NATHAN STENBERG PERSEVERED AFTER BEING DIAGNOSED WITH CEREBRAL PALSY, LOST 100 POUNDS, AND IS NOW A PERSONAL TRAINER
Nathan’s story begins in the land of 10,00 lakes and lush carpets of green farmland. He was born and raised in a small town in the middle of nowhere on your way to somewhere in rural Minnesota. While the scenery was certainly idyllic, his childhood was anything but home on the range.
“In the later stages of my mother’s pregnancy, it became clear that I would be born with physiological deviations,” Nathan said. “Doctors insisted with my mother that I should be aborted in fear of complications that could cause her harm, even death, at birth. Even more so, doctors predicted that due to these deviations, I would have little to no chance of maintaining any quality of life. My parents disregarded the doctors’ advice.”
Shortly after his birth, Nathan was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy (CP), a congenital disorder of movement, muscle tone, and posture, and was deemed once again, to have little chance of having a “normal” life.
“I was told that walking would be highly unlikely for a person with his form of CP, but I was never satisfied with the prognosis,” he said. “Throughout my childhood, and into my adolescent and teen years, I went through a grueling amount of examinations, surgeries, and physical and occupational therapy. I bounced back and forth between medical devices such as carts, wheelchairs, crutches, and leg braces; learning and relearning how to walk countless times.”
If spending nearly all of childhood in a hospital was not enough annoyance for one young teen, he was also distressed at home. His parents divorced when he was 14, his mother left the state shortly after the divorce, and his father struggled with substance abuse throughout his entire life. Left to Nathan’s own devices, he found himself going from couch to couch and making unwise decisions. As his relationship with his parents continued to deteriorate, he turned his focus to starting his own life.
“I knew I needed to get out of rural Minnesota,” he said. “I had just undergone two massive surgeries (one surgery for each side of my body; operating from literally the hip down to the foot) in under a year, and was told by the doctors that there was a slight possibility that these operations would help to free me from needing assistance from medical devices. I knew that this would be my window of opportunity.”
In the winter of his senior year of high school, Nathan applied to music school in New York. To just about everyone’s surprise he was accepted by Roberts Wesleyan College, in Rochester, NY, to be the first in his family to attend college. (This was such a shock that his high school guidance counselor literally laughed in his face when he told her of his intention to apply to this school.) After his graduation, he packed his bags and moved to New York to begin his undergraduate studies.
“At the end of my junior year of undergrad, I was out on a walk with a dear friend who was asking me about my journey from the wheelchair to being able to walk,” he said. “She was astonished that I had gone so far to better my, but yet led an entirely unhealthy lifestyle. She was right. I was practically a certified land whale. Weighing in at just over 270 pounds, I was a big boy, and I was only getting bigger. I was never satisfied with my physique or my lifestyle, but I never knew any different. All I could remember as a child was eating junk food, drinking copious amounts of soda-pop, and whatever I could scrounge up enough change to get out of the vending machine. With my senior year of college approaching, I knew once again that it was time to make another change.”
That summer, Nathan contacted a friend who was studying nutrition and asked for help. She provided him with a basic diet plan, and enough information to get him started. He was working full time as a landscaper on his college’s facilities team and found him coming home each night with just enough time before bed to watch a horrifying documentary on Netflix about how everything he was eating was killing him. After about two or three of those horror films, he decided he needed to start exercising and getting serious about his diet.
“I would make my way to the gym each morning, before the sunrise, and worked out with the older folks that would come to exercise,” Nathan said. “I found that if I went in too late, the athletes would be in the gym, and they tended to stare quite a bit at the fat, handicapped kid, trying to swallow the spinner-bike. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and by the start of the semester I had already lost close to 40 pounds. I was starting to feel more confident and felt that I was making substantial progress.”
As we all do, Nathan eventually hit a plateau. Down about 70 pounds, he looked average (which for him was an accomplishment) but felt that he needed someone to help him dial in his training program. Nathan was self-taught and needed some help to make his next goal. He started to notice this “gargantuan” who was always in the gym every day at the same time. He would come in with a pair of paint-covered combat-fatigues and an old, beat-up Marine “Bull Dog” stringer, and would often be training several other students in the gym. While he wasn’t the person he first imagined seeking help from, Nathan eventually got the courage to ask.
“Excuse me, sir, but I was wondering if you would be willing to train me?” Nathan asked him.
He looked at Nathan for a few seconds, almost in a state of disbelief. After a sizeable pause, the man said, “Here’s the deal: I’ve trained a lot of people before, but I’ve never trained a crippled kid. Me and my guys, we come in here Monday through Friday, 12:30-13:30, and we train hard. If you can keep up, you can keep training with us. If not, you gotta leave.”
With his tongue lodged somewhere between his stomach and his epiglottis, Nathan managed to eek out the words, “Okay… I’ll see you on Monday at 12:30, sir!”
Slinging his gallon-growler of water over his shoulder, the man looked back as he left the gym, and said, “Don’t be late.”
Much to Nathan’s surprise, that man turned out to be the head painter of his college’s facilities team, a former Marine and a former competitive bodybuilder named Chris.
“As the clocktower marked the noon-hour that following Monday, I began to get nervous,” Nathan said. “I made my way into the gym, and I could tell Chris was surprised I even showed up. I trained harder than I ever thought I possible that day, and our workout ended with Chris coming up to me and asking, ‘You don’t give up do you?’
“No, sir,” Nathan replied.
“See you tomorrow then,” Chris said.
Little did Nathan know that that workout would become one in a long line of body-busting training sessions, and that Chris, the mountain of muscle who threatened to kick Nathan out the gym if he didn’t keep up, would become one of his closest friends.
“Chris and I trained for just over a year before I graduated from undergrad,” Nathan said. “I owe him a debt of gratitude because he helped me not only to get in the best shape of my life but bestowed in me the functional training philosophy in which I still use to this day.”
After graduating college, Nathan moved from Rochester, NY, to Princeton, NJ, where he started his masters at Princeton Seminary. It was during his time at Princeton that he started getting interested in training others. He was given a gift by Chris and wanted to return that gift back to those who desired to make their own lifestyle change. It wasn’t until after he graduated from Princeton and started his PhD studies at the University of Minnesota that he finally decided to become certified.
“Now, in my second year of PhD studies at the University of Minnesota, I work as a Certified Personal Trainer at the University’s Recreation and Wellness Center,” he said. “My clientele ranges from general population to people with disabilities. More broadly, my research and fitness expertise is centered in working with people with disabilities, and which is often overlooked in the fitness and athletics world.”
Almost six years after he first started getting into the gym, Nathan has lost in total over 100 pounds, and continues to train six days a week. His training philosophy is simple: “Stay Out of the Chair.” His motivation is to keep the freedom he has to live his life.
“My introduction to APEMAN was on a recent trip back to Rochester,” Nathan said. “I was invited to give a lecture at an event hosted by his college, and I jumped at the chance to have a week to train with Chris again. Since we last trained together, Chris has started a new power building regiment, after nearly 10 years of doing the exact same training routine (I was so confused!). Each day he would come in with this shirt with this cool looking ape head on it, and I became intrigued. After reading the mission statement of the company, I knew why Chris would wear such a shirt, and I knew I wanted to wear one, too.”
All of us will face challenges in our life. Some are physical. Some are mental. Some are emotional. And each will demand strength to overcome them. There will be setbacks. There will be defeats. Move only forward. Persevere. Strong has many forms, find yours.
This is his story of how Nathan found his strength.
“I hope you, too, can find your strength to persevere,” Nathan said.