At age 54, Paul Gray recently graduated from Mount Royal’s Personal Fitness Trainer Diploma. Many of his fellow graduates, who have become close friends, are in their 20s and 30s. Paul came to the program after working for more than 25 years in the oil and gas sector.
When his father passed away several years ago, Paul began working with a personal trainer to improve his health and find an outlet for his grief. He became interested in personal training as a new career. “I saw how fitness can complement daily life,” he says.
Life threw Paul a curve ball in 2012 at the beginning of his first year in the PFT program. During the August long weekend, he found a golf ball-sized lump in his thigh while putting on sunscreen. It had not been there only a few weeks earlier. He went to the doctor the next day, had an ultrasound in September and a biopsy in November.
Paul was diagnosed with a rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissue, in December. “The tumour just missed my femoral artery, which could have caused it to spread more widely. I feel incredibly lucky and extremely grateful for our health care system,” he says.
“My sister is a nurse and told me that this is a cancer that usually affects children,” he notes. “It’s extremely rare in adults. But that’s what I had. I had to fall back a year in the PFT program, and not graduate with my group. I had amazing support and love from my original classmates and my new ones, as well as the program administration and the instructors. The program has been phenomenal. I can’t speak highly enough of it.”
He underwent surgery and intensive radiation treatment in early 2013. He is now 2 years and 4 months out of treatment. He will be followed closely for 5 years, having MRIs every year and chest x-rays every 6 months.
“The two-year mark is big for sarcoma,” Paul says. “I lost a hunk of my medial quadriceps, which wraps around the knee, so it’s still sore. I got back on a bike a year ago, which gave me huge joy.”
Paul came back to the program last fall and graduated in June. “I graduated exactly 30 years after the first time,” he says.
He has worked with seniors at the Westside Recreation Centre. “Some of them have never exercised in their life,” he says. “I want to work with older people and show them that the average person can still get fit. Especially my generation, the Baby Boomers, who have been sitting at a desk for over 25 years. Fewer than 14 percent of Canadians get regular exercise.”
Paul’s first degree was from the University of Arizona, where he developed a passion for the canyon lands. One of the first things Paul did after he had begun to recover was to run to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, 3500 feet down, and back out again. He did it in 4 hours.
He is starting an adventure fitness business, where he lead groups of mature adults on hiking, skiing or climbing adventures with the assistance of local guides. He hopes to demonstrate the all-encompassing nature of fitness, from the physical to the mental to the spiritual. “You can shock your brain into learning new things. Keep those neurons firing,” Paul says.
He recently led a biking trip on Utah’s White Rim Trail and is planning a hot springs tour in Idaho.
Inspired by the Hopi nation in the American southwest, descendants of the ancient cliff-dwelling Anasazi, Paul’s business is called Kachina Fitness. “My slogan is, I’ll help you find your spirit,” he says.
— by Karen McCarthy
— photos courtesy of Paul Gray