in the gym, yet I had lost 8lbs (not in a good way). Was I going to send Roman another email and give it up, or finish the program? I have never quit anything in my life, but I was seriously considering it. I didn’t feel like training, working or even stepping out of the house. One day while contemplating all of this my mind wondered back to Luc’s rehabilitation program.
Luc struggled at the best of times to move his arms and legs and part of his rehabilitation program required him to be placed on a decline crawling track to give him more opportunity to move and, at times, he crawled down that track like a champ to the doctors’ amazement. It was, however, clear that any type of movement was a tremendous effort for little Luc. When he crawled he groaned and his shaking arms and legs showed that he used every ounce of effort in his little chubby body.
Our boy had the heart of lion, and worked every second of his short life to get better. It seemed a cop out it seemed to want to give everything up. How would Luc feel if his healthy dad couldn’t finish the program he started?
After having Luc my wife and I will never take another spoken word for granted or crawling, creeping, walking, hearing and seeing. I w I spoke to my wife and she agreed that I should finish the 6 months’ training program. I emailed Roman and told him what I’d decided. He was very supportive, and asked me if I was sure—that I had no obligation, and that if I wanted time off and to come back later, the door would always be open.
I told him that I wanted to keep going, and that I needed to jump back in. Our plan was for me to start again from Month 4. I’d left off in week three, but after my layover I needed to repeat it. From there, I would go on to months 5 and 6 and that I would finish around the end of December.
Never in all my years of training had training been this difficult. It didn’t matter how much weight I added to the bar or how many drops of sweat fell on the floor the images of Luc kept flashing through my mind. Everything became harder – work, training and life generally. I trained harder than ever before and kept pushing myself hoping that the images and the pain would become less. At first they didn’t but as time passed they became slightly less prominent.
As I am writing this it has been three months since Luc passed away and the pain and the rawness is still very real. No doubt it will take a long, long time for these wounds to heal and even after they have healed there would be a scar that remains forever.
After my final week of month six I got a tan and did some glycogen depletion workouts, water balancing and some carb-loading in the hope of getting decent pictures. I never wanted an after picture which was only impressive if you put it alongside the before picture. I wanted an after photo that would look great as a standalone picture.
I started at 214lbs and 20% body fat. On the day I took my “after” pictures (thought I prefer to think of them as my “current” pictures), I checked in at 188lbs and 7.4%. I think, under the circumstances, that I did okay*. I lost about 27 pounds and radically changed my appearance It is also clear to me that I gained some muscle while on the program. Could I have done any better? You can always do better, but I gave it everything.
[Note from Roman: For the record, Julian is selling himself very short, because he did more than “okay.” Not just “under the circumstances”, but by any measure, he made phenomenal strides. Based on his stats, he went from having 42.8 pounds of fat with 174.2 pounds of LBM to 14.1 pounds of fat with 173.9 pounds of LBM. And, keep in mind, his final weight was when he was depleted—so he probably had more muscle than he measured at.]
Roman designs some of the best training programs, but I wonder if he ever considers the wider impact such a program can (and does) have on his clients. The thing about physical transformations that I have witnessed over the years is that it flows through into all aspects of a person’s life. It is not just about taking your shirt off and being ripped (although it helps if you take your shirt off) but, for me, it is much more than that.
It is about getting home after 12 hour work day and thinking about nothing else for an hour in the gym. Being able to shut my brain off and just focus, completely, on what I was doing helped me cope when I couldn’t think about anything from look.
It is about being a better employee, husband and a father. The time I spent in the gym improving myself helped me build discipline, and encouraged me to build myself in these other areas.
It is about rising from the ashes and picking up those dumbbells no matter how difficult or how heavy they feel to do my boy, the boy with the heart of a lion, proud.
More than anything else, it’s feeling like I had some control. This was the most difficult period of my entire life, and nothing anyone said or did could have made it better. All anyone could do was help me find ways to deal with it, ways to cope and make myself better. Roman did that. He helped me in ways he’ll never know. And I’ll be forever grateful.
Every time I read that story, I cry. Right around the halfway point, I cry because the story is simply heartbreaking. At the end of the story, I find myself crying because I’m intensely proud. Nothing will ever make Julian or his wife whole again; at least, not as they were. But to know that I provided tools that him get through it is fulfilling beyond measure.
Being a coach is an interesting thing. When you’re a coach in the fitness world, you’re often tempted to think that your job stops there, or that fitness is all you have to offer people. For some coaches, that might be true. I believe that I became a coach to do something more.
I’ve helped men and women lose fat, and gain muscle, and reclaim their health. And those things are important, I guess. But more important is what the experience allows them do, in other facets of their lives.
I’ve help brides get ready for weddings, feeling confident on the biggest day of their lives. On the other hand, I’ve help recent divorcees reclaim their confidence so they could get over the sting and get on with their lives. I’ve help at least 20 people lose over 100 pounds, completely changing their lives, and at least 10 athletes rehab what should have been career-ending injuries, allowing them to continue doing what they love.
While I have a lot to learn, and often struggle with aspects of the job, I have come to accept that am a great coach—because over the past three or so years, I’ve come to realize more than ever that being a coach doesn’t stop with fitness.
Being a coach means taking someone into your hands and under your wing, and helping them in every way that you can. Whether it’s helping them figure out the first text to a new girl, or getting them to the point where they’re ready to ask for a raise, or just listening to their story about their son, and crying with them.
Being a coach is about helping people grow, helping them become better versions of themselves. And I say without hesitation that it has been the great honor of my life to help thousands of people take steps to do just that.
It may seem silly to think that getting fit can help you deal with something that shakes you to the very foundations of yourself. To some, it might seem odd that making a physical transformation can better prepare you to deal with divorce, or bankruptcy, or, god-forbid, a death. Or, more to the point, that it could help you cope with any of those things, should they happen.
But to anyone who has gone through such a transformation, it doesn’t seem silly. Because they know that trial by fire is trial by fire, and that passing through one fire helps you understand how to deal with the heat of the next.
I believe that we are all forged in the crucible of our experiences. Like swords on an anvil, we are beaten with heavy sledges as life hammers down on us, over and over and over. Just when it seems to subside, we’re passed through fire and beaten again, driving out impurities and forcing new materials into the mass.
At the end of any trial, no matter how great or small, we are pulled from the heat quenched, mercifully, in cool water. Certainly, this allows to be “handled” safely, but it ends the trial in a way that yields the most benefit: the sword of your soul is made both stronger and more flexible.
If you do not know sword-making, you may be unaware that the flexibility is the more important of the two qualities. Strength is important, to be sure: if a sword is too soft, it will be easily bent, and it will not hold an edge. But if it is too hard, it will break entirely.
With steel, as in life, pliancy is necessary for resiliency.
Your trials will make you stronger, and more pliant; hard enough to hold and edge, but not so hard that you will shatter on impact. Going forward, you’ll be more resistant to all manner of blows, be they from pain or pleasure, challenge or change, strife or serenity.
I believe that exposure to extreme physical stress, like that we experience in the gym, is a trial unto itself; and like all trials, passing through it help prepare you for those to come. Sometimes, I think we forget that changing your body really can allow you to change your life.
Not just because you’re healthier or have increased confidence. But very simply, because when the rest of your life is spinning out of control, being able to take control of yourself, to bend and mold your corporeal shell to your will…that’s something that gives you strength. Pure strength. A strength based in the surety that while many things can be taken from you, while control may be impossible to maintain in all situations, there is one place that you will always be the master: the temple of your body.
That surety can help you in any and all trials down the road, no matter what area of life those trials may be in.
And so, yes, to some people it may seem a silly or presumptuous thought that getting fit can help you deal with life, and death, and everything in between with greater strength and equanimity.
To people who have been through it, however, it’s impossible not to view things that way; it’s impossible not to view every set and rep as a hammer blow on the anvil, every training session as time in the forge, and the entire ordeal as something that hardens you, to the core of your being.
I believe this fully. I believe that the Hero’s Journey of my physical transformation prepared me to deal with the trials on my business journey, and my Internet journey, and my journey as an author. I believe that the struggles I faced in all of these journeys helped shape me, and make me more capable of dealing with the personal hardships I’ve faced over these past 12 years.
Training has taught me long-term lessons about change, and sacrifice, and how to deal with both. It’s taught me about savoring successes and relishing in achievements; it’s also taught me about learning from defeats. Training has given me a stronger body, but it has also given me a stronger mind, and a stronger spirit. In a very real way, training has made me a better person, because I will carry the lessons with me until the end of my life.
But there are short-term uses as well. Even now, to this day, when things are bad, it’s there. When shit falls apart, or I get bad news about someone I love, or I get situation I don’t know how to deal with, or I just get so filled with frustration and rage that I need to find a way to let it play out before it consumes me, it’s there.
It’s one things that’s always there for me: testing me, teasing me, helping me. Making me stronger, again and again and again. My time spent training his what helps me, and has helped me regain control when all else is confusing. There’s comfort in the absolutism that training provides, and more in the control it lends you.
In his now-famous essay, Iron and the Soul, Henry Rollins said this far more simply and elegantly than I ever could: “The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard…[f]riends may come and go. But 200 pounds is always 200 pounds.”
I know Julian feels the same.
In the foreword to this post, I mentioned that I’d been sitting on it for a long time. And that’s true. I’d like to tell you why.
Obviously, this is a very powerful story, and Julian had a particularly impressive transformation. You would think I would have included it in my book, as Julian alluded to. And, of course, we considered it.
In the end, Adam and I decided against using this story for the book for a few reasons. Firstly, our editor thought the story was too dark; although I disagree, I can see the argument. The larger part of the decision was space: I simply refused to include Julian’s story if I couldn’t include it in full. Spending 2500 words of valuable book space on a single case study wasn’t something we could do.
And so, I kept it to myself.
But, I most certainly could have published on my blog before now—so why didn’t I? It’s a bit complicated, and I struggle a bit with some of the general thoughts I’ve had on this. The long and short of it is that I didn’t know how it would be perceived.
The fact is, I use client stories and testimonials as tools—partially for motivation, and partially for marketing. Speaking generally, I publish success stories right around the time I open up new spots in my coaching program; a good transformation encourages people to sign up, which in turn makes me money.
In this particular case, I was hesitant, because I can just hear the malcontents now, decrying me for “profiteering” off of my client’s tragedy—which, of course, I am not doing.
Still, it gave me pause, for no matter how pure my intentions, people will see what they see.
Not knowing what else to do, I spoke to Julian about this. He said, “you’ve helped me more than you know, and if my story convinces someone to sign up with you…they’re making the right choice.”
That put me at ease. So, while I wasn’t planning on doing so, I do want to let you know that I have about 7 spots open in the coaching program, for a group starting next week. If you’re interested, you can apply by filling out the form.
Obviously, this is not a hard sell.
But the truth is, if you’d be willing to let me help change your life, I would be honored beyond words. If you’d like to work with me, please apply here.
With all of that said, I truly hope you got something out of the story. Remember, no matter how hard things get, they will get better. May you seek and find whatever it is that will help you get there faster.