Climbing with Cerebral Palsy

 
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Recently, Andrew McAleavey sat down with the Touchstone blog to talk about his experience with climbing and Cerebral Palsy. The Berkeley Ironworks Kid’s Camp director will be at the American Physical Therapy Association’s pediatrics conference in St. Louis to discuss how cerebral palsy affects muscle development. Read a bit about his climbing experience.

“I don’t…I don’t know if I’ll be able to climb, but…but I just wanted to look around and…”

The man at the desk has long, dirty-blond curls and a strangely compelling gravitas. He looks past my stammer-babble, regards me with a kindly intensity, and says, sure, I’m welcome to have a look — as long as I stay off the blue mats. This is my second time at Berkeley Ironworks; the first time, I drove by but was too scared to go in. With permission granted, I wander off, stumble around the gym, and decide that even if I’m never able to climb, the energy of the place is just so good that I want to be a part of it. I come back the next night for intro to climbing.

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I have Cerebral Palsy. I’m brain damaged, my leg muscles are too tight and too weak, and my walking is, in a word, funky. There’s still no real treatment for brain damage, so they treat CP orthopedically — physically rearranging the muscles and bones to compensate for the faulty signals from the brain. As a child, my left femur and right ankle were broken, re-aligned, re-set. My hamstring and Achilles tendons were lengthened. My quads were rearranged. Some of the best surgeons in the country wanted to make me better, faster, stronger. They succeeded — and then they ran out of ideas. Cerebral Palsy is a lifelong, non-degenerative condition, but it’s too often considered a pediatric problem. Children with CP often face what George W. Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Adults with CP don’t often get follow-up and fade into obscurity with their ability to move declining. Rock climbing is not on anyone’s list of things that people with CP “should be” able to do.

I was 34 when I walked into Berkeley Ironworks that night, about 18 months ago. I’d spent at least 20 years in physical therapy, the previous 8 years draining my savings to work with some truly innovative physical therapists and athletic trainers. I was bored, and broke, and under orders from my athletic trainer to find something in the fitness world that I really wanted to do. Only then, he implied, would I really progress. Only then would my heart truly be in it.

The first night I tried climbing, with Jerome smiling from the desk at my reappearance and Jeffrey Kosoff belaying and encouraging, I made it fifteen feet up a 5.4 before exhaustion hit. I barely had the range of motion to get my feet on some of the holds, and as there wasn’t enough power in my legs to push up very effectively, I was doing most of it with my arms. I felt pure joy. I was hooked.

It took me a month to finish a 5.4. It took months more for my range of motion to show permanent improvement. I tried harder and harder routes and spent almost every night at Ironworks. I found a partner who knew exactly when to encourage and exactly when to tell the most egregious, hilarious “cripple” jokes I’d ever heard — at my expense. Every night, the desk staff had a nugget of advice, a word of encouragement. The small kindnesses piled up. “Ok,” Dani Kottman warned me one afternoon after volunteering to belay for me in a few minutes of free time, “I’m going into coach mode!” What followed was an incisive and thorough dissection of my technique and everything that needed to be done to improve it.

As I started to take classes—anchors, trad, technique—I realized that some of the staff had biomechanical instincts rivaling those of the best physical therapists I’d worked with. During a trad clinic, Chris Ahlgren realized, without a word from me, that I’d exhausted myself just standing on the cushy flooring for an hour. The next night, for the next clinic, he dropped a thick, hard block of foam in front of me: “Here!” he said, “Stand on this tonight. It should help!” I managed my first 5.10a, then another, then another. I tried climbing outdoors at Cragmont Park in Berkeley. I’m working on a 5.10c now.

I love children, and when I found out that Ironworks was looking for a kids camp director, I applied. The interview was short; the paperwork was handed to me. With no small amount of trepidation, I decided to take the job. I’ve been chasing children around the gym almost every week since. It’s wonderful. “You’re just goofy!” one of the staff members said during summer camp this past summer, “And you’re, like, nine years old!!” Right and right. Sometimes, I worry that I’ll run out of things to teach the kids; I worry that I won’t be able to correctly demonstrate technique for an overhang, or a good backstep. Then I quiet my fears. I show them how much climbing means to me. I show them how much I love them and want them to succeed. Somehow, it works out.

By happenstance, I found a professor of physical therapy in Connecticut who was interested in “long term outcomes” of people like me. I’d been climbing about six months at that point, and as I told her tales, she slowly got interested. First, she asked me to sit on an advisory board for a grant of hers. Then she came to the conclusion that she should study me. We made plans — in March of 2014, a full-on computerized movement analysis, the same technique that had been used to plan my surgeries as a child. In June, my collaborator, Mary, came to visit me, to see and record my climbing and workout routines. Lyn Barraza, the Ironworks manager, was kind enough to give me the run of the gym as an entourage followed me around and recorded my every move. I tethered our photographer on the rappel platform, rappelled down, and climbed back up again. I did every stretch I could think of for the cameras. At this point, all of it was routine for me. I didn’t think about how unusual it might be for someone with CP to do all of the things I was doing until Mary broke into tears watching me walk across the padded floors — and then almost fell down trying to follow me.

In October, I’ll be giving a talk with my two professor-collaborators at a meeting of the American Physical Therapy Association, essentially a master class on exercise and training for climbing for people with CP. The talk begins with the basic science, explains what happens to the structure of muscles in people with CP, and goes from there. The short version: climbing has improved my strength and range of motion, prevented serious declines in function, and kept me extremely happy doing it. In the slides for the talk, I’m wearing my favorite Ironworks shirt — and there’s a huge grin on my face.