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ICOR Boxing helps Parkinson's patients punch back at disease

Emily Klinefelter (left in navy blue) leads a Monday afternoon "Rock Steady Boxing" class at ICOR Boxing (1127 Shirken Drive in Iowa City).
Emily Klinefelter (left in navy blue) leads a Monday afternoon "Rock Steady Boxing" class at ICOR Boxing (1127 Shirken Drive in Iowa City).
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Craig Slay wasn't a fighter before he signed up for classes at ICOR Boxing in Iowa City.

"This is my first experience of throwing punches," he says before a Monday afternoon class.

"I never could have imagined I'd be doing this. It never even crossed my mind."

It might not have crossed any of the dozen or so students' minds before they started coming to the gym on Shirken Drive - tucked on the backside of a building off Highway 1.

The real fight they're battling certainly isn't one they'd planned on.

Slay and his fellow fighters in this "Rock Steady Boxing" class are all battling Parkinson's Disease. Slay was diagnosed in March 2019.

"We can talk to each other about those kind of things that other people wouldn't understand," he says.

The approach doesn't change though for coaches Emily Klinefelter and Clif Johnson - both champion fighters themselves.

"We're teaching them real boxing," Klinefelter says. "They're learning the proper footwork. They're learning head movement. We even use our punch numbers with them - so they know the different combinations."

"They don't take it easy on us," Slay adds. "They're careful when they need to be careful - but they're really good at pushing us past what we think we can do."

Johnson relishes the chance to coach after a career filled with his own victories.

"I've already felt what it's like to win - but nothing feels better than watching somebody else feel that feeling as well," he says. "I've watched people show true willpower and determination more than any movie or anything else that's existed on this earth. They're fighting a battle that is one that they didn't select for themselves - and they're showing determination and a whole different mindset."

It's a mindset that puts their biggest fight out of mind - even for a moment.

"This is one of the few times I actually kind of forget that I have Parkinson's," Slay says of the ICOR classes. "I don't feel like I have it. Everyone here has it - so no one has to be embarrassed if they stumble or fall."

Slay and his classmates don't seem to be falling, though. Instead, they're flourishing.

"All my scores have actually improved since I was diagnosed. I'm actually better than when I was diagnosed," he says. "That's not really supposed to happen."

"It's their medicine. Movement is medicine - especially for people with Parkinson's, "Klinefelter adds. "They are in here and they are fighting for their life and their mobility and their way of life."

Even with those lives forever changed - they'll keep fighting the fight.

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"I'll be doing it as long as I'm able," Slay says of the classes. "For the rest of my life."

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