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INSIGHTS

Ninja Warrior Defeats Rheumatoid Arthritis: Interview with Abel Gonzalez

If you've had the chance to watch an episode of America Ninja Warrior, you know it's one of the most physically challenging obstacle competitions around. Grueling tasks await each athlete and the events require months of hard-core training.

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Now imagine you're one of those competitive athletes- who should have been in a wheelchair by now.

That's where Abel Gonzalez begins his story. Diagnosed at 23 with Rheumatoid Arthritis, stricken with pain and constant fatigue, and offered a prescription with no hope Gonzalez, now 31, has proven the diagnosis was not a life sentence after all. Here, he shares his inspiring story...

Abel, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! I know you have a very busy schedule. Can you tell us how often you train and what's involved?

I train 3 days a week for about 2-3 hours each session, keeping it varied and balanced. I’m careful to avoid over-training and “ninjuries”- a ninja version of injuries. I practice Olympic lifts, calisthenics, parkour, gymnastics, rock climbing, strong man type exercises and yoga. I usually spend one day a week on the full-to-scale obstacles we built at our training center, Ground Zero Gym.

Tell us more about your diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). That must have been hard-hitting.

I was 23 and devastated. I went through all the emotions but was really confused at first. I had never heard of the condition and learning that it would lead to deformity, hip replacement and a wheelchair “at this rate” by 30 yrs old was really scary. I was also told there was not much to be done and was given a prescription for pain killers. I left the office upset with my doctor because he left no room for hope. By the time I got in my car I decided that this was not going to happen to me and threw away the prescription.

What inspired you to find a different answer and change your lifestyle?

What inspired me? My love of sports and strength. I also did not want to become a burden to my family. I didn’t tell them about the diagnosis but they knew I was always tired; the pain drained me. Life was tough on me and playing sports was a great outlet- a way to forget even if just during games and training. Being active was one of the few things that made me happy so being told I would lose that drove me toward a different mentality- almost a rebellion of the norm. I began to study the condition late into the night. Motivation to study those long hours was easy- I was studying to save my life.

Can you share what you've learned about arthritis and what you had to do to beat it?

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I learned that RA is classified as an incurable auto immune disease. That info was not going to be beneficial to carry about in my mind so I ignored it. This is where I started using mind techniques. I refused to believe that it was incurable. I learned that there were others before me that had cured or reversed this condition so I knew I could too.

Mind techniques may sound weird but at that time I had a negative life mentality so learning to think positive was probably the biggest step. I also refused to believe that RA was incurable and instead thought of it as an allergic reaction.

It was easy to be open-minded about nutrition since most people that had reversed RA said it was with nutrition. I say open-minded because as I studied I learned that certain foods I had been told my whole life were healthy for me, weren’t.

I started a process of elimination and became self-aware of the effects of food on me- especially cow's milk. I grew up believing cow's milk was healthy and drank it like water. I remember seeing great athletes with the milk mustache and thinking I wanted to be like them when I was older.

I learned that wheat, soy and peanuts are also major sources of allergic reactions, so I stopped eating anything with those. I cut out processed and genetically-modified foods, preservatives and other artificial ingredients, though I know that's not easy for everyone to do.

Describe for us how your lifestyle has changed since that time.

It’s sad when I see others suffering from disease and in pain because of unhealthy/unnatural nutrition. They may never understand how pain-free and fluid their body should feel. It’s even sadder when they are in denial that the illness or pain they are suffering could be nutrition-related.

In the last couple of years I have added other natural therapies like massage, chiropractic and yoga. I look for the positive in any situation. I’m a firm believer in surrounding myself with people who are positive and I weed out those who are consistently negative. I grow my own organic vegetables.

I love that you're paying it forward and teaching others in your community how they have the power to improve their own health. Can you tell us more about that?

I initially tried out for the show because I believed in my heart that I could win the half a million dollar prize. I wanted to win to buy property for my younger brothers and me but as I continued to do well and NBC featured some of my past I began to get a lot of messages and letters from fans about how I had given them hope. I became inspired by the inspired.

I’m not the first person to reverse RA but it seems like I’m the first to do it in a national television venue that demands the most complete athlete and health. Some people need proof that lifestyle changes can work. I want to be that proof.

I have an opportunity to help people in my area, known as the most obese and unhealthy in the country. I want to make a dent in that ranking. I want people to feel that no matter where you live, you can carve your own path and reach your dream. You can take responsibility for your health and do amazing things.

My friend, Nathan Jasson, and I built our own Ground Zero gym and obstacle course and we host free events for the public. We want to show everyone how fun it is to train this way and how it can improve overall health. It's fun and addicting once you're on the obstacles and it's motivating to watch others feel accomplishment.

Turns out American Ninja Warrior was the perfect show. I compete with the most fit and healthy athletes in the nation. With that exposure I’ve been given many opportunities to speak and share my story.

I'm so thankful to my family, friends and the ninja community for their support! This is just the beginning...