How do you take your life back after almost completely losing any ability to move? Henry Hawk, a 77-year-old fitness instructor and “homeboy” from Arkansas, is not the prime candidate to answer this question. Still, movement has been his life’s work—from school days as an All-American in football to decades of coaching football and then gathering a slew of records in track and endurance running. That’s not to mention his place in five of Arkansas’s sporting halls of fame or his world record (more on that later).
When he volunteered to help paraplegic and quadriplegic patients around his hometown of Conway, Arkansas, Hawk had no experience in therapy, but used techniques from his days in the weight room with football players. And it’s worked for the five people with whom he’s visited weekly, free of charge, during the past six years. These kinds of huge turnarounds aren’t unheard of (see: extreme success story and Rising Star Lukas Verzbicas). What makes Hawk’s stories (one of which features in the short film True Athlete) so compelling? He’s helped people overcome unthinkable physical limitations with no medical experience—just a desire to pick up where pitiful health insurance coverage leaves off. And that success draws directly from his own fitness philosophy: Incredible amounts of patience can get you far.
OUTSIDE: Your relationship with quadriplegic patient Robert was quite the tearjerker in True Athlete. How did you meet him?
HENRY HAWK: His mother was in my fitness class when she got the news of his accident. When they were bringing him back to Arkansas, they were having a problem with their insurance. So I just asked if she would like for me to work with him.
You just can’t believe what this guy can do. He has a 158 IQ and he’s a master mechanic by trade. That guy can figure out anything. If a therapist thinks they’ve gotten him to a level where he can’t progress any more, he’ll get his insurance cut off. So he has to prove he’s still progressing every so often. He’s been doing that for four and a half years. We’ve got to keep progressing, we can’t become too satisfied.
How is he doing these days?
His parents started a used car business and he manages it. He just moved out to a big home on about four acres to have more room for the cars and everything. That’s a person who was told he’d never move anything but his eyelids. In fact they recommended to let him die. That’s how critical he was, and here he is.
Was this the first time you’d helped someone with recovery?
I would never have attempted it if I hadn’t already worked with a bright lady in her 60s—Emma Jean Smith. She could barely get out of her chair with assistance. I put a quarter-inch board on the floor and asked her to stand up on it, and she couldn’t. She was told she would never be able to stand or walk due to her back. Within two years I got her walking unassisted down between two rows of tables.
After having done that with the success that we had, I had a little confidence going into it. The first day I walked into the room and saw Robert he had just gotten his [tracheotomy tube] out. He could barely whisper, could barely breathe on his own, couldn’t swallow water, had a feeding tube in and couldn’t move a muscle. I said, “Uh oh.” We just worked at it and kept progressing.
Was your approach in any way unorthodox compared to what other spinal injury victims go through?
I don’t know any therapists who work with weights. Most therapists—I won’t say all—don’t build strength, they build movement. They take [patients] where they are and work them to the level to operate a wheelchair or whatever. But being a coach for 20 years, I saw great progress in my athletes by using a technique of weightlifting called negative weightlifting. Two people would lift the weight up and the third, holding the weight, would lower the weight real controlled. So this is the technique that I used on all the individuals that I work with. I do the lifting and they try to control the weight. Negative weightlifting brings the strength back into the muscles. Where they develop one set of muscles, that supports another set.
You’re a very accomplished athlete in your own right. What do you think of as your greatest athletic accomplishment?
I would think breaking a world record [for the indoor mile, at age 61] was probably the most exciting thing. To say you were the first person in the world to do something at your age—that would impress some people. People asked me how it felt to break a world record, and I said, “Well, on the first night I was on cloud nine. The second day I was above the clouds flying home, and the third day I was on the ground running, getting ready for the next race.”
How has your training approach changed as you’ve aged?
No, I haven’t aged. I’m just at 77! But no, I haven’t lost anything. I was running nationally and racing a great deal, and I haven’t been racing any lately, but I do still train hard every day.
What does your daily regimen look like?
This morning I was up at 5 o’ clock. I did flexibility and drank a ton of coffee, went to the gym and lifted weights, did 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer. And then I went and taught an hour fitness class, which is pretty aggressive. We work really hard. I drove 30 miles to North Little Rock and taught another class. On the way back I stopped and worked with [another 23-year-old in recovery]. It’s pretty difficult—it’s harder than what people would think. You have to lift them up, lift the weights up. I got home, laid down for a minute. After this I’m going golfing.
So it’s part of your personality—you always need to keep moving.
I’ve always been pretty aggressive. I’ll tell you a little story—the way I got into road racing. I was coaching football, and if our athletes missed practice they had to run a mile after practice the next day. I was in my 40s at that time. I would run the mile with them, and it got to be sort of competitive. See if any of them could beat me. Then it got to be who I couldn’t lap. Then some that had not missed practice would come out to challenge.
I didn’t realize you only started endurance running in your forties.
Back then you didn’t see as many runners. One of the coaches at our school, he was one of the premier marathoners, and we thought he was crazy. Then [when our athletes started running long distances], it really picked up and we had a large running community in the Little Rock area. It was pretty competitive. I did 5k, 10k—I hold the state best times for those. Then I ran three 50 mile races with a best time of 6:30. And I’ve run 52 marathons. I ran a 2:42 at the Boston Marathon. I was about 50 at the time.
How do you keep pushing yourself toward those achievements?
I don’t know, you just sort of see what you can do compared to other people your age and everything. And I just think the benefits, healthwise, of training and keeping your body in shape are just so great. You see other people your age, can hardly get around, makes you feel pretty good. Once you get into it, if you continue the work schedule it’s not that difficult. But most people, they can’t be consistent, and it’s sort of the yo-yo effect. That’s hard to do. So I just never let up. That’s the key, I think.
Any other advice on maintaining your level of fitness over time?
I teach five fitness classes now and most of them are seniors. If people can realize their level of fitness and stay within their capabilities and progress slowly, and stick with it, anyone can do it. But everyone wants to do too much, too quick. They want to get in shape the very next day. I tell some of them, “You’re gonna get sore, but you have to work through it until you get worked out of it, and then it’s gone.”
Speaking of, do you have any new goals for the year?
My wife and I now, we just moved next to a golf course. This has been my dream for seven years. My goal is to be a scratch golfer—a par shooter. You know how you get handicaps? Well I’m a nine-handicap now. And I want to be a one or two in the next year or two. I’m just putting my interest right now into the people I’m working with and my classes and golf. But I train hard on my own. I can step back into it anytime I want to.
Would you ever go back into competition?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve got a good friend who wants me to compete as an 80-year-old and see what I can do. So I’ve got two and a half years. But working with these individuals is the most rewarding thing I can do. I’ll tell you—a guy was talking to me the other day about stress. And I told him, “I just worked with a 23-year-old who worked, worked, and worked to get one little twitch of movement in his thumb. He’s sitting down at a wheelchair on cloud nine with a little movement in his thumb.” That shut him up real fast.