“I appreciate mobility. I appreciate being able to remember things. I appreciate being able to walk. Having gone through a period of time of not having those things, I appreciate them a lot more now.”
These are the words of Wilbur McLean, a 37-year-old, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) just three years ago.
In the summer of 2015, Wilbur began to experience symptoms including blurry vision, optic neuritis, and issues with balance. Over several months they became more severe. He began to have fatigue that became so bad, he was falling asleep at his desk at work. His balance worsened to the point where he had difficulty walking. His short-term memory was so negatively impacted he forgot how to spell basic words.
Shortly after, he was diagnosed with MS. At this point, he was in a wheelchair and had no choice but to leave his job. He felt weak, and all he wanted was for things to go back to the way they were.
“The first day I started becoming more mobile, I remember deciding to walk as far as I could. I made it about three houses from my apartment before I had to turn around,” Wilbur says.
Despite the obstacles, he didn’t want to let MS consume him. He knew he had to persevere to regain his strength and balance, so that’s what he did. Very slowly, his walks turned into a routine – he began to walk every day, further and further, until eventually, he was able to run.
“Whenever I felt weak, the thought that always crossed my mind was ‘What do I need to do now? How can I adjust to this?’ If I’m in a wheelchair, I can do wheelchair basketball or a 5km race in a wheelchair. If I have mobility issues, I’m going to roll myself as hard as possible and do the most I could possibly do.”
Within a few months of his first attempt at walking, he regained enough strength to run a 5km race. Soon after, he discovered the benefits of boxing for people living with MS, so he decided to join a boxing club.
“At first, I was terrible. I would hit the punching bag, and stumble almost every time due to my lack of balance. As my body heated up, my symptoms got worse. My vision in my right eye was off. The optic neuritis was still slightly active. You don’t need to be an expert to know that vision and balance are two really important aspects of boxing and they were two things that I did not have at the time.”
Nevertheless, he kept going.
“Over time, I could sense myself getting better. My eyes got better, my balance got better, and I got stronger. This pushed me to work even harder. In the back of my head, I kept thinking it would be amazing if I could just have one fight.”
Wilbur believes that there is a silver lining to every situation.
“No one wants to be diagnosed with MS, but I’m in far better shape than I ever thought I would be. As a result of my diagnosis, I take better care of my body than I used to. The boxing gym that I train at is full of 20-year-olds, and here I am, a 37-year-old guy, training five times a week, just as hard as they are. I don’t think there are many people my age in the health situation I am in that can say that.”
On November 23, 2018, Wilbur McLean had his first fight at Pearl Gloves, an annual boxing fundraiser held to support the MS Society of Canada. He was the only fighter living with MS. In the end, the event raised $135,000.
“It was a close fight. I did very well but ultimately, [my opponent] bested me. I amstrengthened by the number of people who messaged me or commented to me at theevent – people living with MS who said I represented them. I loved that. Thiswas an intensely personal experience for me considering my MS journey to thispoint but getting those words of encouragement really made me realize that thiswhole experience, in part, was bigger than me.”
Three days after the fight, Wilbur’s partner gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.
“I am so happy to have a healthyand happy baby girl and that years from now, no matter where I am health-wise,I will be able to point to the video of the fight and tell her, ‘Daddy did that!’ I’m looking forward to being able to say that.”