Jimmy Choi: JC Fox Ninja and Advocate
Parkinson’s disease (or PD) is typically recognized as a “movement disorder.” However, PD is actually a neurodegenerative disease, made up of a constellation of movement and non-movement symptoms, including sleep disorder, gut dysfunction, depression, and difficulties with executive function and memory1. In many cases, Parkinson’s disease also involves Lewy Body dementia (LBD), which results in hallucinations and delirium. It is estimated there are over 1 million people in the United States with Parkinson’s, making it the second most common neurodegenerative disease behind Alzheimer’s. And, much like Alzheimer’s, despite the tremendous challenges faced by patients and their families, there are very special individuals in the Parkinson’s community making extraordinary contributions to awareness, advocacy, and brain-healthy living in general.
One such person is Jimmy Choi, affectionately known as the “Fox Ninja”. For people familiar with the American Ninja Warrior series on TV, you may have seen Jimmy jumping, swinging, and climbing his way through the show’s famous obstacle courses for 5 seasons from 2017 to 2021. To be an ANW contestant is to be an athlete with tremendous strength, flexibility, and coordination. What makes Jimmy unique? He’s an American Ninja Warrior, and he happens to have Parkinson’s disease. How does a person like Jimmy - with a disease known for tremors, stiffness, and slowness - work his way up to competing with elite athletes? Read on. His story is an inspiration in overcoming the stigma of Parkinson’s and using it to raise awareness and fund cutting-edge research.
From Denial to Taking Control
In 2003, at the age of 27, Jimmy was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s disease. In hindsight, Jimmy acknowledges that he must have been feeling symptoms from his early 20’s. He had difficulty throwing balls. For some reason, he experienced a lack of brain-hand coordination, and the balls went straight into the ground. Later, a nurse performing his life insurance evaluation shared with him that she worked for a neurologist. She didn’t mention Parkinson’s, but she strongly encouraged him to see a movement disorder specialist. Upon doing so, Jimmy was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease. For a disease that’s typically diagnosed after the age of 60, he was understandably in denial, but multiple neurologist visits came to the same conclusion: Parkinson’s disease. He didn’t tell his wife Cherryl of his diagnosis for months, let alone manage his symptoms at the beginning. However, by 2010, he was overweight and walking with a cane. It was in that year when he had his “wake up” call. Jimmy fell down the stairs while carrying his toddler son. At the bottom of the stairs, Jimmy committed himself to do the best he could for his family and show them that he will never give up. It was time to take control and engage with his condition and the Parkinson’s community.
Jimmy started physical therapy, which led him to running, and after some extensive research he learned that exercise was one of the best ways to slow progression of Parkinson's. By starting small with walks around the block with his cane, he was soon walking without his cane - and then jogging. Then, he joined Team Fox (a grassroots community fundraising program of the Michael J. Fox Foundation) in 2012 and ran his first marathon that year, raising money for the organization. One marathon turned into a few, and he even competed in an ultra-marathon (that’s 50 miles!).
American Ninja Warrior and Beyond
If that wasn't inspiring enough, Jimmy took it to the next level in 2016 when he challenged himself to qualify and compete in NBC's American Ninja Warrior. The motivation came from his daughter, Karina, who’d been training at a “ninja gym,” and she encouraged her dad to try out to be an American Ninja Warrior (her favorite show). So, with similar conviction as his marathon training, he dedicated himself to “ninja training” to show the world that Parkinson's would not get the best of him. Despite the physical and mental challenges of the disease, he competed in 2017 and in each of the next 4 years, and he’s raised awareness about Parkinson's all along.
On top of that, when the pandemic hit, Jimmy showed countless people that you could stay fit in “quarantine” by breaking two fitness world records to raise funds for Parkinson’s disease research. It started when Jimmy was training for marathons, when he would practice burpees as a means of protecting himself if he were to fall. Eventually, one burpee turned into more, and this led him to pursue and achieve his first Guinness World Record: 30 chest-to-ground burpees in 60 seconds! After that, he went for his second world record of 40 side-to-side (plyometric lateral) pushups in a minute!
Making a Difference in the Fight for Parkinson's
Jimmy's physical goals may have started with a desire to delay or slow the progression of his disease, but his mission has evolved to spread awareness about Parkinson's, raise money for the Michael J Fox Foundation and inspire others. He wants to show others with brain disorders or other illnesses that they “can still thrive and accomplish things that most people thought only 100% healthy people can do”. Through marathons, Spartan races and countless 5k and 10k's, he has raised over $500,000 for Parkinson's research and Team Fox.
When Jimmy isn't training, he can be found spending time with his wife Cherryl and 2 kids, Karina and Mason, or in the kitchen making nutritious (and delicious) meals. He is also an active motivational speaker and a patient council board member of the Michael J Fox Foundation.
His annual 5k race, called Shake It Off, is another way he gets his local community in the Chicago area involved. And last year, Jimmy and his wife Cherryl launched a new social media fundraiser called MOVEmber4PD, to encourage people to get moving in the month of November and raise awareness about Parkinson's. Follow him on Instagram to check out what he’s up to now. Join the movement by signing up and donating to fund high-impact research for Parkinson’s Disease.
Through physical fitness and a never-give-up attitude, Jimmy has proven that anyone can make a difference in the fight against Parkinson’s, or any challenge for that matter! Watch any of Jimmy’s videos, and it’s guaranteed to make you want to MOVE for brain health!
- Gilbert, R. American Parkinson’s Disease Association, Lewy Bodies, Dementia, and Parkinson’s – What Does it All Mean?: https://www.apdaparkinson.org/article/understanding-parkinsons-disease-dementia-lewy-bodies/