We all have a story. You have a story. I have a story. Jor-el Koenig has a story. A unique story that helps us define our identity. Our stories shape our world and connect us to other humans. Tell yours and ask to hear others. You never know who might need to hear your story.
Last month at the Mark Fisher Fitness Lab, myself and everyone else attending was moved to tears by Michael Littig’s presentation. I will spare emotional details about the videos he showed us but he talked about his work in Somali refugee camps and studying with shamans in Mongolia. Michael has studied mythology and storytelling as a Fulbright scholar all over the world. His take home point was this - whether you are a refugee in search of solace, a resident of Juarez hoping to survive among drug lords, or a person beaten down by the stress of trying to make a life in NYC - there is something that unites us all. Being able to tell our story and have it validated by another human being is powerful enough to keep us alive. The timing of when I learned a bit about Jor-el’s story could not have been more perfect. I hope his story inspires you or resonates with you in some way. I am very grateful he has allowed me to share it.
I first met Jor-el Koenig at The Southern Squeeze - January 16, 2016 - a grip competition that Gil Goodman and I hosted that put us in the paths of a lot of amazing people and athletes. Our biggest regret that day was being too busy running the show to get to really talk to everyone that came out. Jor-el came to compete with his brother Josh. They were private, quiet, and focused. They pulled amazingly strong numbers and placed in the lightweight division. They left with their trophies in hand. It wasn’t until a few weeks after the competition (post friending everyone on facebook!) that I learned through a posting - Jor-el had recently been through treatment for cancer. And was already competing. I had a lot of questions. How was he putting up such a good fight so soon? How and when did this all happen? How might it have affected his grip sport pursuits and his life? I decided to ask, because stories like Jor-els are worth hearing. I have kept most of this Q+A in Jor-el’s own words. He spent a lot of time writing to me about this and he wants you to be able to grasp the emotion intertwined with his words.
ME: Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got involved in Grip Sport?
JOR-EL: I’m 33 years old and from Cincinnati, Ohio. I’ve always been competitive and interested in accomplishing strength feats that others think aren’t possible. I started arm wrestling competitively with my brother about 2 years ago. We are both ranked top 10 in the midwest. This led us into being interested in Ninja warrior and Grip Sport. We competed in King Kong on Oct 24, 2015, Gripmas, and the Southern Squeeze.
ME: How and when did you find out you had cancer? What was your reaction?
JOR-EL: It was mid November of 2014. I had just left work to pick up my kids. I noticed a dull pain my lower back that came out of nowhere. I got the kids and went along with the rest of my evening. By 3 a.m. the pain was unbearable and I realized I had to go to the emergency room. Doctors suspected I had kidney stones and performed a CAT scan. The news was unexpected. The Doctor explained there weren’t any stones but that a tumor was showing up on my kidney and it might be cancerous. I had never had a surgery. I felt invincible up until that moment. Something like this had never crossed my mind. Waiting for the biopsy for the next 9 days were agonizing. The pain in my back was horrendous and I was omitted to the hospital. All I could think about was maybe having cancer and that I might die. All day and night I kept thinking, “Why me?” and “What about my children?”. Finally, after struggling with the unknown for days, I heard it. “You have cancer.” My mind cleared a little and I realized that knowing was better than not knowing. Kidney cancer typically shows no signs until it is too late. Luckily I experienced pain. My urologist couldn’t give me an answer to the back pain mystery and why it was happening. Our bodies are amazing things that we should listen to. At this point I had two options. Beat it or die - and I wasn’t ready for option two yet. On December 15, 2014, I had half of my left kidney removed during a 5 hour surgery. I actually had two tumors on the same kidney, but because they were so close together the doctors were able to save half of the kidney regardless. My doctor told me that the margins on the removal looked clean and he felt confident they had removed all of the cancer. This meant no chemotherapy but still a long road to recovery. I had a thousand more blood tests, enough radiation from the scans to last a lifetime, and dilaudid every hour on the hour for what seemed like forever. With five holes in my abdomen I was sent home to finish recovering.
ME: How did you get back to Grip Sport so fast? What was your support system like?
JOR-EL: When I first got home training was not an option. I could only sit up slowly and "grandpa walk" around my house. I withered away to nothing. A 165 pound athletic frame became a weak and frail 140 pound sack of bones. After six weeks of not being allowed to lift more than 10 pounds, I wanted to start making a comeback but I couldn’t get my mind right. I felt like everything I had worked so hard for was taken away. I contemplated suicide. I was happy to be alive but I was angry and felt numb to the world. I constantly prepared myself for the worst. I thought constantly: “My cancer is still there or it’s going to come back.” I was mentally battling an opponent I couldn’t see. I had to rewire my head. I locked myself away for 3 months. I came out only to fake a smile, see my kids, or go to work. Everything I hated about myself - all of my weaknesses and fears - became center stage. I looked for ways to exploit them. When things got extremely dark is when the breakthrough happened. They say that hitting rock bottom will do that to you. And I can say that it did to me. All of my “Why Me?” thoughts became “Why not me?”. All of my “The cancer is coming back.” thoughts became, “Come back and I will beat you again”. I began to understand who I was and what is really important in this world. I sat for hours and hours in a dark room and I finally saw a flicker of the lion in me as it began to roar.
Though it took me a while to initiate my own comeback, once I did, it progressed quickly. I researched post cancer nutrition and made the decision to cleanse my body completely. I ate nothing but fruit and vegetable smoothies with vegan protein powder for 30 days and drank only water. I slowly introduced meat and solid foods back into my diet after that time period. I still do not eat any beef. I began working out - only body weight movements - during this time. My support system was rock solid. I had my parents, friends, family, and people I hadn’t seen in years come to see me, call me, or send me messages on facebook. At the time I didn't want anyone to see me at my weakest point. But I can now appreciate all of their gestures. The one person that kept me sane, motivated me, and helped me get my life back together was my brother Josh. He was there in the hospital with me from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed. He told me every single day that I was going to be fine and that I was strong enough to get through this. I love you Josh. I don’t know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for him.
ME: How has all of this changed how you approach life in general? What is your training like these days?
JOR-EL: My approach to life has changed dramatically. I decided to quit my job as a district manager of 3 pawn shops. At the time of my diagnosis I was working 70 plus hours a week and had four days off per month. I was too busy working that I forgot to make a life. I now work for myself and my father’s construction business. I focus the majority of my time doing things that make me and others happy. I spend time with the people I love. I spend almost zero time and energy on negative people and negative things. Having cancer has made me realize that I am the only one in control over my thoughts and actions. I get to decide if I am going to be happy and what I am going to accomplish. I have newfound diamond eyes. When I hear people make excuses about why they can’t do something, and I see people throwing their lives away when they are more than capable, I can’t relate. I’m not heartless - I have just realized that almost all of us have a choice. Yes, some people will have harder or easier paths than yours. But only you get to choose your response to your situation.
ME: What would you say to someone facing a diagnosis?
JOR-EL: If someone reading this is facing a diagnosis, you have my thoughts, my prayers, and my best wishes. I know it’s not an easy road. It is a DEFINING moment in your life. It is your story. It is when you realize how strong you really are. You will become everything you have always wanted yourself to be. Not because anything has changed, but because you now view yourself and the world around you differently. Do not give up and do not quit. People will remember how you lived.
ME: What else can you share about yourself? Anything you want us to know?
JOR-EL: I am a proud father of three wonderful boys; Caden, Preston, and Zyler. They are 11, 7, and 4. It seems like everything in my life has clicked into place. I still have bad days but I remind myself why I am here and that tomorrow is not guaranteed. In many ways, cancer has been more of a blessing than a curse. I’m not saying I would want it again - but it has taught me so much about myself and shown me my true path and purpose.
ME: What is your diet and your training schedule like these days?
JOR-EL: Before my cancer I ate a decent diet but was not as strict as I am now. I don’t consume beef and I consume very little dairy or processed foods. My diet consists of a lot of eggs, chicken, vegan protein, vegetables, fish, and fruit. Eating six or so times a day - every two hours - has helped me keep my metabolism up. I will occasionally grab a donut or a piece of chocolate (maybe once per week), but it’s not often. If I’m out to eat, I will order salad - especially if it’s somewhere with fast food.
My training schedule revolves around the tournaments I am training for. I typically work out 4 - 5 days per week, targeting about two muscle groups per workout.
ME: Where can we find you next?
JOR-EL: Competing in the 4th annual Jeramey Perez/Shelly Pike Memorial Arm Wrestling Tournament in Montpelier, OH. This year all funds go to two little boys battling childhood cancer. I’ll also be at the grip nationals in June. I’m hoping to make a big splash in the grip and arm wrestling world this year!
We all have defining moments. Moments that come up along our own personal hero's journey that test us and allow us to redefine ourselves for the better. Moments when we can get past a hurdle and there really is something better on the other side. Share Jor-el's story if you think someone might need to hear it. Think about your own defining moments - whatever they may be, and ask yourself if you are responding in the best way possible to emerge stronger and more stable than you have ever been. Jor-el sure did.