Walt Dembiec: Kicking back at Parkinson’s with boxing, MMA


Karen Dembiec was looking for something new.

Her husband, Walt, is one of nearly one million Americans living with Parkinson’s disease, which affects the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine. Dembiec, a retired AT&T executive originally from New Jersey, has lived with Parkinson’s for the past 15 years, but things were getting tougher as the disease progressed.

“The last few years had really slowed him down. Everything had been harder for him,” Karen Dembiec says.

She had encouraged him to tried yoga and a few other exercise alternatives, but the results were negligible.

Through an article in a local newspaper, she heard about the success of Rock Steady, a boxing program in Indiana that has helped Parkinson’s patients with regaining strength, flexibility and speed. She hoped to find a similar opportunity in the Hilton Head Island area, but could not find a local affiliate. Undeterred, she contacted several local gyms about the possibility of developing a specialized exercise program for Walt.

John Juarez, owner of Riptide MMA in Bluffton, received one of those phone calls. He agreed to give it a shot.

“He said he would be interested in working with Walt,” Karen Dembiec says. “He was really the only one who called back and showed an interest.”

Their workout partnership began in earnest earlier this fall, with Juarez, the strapping mixed martial artist, and Walt Dembiec, the 74-year old client, an unlikely yet perfect match.

“He really enjoys it. Even though he’s tired (at the end of a workout), he looks forward to coming,” Karen Dembiec says. “He said, ‘It just feels good.’ It’s really the first thing that we’ve found that he really enjoys doing.”

Juarez works out with Dembiec twice a week, putting him through sets of mobility exercises, squats and ladder drills, coordinated kickboxing with combos, punches and kicks. The lateral movement and reps of kicks and punches emphasize foot speed and agility. They also get Walt’s heart rate up, working on overall strength and stability.

“He’s stronger. He’s more alert. People have seen where he’s started to where he is now, and it’s a huge difference. Night and day,” Juarez says. “It’s pretty neat how you can help somebody like that.”

In addition to the athletic benefits, the workouts have given Dembiec more energy and zest for life. He wants to help more around the house, his wife says, and he took the initiative in putting up the Christmas tree this year by himself. When the couple used to walk around their Moss Creek neighborhood, he’d use a walker. Now, he doesn’t even take it with him.

“He’s more engaged in things. He wants to do more,” Karen Dembiec says. “It’s exciting to watch how far he’s come in such a short time.”

Juarez has spoken with Dembiec’s Parkinson’s support group about their experience. He hopes to offer similar Parkinson’s-targeted classes at Riptide in the future.

“He’s inspiring people, so basically he’s helping people too like I’m helping him,” Juarez says. “That’s why I love my job, seeing him grow and change. It’s very rewarding and inspiring.”

In the face of adversity and physical challenges, he has seen Dembiec rise to the occasion and improve his quality of life. And he believes others can do the same, regardless of the battle.

“Just stay in the fight,” he says. “Just stay in the fight.”