Doctors gave Brenda Keisler a blunt, bleak prognosis: You will never hold your grandchildren.
For Keisler, 64, it made sense that they’d say that. She has 44 screws in her back and neck, the result of five major surgeries to remove a tumor on her spine, which now is fused from her shoulders to her hips.
Now contrast that to Keisler today, lifting dumbbells at CrossFit 77’s gym.
When Keisler heard the words “CrossFit,” she pictured macho strong-man workouts.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Instead what she found was a coach named Amanda Kloo, and room for her and dozens of other physically impaired individuals like her.
As Keisler lifts each dumbbell above her head, Kloo is by her side, encouraging her, counting repetitions.
“It was like, there’s hope,” Keisler said. “Maybe I can do things I never thought I could do, you know?
“There are still times where Amanda has to work me through those new challenges, pushing myself beyond ... having someone encourage you through that is really amazing and uplifting.
“There need to be more people like that.”
She means more people dedicated to helping others with physical challenges become functionally fit, to prove doctors wrong.
Enter Kloo, a favorite to win her division at an international CrossFit competition called Wodapalooza this weekend in Miami. Kloo, 42, has developed a program in Huntersville and the surrounding area to help people of all ages and disabilities to become functionally fit.
But before Kloo – who was born with cerebral palsy and once needed a walker just to get around – could help others, she had to help herself.
‘My world crashed a little bit that day’
Kloo had struggled with CP, a permanent movement disorder that can also distort balance and posture, since birth. At 18 months, she started seeing a therapist one-on-one to help with basic childhood movements – sitting, crawling, kneeling and eventually walking.
“It was a struggle growing up because you could tell there was something physically that was difficult for her,” Kloo’s mother, Gert Loncar, said. “She was always the one who had to go the extra mile to prove herself.”
In the third grade, watching a videotape of a class play, Kloo noticed for the first time she was ... different from her classmates. Her left foot, on the side of her body most affected by her cerebral palsy, bent inward when she walked, and she spoke differently, too.
“In my world, this was how everybody moves and that was how everybody walked,” Kloo said, “but seeing it put back at me and realizing how different I was, my world crashed a little bit that day.”
The video made Kloo self-conscious, and that stuck with her through college, marriage and the birth of her twins eight years ago.
“No matter how much we say we want to rise up and rise above and we love ourselves in own skin, we really don’t,” Kloo said. “We’re all that middle-schooler who wants to be accepted.
“I had held onto the fact that no one could help me, and so therefore I didn’t deserve help.”
A line in the sand
Overcoming those self-conscious feelings didn’t come from desire so much as necessity.
Kloo, who is 5-foot-3, saw her weight top out at 223 pounds when her twin sons were born, and she could scarcely move without pain. Unable to exercise freely because of the cerebral palsy, she hadn’t lost the pounds she gained during pregnancy.
She’d stage furniture in her home so she could maneuver from one couch to another with constant support. She would tie scarves together and attach them to her nightstand to help get out of bed – not because she was too heavy, but because it was so painful on its own.
Her breaking point came when her boys made a simple request. They wanted to go to the beach and play in the sand with Mommy. Only... Mommy couldn’t do that.
Kloo knew then that her lifestyle had to change.
“I knew I wasn’t going to let my fear and my limitations inhibit their ability to experience that as a child,” Kloo said, “so I decided I was going to figure out how I was going to walk barefoot in the sand.”
A simple message
When Kloo started as a CrossFit client four years ago, she was given a simple message: Start by wiggling your toes.
That’s how her transformation began.
Her coaches at CrossFit 77 encouraged her, even after she left her first session so exhausted she vomited in the parking lot. They said yes, come back – that even if it took three months to wiggle those toes, they’d get her there.
Eventually Kloo was wiggling the toes on her left foot, then standing unassisted, then squatting.
As she slimmed down and became a CrossFit regular, she realized her own achievements didn’t have to be the exception. They could become the standard.
Along with her coaches, she developed a non-profit called Project Momentum, dedicated to helping “individuals with disabilities and unique health conditions use fitness as a gateway to improved long-term health, healing and quality of life.”
In two years, Kloo and others have coached more than 50 clients from 4 years old to 74, from stroke victims to people with autism to amputees and more.
And this weekend she’s one of three athletes from CrossFit 77 (able-bodied teammates Dana Mather and Hunter Wilks are the others) headed to Miami for Wodapalooza, one of the most elite worldwide CrossFit competitions.
Last year Kloo finished second in her adaptive division.
‘A giver of hope’
Because ProMo is a non-profit, it relies heavily on donations and grants, but its mission remains the same: to pay forward the same life-changing experience Kloo had.
She encourages anyone with any physical limitation to come in, to take a chance on finding comfort in their own skin.
“Just being able to look at someone on a hard day and say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’ half the time that’s what makes us feel better,” Mather said. “Not even fixing the problem, but just saying ‘I get it. I’ve been there.’
“Sometimes people just wanna have hope ... and Amanda is the giver of hope to these clients.”
As for that beach trip? In the summer of 2014, Kloo and her family went to the Outer Banks, just like they planned. She dug her feet in the sand, then plunged into the water with her boys.
But the trip’s seminal moment – and maybe Kloo’s, too – was when one of her toddlers couldn’t walk on the hot sand anymore.
“Without a second thought I scooped him up and I walked over to the boardwalk with him,” Kloo said. “Through the sand, independently, carrying my child without anyone having to help.
“And that’s a big thing.”
And thanks to Project Momentum, it’s a feeling Kloo can pay forward.