My name is LaRiena Ferguson. I was born in 1978. Unbeknownst to me, I was born with spina bifida. I remember as a small child that my back always hurt, but I thought it was normal and that everyone felt that way. When I was older, I decided to go into the U.S. Airforce, as I was from a military family and that’s just what we did. (From my grandparents to my son, we have served in every branch of the military). I enlisted and started my journey.
When I started my enlistment process and began boot camp, I was 19 years old, 5’8”, and only 125 lbs. My back began to hurt a lot, but I continued to just blow it off. Still, the grueling relentlessness of boot camp put such a strain on me that I could no longer hide the pain. As my agony grew, it became unbearable and I was sent to the medics. Day after day and test after test finally revealed the source of my discomfort – ankylosing spondylitis (AS) and spina bifida – two diagnoses at once that changed my life permanently.
I was told I could have surgery and there would be a 50/50 chance I would be able to walk again. In other words, surgery might help, might not help, or might even leave me paralyzed. I was given a medical discharge, which crushed me. I was on medical hold for six weeks before they sent me home. The doctors told me I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was 40. Yea, me! To be given this prognosis at 19 was terrifying and incredibly disheartening.
Life suddenly took on a somewhat grim look, but I pushed on. Fighting depression and bad relationships, I gave birth to two beautiful kids (neither of whom have AS or spina bifida, thank goodness) and moved on with life as a single mom.
I met my husband John when my daughter, Kiara, was two and my son, Keith, was three. A year after we met, we became a family. A real team. John had been a competitive powerlifter for most of his life and has been a USAPL and USAW certified coach for over 30 years. He got the kids into lifting in their early teens. They both have numerous state and national titles and both hold world record lifts. It was amazing to watch this man take my/our kids and do what he did.
In the back of my mind, I wanted it to be me, too. However, the doctor said no. He told me I had to lose weight, but not how to do it, which I didn’t find helpful.
Over the years, the weight piled on and I became more and more unhealthy and obese. You gain weight, get depressed, and then gain more weight. With more weight comes more pain. It’s a terrible cycle.
My husband was getting worried. As a coach, he knew what he was seeing and it was bad. He finally sat me down one evening and told me we need to fix this. I was fed up and wanted change, too. We talked about what the doctors had said. My husband looked me square in the eyes and said, “I don’t give a shit what they said. They don’t have to watch you die. I do, and I don’t want to see that.”
That’s where the next chapter of my journey begins. Last year I was 41 years old and over 260 lbs. We started with getting my diet in order. Portion control was the key for me. Fad diets work short-term, but are not permanent. I wanted the change to stay. I started at 262 lbs. and I dropped down to 214 lbs. After eight months of portion control, I lost 50 lbs. I felt great! My metabolism had been reset. The change felt permanent.
Next, I wanted to do something with my newfound boost in health and energy. So I started weight training. We started with strengthening my back, and my body was up to the task. My mind felt great, too. I was truly happy.
John coached me and watched me like a hawk. He taught me to “listen to my machine.” Push but be cautious. He taught me how to do certain exercises and why we do them – what they strengthen and how they affect the body. I always make sure to listen to my body, too. When something feels painful, I stop immediately. I can’t do certain types of deadlifts, for example. But squatting is my passion. My record is 355 lbs.
Slowly but surely, we put me back together. I now feel better than I can ever remember. My back is strong and my head is clear.
I’m now a competitive powerlifter. In my first competition this past February, I reset all four state records for Florida – and that’s competing against people without AS or spina bifida. My wonderful husband/coach had a custom weight belt made for me with my motto: “Tell me I can’t, I dare you.” What does this mean to me? I’m not taking “no” for an answer anymore. The doctors said I couldn’t do it – now, they can stand back and watch. I also sport the awareness ribbons of my two conditions. I am in full support of “my people.”
I used to be a very angry person because I hurt all the time. Now, it takes a lot to even make me agitated. I’m so proud that I’ve done this. By the way, I’m now 42 – two years past when the doctors originally told me I’d be confined to a wheelchair. How do you like that?
We need to be able to look inside ourselves and see how strong we can truly be. We may face stumbling blocks, but we can prevail and overcome them in creative ways. It’s not easy, and it may take time, patience and grit. We all have it inside of us. Sometimes we just need to look within and find it again. So keep your head up! Keep your head in the game! You may not become a powerlifter like me, but you don’t have to give up. Be a winner in your own way.
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