"In 1979 or '80, somebody gave me a box of bodybuilding magazines, and I saw these pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger in them and said, 'I would like to look like that someday.' I started exercising, did my first bodybuilding show when I was fifteen and placed 3rd in it. By the time I was twenty-five, I had been in almost seventy amateur bodybuilding competitions."
For Paul, this competitive drive paid off. In 1993, he won the Mr. North America and Mr. USA titles. "After that, I was getting ready to get my professional bodybuilder's card. It was exciting for me; it had been my dream since I was thirteen to be Mr. Olympia, the biggest show that there is."
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that his body was not up to the challenge. "Around 1994 or '95, I started having numbness, tingling and balance problems," he says.
"I knew that something was going on, but didn't know what it was. Finally, in 1997, they diagnosed me with Multiple Sclerosis. At first, I was doing okay. In 1998, I was even considering competing, because I was doing so well."
In the next year, however, Paul's physical and mental health had begun to deteriorate. "I fell into a depression, and a lot of that was because the MS had caused me to go completely blind in my left eye, and partially in my right," he explains.
| Multiple Sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) was first described in Holland by a 14th century physician. It is a disease in which the nerves of the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) degenerate.
Myelin, which provides a covering or insulation for nerves, improves the conduction of impulses along the nerves and also is important for maintaining the health of the nerves. In MS, inflammation causes the myelin to degenerate and eventually disappear. Consequently, the electrical impulses that travel along the nerves decelerate.
Late in the disease, the nerves themselves are damaged. As more and more nerves are affected, a patient experiences a progressive interference with functions that are controlled by the nervous system such as vision, speech, walking, writing, and memory.
I lost my vision in my left eye for almost a year, "I think that, along with the fact that I had problems with balance, walking and my bladder contributed to my depression. I was also overmedicated, on antidepressants, sleeping pills and drugs for the nerve pain I was in.
There was a whole list of things, and I was afraid to say 'What next...,' because it kept getting worse. I think it was a combination of those things and being sedentary. It's very easy to become inactive, especially when you're drugged up. A lot of times, a lot of these drugs can make you more tired."
In 1999, he began having difficulty walking, and soon after, he had to use a wheelchair. "I hated my MS. I'd been living in Philadelphia at the time, and had just met my wife, Judy. She told me, 'You have to accept your MS.' I didn't know what that meant.
She said, 'You have to accept that you have it, and have to keep doing exercises where the weaknesses are, and begin strengthening those areas that have been affected by the MS.' I finally went back to the gym."
"For ten years, I owned an entertainment business in Philadelphia called "A Class Act Entertainment." We had DJs, clowns, et cetera, for parties. I wrapped that up, and in 2001, I came out to California. I was in a wheelchair at the time, and I started rating all of the gyms, based on their accessibility, everything from the bathrooms to the spaces between the gym equipment," Paul remembers.
"I started exercising again. With my relapse-remitting form of MS and the use of a home treadmill, my leg strength had started to come back. Stress sets off a lot of MS exacerbations. I was taking some MS drugs, but stopped taking those to focus on more holistic approaches to health, like exercise and a balanced diet.
I think of MS as a tiredness disease. It can make you really tired sometimes, so you have the right nutrition and find that balance."
| MS Statistics
About 250,000 to 350,000 people in the U.S. have MS. Usually, a patient is diagnosed with MS between 20 and 40 years of age, but MS has been diagnosed as early as age 15 and as late as age 60. MS is twice as likely to occur in Caucasians as in any other group. Women are twice as likely as men are to be affected by MS earlier in life. Later in life, the incidence of the disease in men and women is almost equal.
"I have a four year-old son, Tyler, and it's amazing what I've learned from him," says Paul.
"In a child, the core muscles, those of the abdominals, hips and back, are the last to develop, and when you have MS, they're the first to go. In his first year, Tyler liked to do a lot of things on his knees on the floor, and I thought, 'What a great way to exercise.'
If you put a pad down and get on your knees, you can do a lot of exercises, without the risk of falling. For me, being a bodybuilder was about seeing how big, toned and ripped I could be. With MS, it's more about quality of life, and continuing to move my legs through exercise so that I can walk."
"At Accessible Fitness, we really focus on the core muscles. In a person who has MS, they get really weak, like a flower with a weak stem. If those muscles are weak, the wind blows and you might fall over, just like that flower.
Whether you have a spinal cord injury, MS or cerebral palsy, those muscles are always affected and usually cause a lot of problems. For example, if you have a weak hip, you'll fall to the side."
Opening Doors Of Opportunity
In 2004, Accessible Fitness opened its doors. "I wanted to open a gym that was completely wheelchair accessible, including the equipment itself. I use the Equalizer 1000TM as my gym station. You can work every body part, and the stools pull out, so that a wheelchair can lock into every station.
We also have cardiovascular equipment (called an APT - Active/Passive Trainer) that moves the legs passively. Some people who have a little bit of leg strength get stronger after using it. I gradually turn the machine down, until they can move it on their own." Paul and Judy serve as personal trainers at the gym, and are both certified in Adaptive Fitness.
Accessible Fitness serves people with a wide range of disabilities, including Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), MS, and spinal cord injury. The facility operates on one philosophy: Ability, Not Disability.
"When it comes to exercise, no two people are the same. We always make people feel like they can accomplish their exercises, by not giving them things that they can't do. If they can't do it, I'll adapt the exercise so that they can."
The gym offers a variety of programs to its clients, including workshops. "We do those once a week," Paul explains.
"We focus on stretching and weight resistance, and give people exercises that they can do when they're not here. We also have one-on-one personal training sessions, in-home training, and a nutritional component, because a lot of people with MS aren't taking care of their diet, so we help them with that.
Once a month, we have speakers come in for 'Living Well' events, to talk about things like myelin repair and employment for the disabled." For more information on any of these programs, call (408) 986-1419.
Additionally, the O'Lones are frequent collaborators with the National MS Society, Silicon Valley Chapter. "We participate as speakers for the client programs; we do exercise demonstrations and routines, and help get the word out about the fight for a cure."
For these efforts, Paul received the MS Achievement Award in 2002. "It was an honor. It's mostly given to people who are living with MS, helping others who have it, and maintaining a high quality of life."
Paul is currently training for the 2006 Mr. America competition. "I'm not as concerned about winning as I was before," he says. "I'm representing those who are physically challenged, like myself."
Win or lose, there's no doubt that he will do it with grace. "No matter how difficult MS makes things, you have to remain positive and never give up. That's what exercise does for me; it gives me a sense of control of my life."
Learn About The Erase M.S. Fund Here.