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Amherst man living with Parkinson’s disease sets heavy lifting record

Doug Letcher could have retired from powerlifting once he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease more than a decade ago. It may have slowed him, but he hasn’t stopped participating and competing in the sport. Earlier this month he set a Canadian record for the bench-press at the Renfrew Fall Classic Canadian Powerlifting Federation meet in his age class of master men’s 7, for men age 70 to 75 years. He lifted 165 pounds.
Doug Letcher could have retired from powerlifting once he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease more than a decade ago. It may have slowed him, but he hasn’t stopped participating and competing in the sport. - Darrell Cole

70-year-old Letcher bench-pressed 165 pounds at Elmsdale competition

AMHERST, N.S. —

Doug Letcher will never forget the conversation he had with a Moncton neurologist a dozen years ago.

“He told me I had advanced Parkinson’s disease and I’d get progressively worse until I couldn’t do anything,” said Letcher, who is a 70-year-old retiree from Oxford Frozen Foods. “He basically said there wasn’t much that could be done.”

It would have been easy for the Amherst man to turn inward and keep everything bottled up inside. Instead, he told his family, his friends and began living life to its fullest to enjoy as much as he could before the time came when he couldn’t.

It hasn’t happened yet.

Letcher said the demands of his former job meant he had to be in shape and he spent numerous hours in the gym. In the early 2000s, he went into a gym in Oxford and started lifting weights. That passion for weightlifting continued to develop when the Oxford gym closed and he joined the Cumberland YMCA, where he met members of Team Fury – an Amherst powerlifting group that regularly trains together.

“I wasn’t going to let Parkinson’s define who I am, I’m still not ready to do that."

“We’re like a big family,” said Letcher. “We’re always pushing each other to do better and supporting each other when things don’t go right.”

After the Parkinson’s diagnosis, it would have been easy for Letcher to step aside from powerlifting and the other activities he loved so much, including martial arts (he has a black belt), swimming and driving a motorcycle. However, he knew that doing so would mean the disease was winning and he wasn't about to quit.

“I wasn’t going to let Parkinson’s define who I am, I’m still not ready to do that. The first thing a lot of people do when they’re diagnosed is they regress and keep it to themselves,” he said. “I truly believe in the motto tell your family, tell your friends and then enjoy life to the fullest. It has kept me going.”

Letcher attended the Renfrew Fall Classic Canadian Powerlifting Federation meet Nov. 2 in Elmsdal, N.S.e and set a new Canadian record in the bench-press in his age class of master men’s 7, for men age 70 to 75 years.

He lifted 165 pounds. At one point, when he was younger, Letcher achieved the 300-pound club, but the amount of weight he can lift has been reduced by age and the disease.

For Letcher, his Parkinson’s journey began prior to his 2007 diagnosis when he noticed his feet began shaking uncontrollably. He began experiencing symptoms before 2002 when a neurologist picked it up in testing. He didn’t follow up on the original diagnosis until 2007 when he saw a doctor in Moncton.

He had a neuro-implant placed in a brain that’s wired to a device in his chest to help control the shaking. This is on top of atrial fibrillation that has resulted in two heart surgeries and he has also had knee replacement surgery and spinal surgery.

“All of this makes it more of a challenge, but it hasn’t stopped me. The biggest thing is now sometimes I can’t get the message from my brain to my arms,” he said. “I’ve been told I’m a poster boy for Parkinson’s. I don’t know anyone else my age with Parkinson’s that does this.”

“You set challenges for yourself and you develop a habit to meet those challenges.”

The best advice he can give is to find something you love to do and do it with others. He also said to be committed and continue to do it on a regular basis.

“Develop a habit because that’s what keeps you ahead of it,” he said. “You set challenges for yourself and you develop a habit to meet those challenges.”

Letcher said he continues to measure himself every time he goes to the gym and while some days he can lift more than the record he set earlier this year, there are other days he can’t. Part of it is getting older, but he knows the disease is progressing.

“I am regressing and getting older. Parkinson’s is advancing and I know the day will come when I can’t lift and arm,” he said. “I’m not giving up though.”

He said he got some of his determination from his father, Lorne, who lived to age 87, walked every day and was very active in the harness racing industry for many years. The family also owned a motel and opened the first A&W restaurant in Fort Lawrence on the road that at one time was the entrance to Nova Scotia.

He said he has also had amazing support from the Parkinson’s support group that meets monthly at the Masonic Lodge.

Ray Fowler, who is 63 years old, considers Letcher a role model not only for others with Parkinson’s, but also for other powerlifters.

“There are a lot of us here who are younger than Doug that look up to him,” said Fowler, who also set a Canadian record at the Elmsdale competition. “He’s a role model for us. I’m the second oldest guy here and he even motivates and inspires me. Like others I just hope I can do what he’s doing.”

Fowler said there are others with challenges who have turned to powerlifting. He knows of a competitor with cerebral palsy and another who is in a wheelchair who both enjoy the sport.

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