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'Not going to let this define me': Montreal martial artist with Parkinson's rakes in medals

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Walking down the hallway to the West End Cavendish gym in Cote St. Luc, you may hear some heavy thuds.

They're not caused by construction. Through the door, there's a man body-slamming other men who outweigh him by 40 pounds, in some cases.

The body-slammer is 54-year-old Haskel Garmaise, who's been practising martial arts for nearly his entire life. He's also a teacher and fitness trainer.

CTV News visited him at the gym earlier this month.

"We train in a Japanese mentality," Garmaise said. "[It's] disciplined and strict, and rigid, and I like that."

Words like that only begin to explain how tough this man is.

Three years ago, Garmaise wasn't feeling well.

"I got up from my kitchen table, and I fell down," he recalled. "And I got up a second time and I said to my wife something's wrong, something's not right."

Doctors would later confirm he had Parkinson's disease.

It was a harder blow than anything he'd ever felt in combat.

"Everything I do is physical, from martial arts to weightlifting to training people. That's how I define my entire life. It was a killer," Garmaise said. "The first five days were disastrous, and I get emotional even thinking about it."

But from a very dark place, Garmaise found an inner strength that defined so much of his life.

"I said, 'No, I'm not going to let this define me; I'm not going to let this be who I am. I live with Parkinson's, but I'm not going to be a victim of Parkinson's.'"

It hasn't been an easy road. Garmaise's muscles became stiff, and his fine motor skills were diminished.

Things like clearing dishes from the table are a challenge.

But, strangely, when he practices martial arts, the symptoms seem to vanish.

"Because I built these neurological pathways at a young age, I'm able to do these gross motor skills, like jumping kicks, throwing guys around," he explained.

But even that wasn't enough for Garmaise.

A man who thrives on challenges, he decided to compete in traditional forms at martial arts tournaments.

Last February, he won two gold medals at a provincial tournament in Ste-Therese, and he followed that up by winning four medals at nationals in Ottawa last May.

Then, in October, at the world championships in Orlando, Florida, Garmaise competed against competitors from 16 countries.

He came away with two bronze medals.

"Nobody at the tournament knew I had Parkinson's. I didn't tell anybody so the judging was not a sympathetic judging. It was impartial," he explained.

He said he did it to prove to himself, his students and his daughter that no matter what life throws at you, you can win by not giving up.

"The biggest fight you're ever going to have — it doesn't matter if it's on the street with an opponent, or multiple opponents — is always going to be yourself," he said.

"It's always going to be how you face the situation."  

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