There are certain people who will persevere through anything to become great athletes. Nathan Gagnon is one of them.
While researching Erb’s Palsy and CrossFit, I came upon Nate’s profile on the official CrossFit website. It was clear that he had competed in the CrossFit Open and had done exceptionally well. As a “CrossFitter” myself, I was impressed that someone with the same injury would be able to complete workouts at the prescribed weight (Rx)1. Soon after, I got in touch him and learned more about his life with Erb’s Palsy and his experience with CrossFit as a member of Reebok CrossFit Back Bay in Boston, MA. His story is a great one. It has inspired me and I’m sure it will do the same for you.
Q & A
Have you had Erb’s Palsy since birth? How is your arm affected?
I have had Erb’s Palsy since birth. At birth, my right arm was completely paralyzed but I eventually regained movement with limited mobility. I can’t full extend my arm, have diminished strength in that arm and whole side of my upper body, and have some trouble putting my arm overhead.
Do you have full active range of motion?
I’m not entirely sure what the term “active range of motion” means, but I think so in terms of lifting my arm overhead. I’m weaker on that side, but can hold things overhead at my full extension, so the shoulder mobility is there.
What types of therapy have you had? Do you still go to therapy?
I did some physical therapy when I was really young, but have not done any for a long time. I have always just remained active and used my arm as much as possible.
Have you ever had surgery on your shoulder?
No. We looked into having surgery when I was in the 6th grade. At that point, I was playing a lot of sports and according to the doctor “more active than a lot of kids with no issue.” Given that, the doctor thought there was too much risk of diminished strength from atrophy in the recovery process to justify surgery.
Have you always played sports? If so, which ones?
I have always played sports and I think that has been hugely important for me. Ever since I can remember, I played basketball. I played a bit of everything growing up, but basketball was my first and lasting love. Since I loved the game and played so much, I was pretty competitive and got pretty good. Since I was competitive in that physical endeavor, it actually made me think my arm wasn’t too debilitated. In sports, it doesn’t really matter if you’re physically different; it matters if you can perform. I could get buckets, so it didn’t matter to me. In plenty of other sports I was competent, not the best, but could hold my own. This gave me the confidence that I could play whatever sport I wanted. I might have some limitations or be starting a bit behind in some respects, but I could do it.
When did you begin doing CrossFit and why?
I started CrossFit in December of 2012. I had heard about CrossFit from a friend who lived in San Francisco and swore by it. My first three months at my gym I actually bought at a silent charity auction. No one was bidding on the item, so it was a good deal. I knew that I’d be hooked once I started. Really, I started because I had always been into fitness, but was bored with the standard gym lifting routine. At this point, I couldn’t play basketball as much as I wanted due to an ankle injury. CrossFit gave me a new challenge.
Have you been a part of any competitions?
Yes, I’ve taken part in internal throw downs within my gym, local competitions, and the CrossFit Open. My goal is always to compete RX’s and not have to scale any weights or movements. I might not be in the running for the podium, but I feel like just competing at that level is an accomplishment I’m proud of.
What have you learned about yourself by doing CrossFit?
So much. First of all, I’ve learned more about Erb’s Palsy and brachial plexus injuries. Growing up, I never knew the name for what was wrong with my arm. I just knew that something was injured when I was born and at first I couldn’t move it and then I could move it but never straighten it. I wrote something for the blog at my gym once and sent it to my parents and my mom told me what the injury and condition were called. Second, I’ve learned that my Erb’s Palsy is actually more distinct than I thought playing sports growing up. Like I said earlier, in other sports, it doesn’t matter if you can reach full extension, just that you get the job done. If you never lockout your arms swinging a baseball bat, but always hit home runs, no one cares about the lockout. CrossFit is different. Full expression of movements is the standard, so I have to just hit the extension that I can. I even remember the first time I saw a picture of me doing toes to bar and I thought, “Wow, my right arm is pretty crooked.” I always knew I couldn’t fully extend, but didn’t know the severity. I’ve also learned more about how it affects my whole upper body. Lastly, I’ve learned that I am a very determined person who will persevere. When I do a CrossFit workout, I want to beat whoever I’m working out with. I’m at a disadvantage to everyone who has two fully functioning arms. That just means that I have to work harder. And I will. CrossFit is hard for everyone. I have a pretty good excuse to not do it, but I’m determined to be the best I can at it anyway.
What would you say to people with Erb’s palsy who are nervous about starting CrossFit?
My overriding advice for people with Erb’s Palsy and people without would be the same: don’t be nervous, every workout can be scaled and modified to meet you where you’re at. You’re going to find some movements more challenging than others, but it is all doable. Give it a shot. You have nothing to lose. Specifically for people with Erb’s Palsy, I would say that they shouldn’t be discouraged if something is harder for them. My perspective has been that it’s 100% true that things will be harder for me, but it’s also 100% true that my Erb’s Palsy isn’t going away. I have the choice to do more with what I have or less. I choose to do as much as I possibly can and push that boundary.
Do you find that it’s difficult to explain the injury to others (at the gym or elsewhere) and that sometimes people don’t fully understand it because they haven’t heard of it?
I haven’t had much of a problem with that. People generally haven’t heard of it, but they understand there are nerve damage and mobility limitations. Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge if I drop in at a new box. I tell them about the mobility restriction beforehand, and they get real worried about what I’ll be able to do and how they will have to modify everything. I then have to let them know that I plan on doing everything at the prescribed weight. They kind of expect less of you.
When you do overhead lifts can you fully lock out both arms?
My [right] arm is not close to full lockout. At its fullest extension, the angle is maybe 135 degrees.
What is the hardest part about doing CrossFit?
Haha, oh man, the hardest part? CrossFit’s hard for everybody. Movement wise, overhead movements are tough for me–overhead squats, shoulder to overhead, snatches, handstand push-ups–I also have a tough time with ring muscle-ups. But with that said, I can do all those things and better than some people with no physical limitation, so nothing’s impossible. I think the hardest part of CrossFit is its constantly humbling nature. Just when you think you’re getting good at things, something gets tossed at you that resoundingly tells you otherwise. You’ve got to be mentally tough to stay after it and keep progressing.
What is the best part?
There are two best parts for me. One is doing what I thought wouldn’t be possible. I remember watching people do overhead squats and handstand push-ups and just thinking that I may never be able to do those. They just might be impossible for me. Now I can do them. That’s an amazing feeling. Second, is the community, both locally and globally. I love everyone at my gym. Getting to go there, workout with them, joke with them, and spend time with them is the bright spot of many days. I’ve also been able to engage the larger community through organizations like I Am Adaptive and Phoenix Multisport. I mean, I’m writing this right now for a girl living in Spain blogging on Erb’s Palsy. It’s awesome to share that connection with so many people worldwide.
What are I Am Adaptive and Phoenix Multisport?
Both are nonprofit organizations related to CrossFit that I’m involved with. You should definitely check out I Am Adaptive. They are an organization that advocates for and spreads awareness about adaptive athletes of all sorts. They’re right up your alley. Phoenix Multisport is an organization that provides free fitness programs to people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. I coach CrossFit classes for them every Saturday.
What can you say about your box?/How have the coaches helped you?
I love my box. I love the coaches. I love the owners. I love the members. I love the dogs. All of it. It’s honestly my favorite place to be. My coaches have been super supportive of me not only participating, but being competitive. They’ve pushed me and helped me improve in every way. I’ve got to say though, I think they do this for all of the members. I’m not the only person who has had struggles with overhead squats or muscle ups and they help everyone the same. If you’re putting in the work, they are right there with you.
What are some modifications you’ve made to exercises that have really helped?
I think the biggest and most helpful modification I’ve made is either stacking plates or using a push up handle to do handstands and handstand push-ups. This helps balance out the length. Still hard, but at least it helps balance.
Do you have any goals for the future?
I have a ton of goals in terms of numbers I’d like to hit and movements I’d like to get down, but my larger goal is just to reach more people with my story and journey in the aim of helping people with theirs. I’ve been able to reach people through posting on Instagram that I wouldn’t have ever come across otherwise. Some kids, teens, and parents of children with Erb’s Palsy. Really though, I’d like to reach more people to just push themselves to overcome whatever challenges they’re having and for people to be grateful for what they can do. However you can move in this life, cherish that movement as a blessing.
1 Rx weight signifies prescribed weight that is assigned to a CrossFit workout. It is not necessary that an athlete completes workouts at these weights and they should only be used if the athlete is comfortable with them.