Boxing is sometimes considered one of the loneliest sports with no teammates to rely on or to help you while you absorb blow after blow while looking for any ounce of energy to fight off the ropes and punch back, but it is in the sport of boxing that a group of Mahoning Valley residents have found hope as they fight together.
Rock Steady Boxing is a program based in Indianapolis which launched in 2006 by two friends, Scott Newman and Vince Perez.
Newman was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 40 and Perez was not going to let his friend fight alone and turned to his background in boxing as a Golden Glove fighter and designed a program to attack the disease at its vulnerable neurological points.
With what started off as two friends teaming up to combat a disease has forged into a world wide program that is currently in 871 locations with over 43,000 lacing up the gloves at these locations to fight and defeat the neurological disease.
The program finally launched in the Mahoning Valley within the past year with the help of the very vibrant 71-year-old Paula Caldwell, a former professor at Mount Union who was diagnosed in 2005 when her husband noticed something was off with her arm.
"My husband noticed my arm was just hanging there like it was in a sling but I would say nothing was wrong and always had an excuse," said Caldwell.
After being in denial for about a year and realizing while she was walking across the campus at Mount Union she couldn't pick up her foot she finally went to a doctor who started off by first ruling out MS with an MRI.
After having issues with doctors here in the Mahoning Valley, Caldwell went to the Cleveland Clinic where she met up with Dr. Benjamin Walter who finally gave her the diagnosis.
Though Caldwell received some bad news, she was ready to fight as it was something she'd already done as a breast cancer survivor.
Flash forward to 2014 when Caldwell was turned onto the Rock Steady Boxing program by a friend and started traveling to Canton three days a week to participate in the program and immediately fell in love.
In 2017 Caldwell traveled to Indianapolis to get certified herself and then started to reach out locally to fitness center in hopes to bring the program to the Youngstown area.
"I reached out to VSN just taking a chance and Tim and Doug were all over it and have embraced it," said Caldwell of partners Tim Merlin and Doug Stein putting the program in at VSN Fitness Center in Boardman.
"I'm all in," said Merlin who along with Stein and Caldwell launched the program at VSN on March 4th. "After having a guy tell me this changed his life and he could never pick up his grand child before he started this program now whatever they need I don't ask I just get it".
With the program in full force, Caldwell has seen the numbers of participants at VSN go up and has made lifetime friends.
"We are in this together with a common physical and mental bond," said Caldwell. "We care for each other".
The participants and ownership of VSN aren't the only ones who are all in and helping make this program a success.
Former Cardinal Mooney and University of Kentucky football standout Braylon Heard got his certification this past February to teach the class in Tennessee along with Shannon Cutrer.
"I enjoy it," said Heard with a smile. "After meeting Paula it's hard not to want to do this and put in the work and have all the fun that we have".
Those participating in the Rock Steady Program are under a release from a doctor followed by coming in to watch the first time then doing a 30-minute assessment.
"This program is very demanding so those who participate just don't come in and practice with us right off the bat," said Merlin.
It's people like Caldwell and the team at VSN who helps run our local Rock Steady Boxing class that makes you realize that maybe boxing isn't the loneliest sport in world.
"You don't have to fight Parkinson's alone," stated Caldwell. "We support and will always support each other".