Jimmy Choi: why I became an ‘American Ninja Warrior’

Interviews

Author: Joe McAweaneyPublished: 16 August 2018

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Jimmy Choi

When Jimmy Choi was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at 27, he cut himself off from his family and the people he cared about. Now, 15 years later, he’s completed an ultra-marathon and appeared on US TV show ‘American Ninja Warrior’. We talk to Jimmy about his story so far, from moving to the US at 10 years old without speaking any English to rubbing shoulders with Michael J Fox


“My 10-year-old daughter always used to bug me about going on her favourite TV show ‘American Ninja Warrior’, and I’d tell her I couldn’t because of my condition. Then one day, we were watching it together and a contestant with Parkinson’s walked on. She turned to me and asked: ‘What’s your excuse?’”

Jimmy Choi laughs as he recounts the exact moment that he knew he could no longer hide from competing on ‘American Ninja Warrior’ – the US TV programme boasting one of the toughest assault courses in the world.

Jimmy’s story started in East Asia, almost 8,000 miles away from Illinois, US, the state he now calls home with his wife Cherryl and two children. “I like to say I was made in Taiwan,” jokes Jimmy, “and moved to Chicago when I was 10.”

Immigrating to another country at such a young age was tough for Jimmy, with cultural and language differences leading him to feel disconnected from his new community. “It was hard, because everything was so alien,” he recounts. “I struggled to make friends because of the language barrier. My brothers and I tended to stick together because we didn’t have anybody else.”

Despite these problems, Jimmy didn’t allow his circumstances to hold him back. He worked hard – taking summer language classes – and by the time Jimmy reached 18 he had been offered a place at Purdue University, Indiana, US, to study Finance and Computing.

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Jimmy with his wife Cherryl and his two children Karina and Mason.

“My hand didn’t understand what my brain was telling it to do”

It was at this stage in his life that Jimmy believes he first started to experience Parkinson’s symptoms. “That’s the thing about hindsight, it’s always 20-20 right?” sighs Jimmy. “I think it started at college but I just wasn’t putting two and two together.

“I remember I had real trouble throwing a baseball. Every time I tried to pass it to a friend I’d end up throwing it straight into the ground. It puzzled me for a long time, but looking back it was because my hand didn’t understand what my brain was telling it to do.”

Like many others, Jimmy never imagined that these difficulties were the result of a neurological condition and didn’t visit a doctor. It wasn’t until years later, when buying life insurance, that Jimmy mentioned these symptoms to a healthcare professional. “I was 26 or 27, and the nurse from the life insurance company visited me to carry out a physical test. She noticed things about me that no one had ever pointed about before. And then she said that word: ‘Parkinson’s’”.

What followed were a series of visits to other doctors and neurologists who all came to the same conclusion: despite being in his mid-twenties, Jimmy had developed Parkinson’s.

At first – like many others in his position – Jimmy refused to believe the diagnosis. “I was completely in denial,” he says. “I convinced myself that they didn’t know what they were talking about. I decided there was no point telling anyone, for the first few months I didn’t even tell my wife.”

The shock of the news took its toll on Jimmy’s mental health, and he decided to lock himself away: “I was in complete isolation and darkness. I was depressed and I was angry.”

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Jimmy training with his daughter Karina.

“The moment I went into straight panic”

It wasn’t until 2012 that Jimmy says his mental health began to get better. He started going for jogs – just to get him out of the house – and ended up competing in charity bike rides and sponsored marathons.  “I started running and ended up doing a five kilometre race, so then I decided to try a 10k. After that I totally caught the runners bug.”

Jimmy made impressive progress. In the last six years he has completed an ultra-marathon, multiple triathlons, 15 marathons and 101 half-marathons. He was also the first person with Parkinson’s to complete a 100-mile bike ride in under five hours, and has raised US $250,000 for The Michael J Fox Foundation.

All this – and his daughter’s remark in front of the TV that night – culminated with Jimmy taking on his ultimate challenge: the gruelling ‘American Ninja Warrior’ assault course –designed to test some of the toughest athletes in the world in front of a television audience of over five million viewers per episode.

“So I applied for the show,” explains Jimmy, “but I didn’t expect a reply. Until one day a producer called and offered me a place. That was the moment I went into a straight panic.”

“I’ve never seen Michael J Fox without a smile on his face”

That call gave Jimmy six weeks to prepare for the toughest challenge of his life. He reached out to what he calls “the obstacle course community”, and couldn’t believe the amount of support he got. “It was incredible, everybody flocked around me to help, some of them even took the time to learn about Parkinson’s. I’ll be forever grateful.”

In July 2017, Jimmy got his chance to take on the assault course. He fared well, overcoming the first two obstacles before falling at the ‘broken pipes’ section. The night was particularly special, as Michael J Fox took the time to wish Jimmy luck as he waited to enter the arena. In an emotional clip, the ‘Back to the Future’ star says Jimmy is “an inspiration to your family, people with Parkinson’s, everyone watching and me.”

Jimmy’s grateful for the support from the Canadian actor, and says he admires the way he carries himself despite living with Parkinson’s. “I’m lucky enough to have met him a few times, and he is exactly what you’d envisage him to be. He’s provided nothing but support and a positive attitude, and that’s where I draw my outlook from.

“I’ve seen him on good days, and I’ve seen him on what he might describe as a ‘bad day’. But do you know what, I’ve never seen him on a day without a smile on his face.”

In true warrior fashion Jimmy returned to the course a year later. He fell at the third obstacle – the dreaded ‘wheel flip’ – but left the stage to a standing ovation from the crowd. As the ‘American Ninja Warrior’ commentator told the TV audience that night: “It’s not always about hitting the buzzer when you want to be a winner.”

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Jimmy after completing the Chicago half-marathon.

For more information on how exercise can help those living with Parkinson’s please visit the EPDA website.


Read more:

Watch: Michael J Fox Foundation pays tribute to Parkinson’s campaigner

Michael J Fox records special message for “inspirational” Parkinson’s athlete

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