Growing up, Brandon Edwards was always active. Between baseball, volleyball, riding bikes and hunting, he was constantly on the move.
“I never really liked being lazy so I always found something to do,” he said.
Edwards first discovered powerlifting at the age of 15 when the father of a volleyball teammate invited him to start working out with them. He immediately took to the sport and went on to join his school’s powerlifting team.
“Once I realized that working out can break you down but might build you back up at the same time, I just fell in love with it,” Edwards said.
Edwards’ parents divorced when he was still in high school and he used powerlifting as a way to handle things that were happening in his personal life.
“Everything came collapsing down,” Edwards said. “I had no way to cope with it and that was my way of coping besides volleyball.”
It wasn’t until Edwards was 18 years old that he began to realize something wasn’t quite right with his body. Thinking it would subside on its own, he decided not to tell his mom about the changes he had noticed. When the symptoms didn’t go away, he confided in his mother.
“The first thing she did was blame weightlifting,” he said. “That was probably one of the worst things she could have done because that was what I went to to escape mentally from all the crap I dealt with with my family.”
Edwards went to the doctor and was told he needed to make adjustments to his lifestyle
“Not that I didn’t have control of my body, but I was starting to lose more and more control at a really fast pace,” he said. “And again, I was still being told ‘it’s your lifting, it’s your lifting, it’s your lifting’ from everyone I talked to, so I never felt confident in myself and what I was doing with my life but I was so passionate about it I couldn’t give it up.”
In the summer of 2017, Edwards’ symptoms worsened. After getting a colonoscopy, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a chronic disease that causes ulcers to form on the lining of the large intestine. While he was able to get some of his symptoms under control after the diagnosis, he found it wasn’t a permanent solution.
After not eating for two or three days and experiencing cramping in his lower left abdomen, Edwards had a friend take him to the hospital. He received a CT scan and had tests run but was eventually told he was okay to go home.
His mom came to stay with him in Bowling Green, Ky. because he still felt ill and was having difficulty walking. Two days after his first hospital visit, Edwards awoke late at night, yelling for his mom.
“I told her ‘We gotta go to the hospital. I’m done dealing with this. We gotta go,’” he said. “At that point I knew something was really, really wrong.”
Edwards’ mother took him to the hospital, where he had a series of tests run. After falling asleep from pain medication, Edwards woke to the sound of ambulance sirens. He was being transported to a hospital in Louisville. After arriving, he laid in bed for about an hour with no medicine.
“I was crying, screaming, trying to get some type of relief and there was nothing,” he said. “That’s probably the most helpless I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Edwards was hospitalized for a week, during which time he was barely able to eat, lost over 20 pounds and had to use a walker to get around. After being discharged, Edwards focused on recovery, which included having to learn how to control his body again. It wasn’t until five days after returning home that he was able to walk up a single stair.
“At that point I was fragile, so teaching my body how to support myself was big,” Edwards said. “Once I was finally able to go up those few stairs it was pretty satisfying.”
At the same time as he was relearning to walk, he was fighting withdrawal from his prescribed pain medication. The Percocet he had been given at the hospital was so strong that when he attempted to take Tylenol to manage the pain after being discharged, it had no noticeable effect.
“I had never been in a mental state that rough ever,” Edwards said. “There was nights I was waking up crying and mom would just come in and hold me.”
Although he focused on walking and eating more during his recovery, Edwards lost around 35 pounds over the course of two and a half weeks.
“When I was diagnosed, I didn’t understand it was going to be to that magnitude,” he said.
Returning to school at Western Kentucky University and having to live on his own again was difficult for Edwards. At first he didn’t want to tell people at school what had happened and that the experience made him realize who his true friends were.
“They wanted to care but deciding and choosing who needs to hear what I have to say and who doesn’t is the hardest part,” he said. “I never really thought about the fact that people might actually care.”
“I started separating myself from everybody else because I saw life much differently,” Edwards said. “When I was in the hospital they told me I could have died within a few more days if we wouldn’t have caught it.”
Ulcerative colitis has caused Edwards to adjust every aspect of his life, from the amount of sleep he gets to what foods he eats, explaining that these changes along with medicine help make the disease manageable on a daily basis. His diet has consisted of the same four to five meals almost every day since October 2017. While he can branch out every now and then, he has had to give up some of his favorite foods.
Eight weeks after leaving the hospital, Edwards stepped foot in the gym again.
“I think the process for me was personally I had to learn how to be confident again,” he said.
While he was told by his doctor that weightlifting wasn’t causing issues with his disease, he still had to adjust the way he worked out. Certain exercises which put more pressure on his stomach had to be avoided. Edwards must also be more in tune with his body while working out, sometimes having to end a workout early due to pain.
“I was warming up and I felt the pain. I felt a little bit of pressure and I was like, okay we’ll try one more, did half a rep, dropped them, put them up. That was the end of my workout. We’re done, Edwards said. “I still had three or four more exercises to do but my body comes first and if I feel just a little bit of pain, not pressure, but pain, then that’s when I cap it and say we’re done, I can just come back the next day and do it.”
Edwards relapsed in March.
“It was eye-opening again for me to go through that just because I had been doing so good and finally feeling normal again,” he said. “I felt like myself for the first time in about a year so being reminded every day that I have this disease that no one else has, that I can’t control when it comes and goes away, was very hard.”
Recognizing the symptoms early and taking action made a significant difference compared to the first time. He was careful about his food intake, put trust in his doctors and surrounded himself with positive people to help manage the pain he was going through.
“It slowly deteriorates you and the fact that I was able to push through in the gym and with my food intake and finally kind of grab it and say ‘No, you’re not going to do this to my body again and do this to me again’ was what really separated the first time and this time,” Edwards said. “I got on it early, did what I was supposed to do.”
Edwards is unsure what the future of his disease will hold. He recently discovered that an acquaintance’s mother had ulcerative colitis and it suddenly went away when she was in her 50’s.
“That kind of shined a light on my darkness of my life for just a little bit,” he said.
However, diseases like ulcerative colitis also have a significant impact on one’s immune system and have the potential to increase one’s chance of colon cancer, something Edwards has been very conscious of.
“There’s a possibility I might not be here for too much longer and I’ve had to accept that and deal with it,” he said. “I know the true value of life and I don’t want to ruin that. I want to enjoy that. It’s really just having the mindset of knowing that you might not wake up tomorrow.”
Edwards hopes he can use his experience to be an inspiration to others around him.
“The one thing that really keeps me going is the thought that I can change someone else’s life for the better because I know what it’s like to be at the lowest point in your life where you want to give your life up,” he said. “I know what that feels like and I still deal with it on a daily basis. I just have a fight in me that I can’t give up.”
Water lapped at the edges of the pool as lane dividers bobbed in the water. The usual sound of splashing was joined by shouts and chatter. A small crowd of people had gathered in the far, last lane to cheer on Bill Powell as he completed 81 lengths in honor of his 81st birthday.
For Powell, swimming isn’t just a sport, it’s a way of life.
When Powell was 7 his father bought a house on an island in Michigan. Not having a bridge, the only way to get to the house was by boat. Being the youngest of four siblings, Powell was last in line to get use of the boat so he swam instead.
His dad told him he wasn’t allowed to take the boat out on his own until he was able to swim across the lake, which was about half a mile in length.
“I really wanted to take that boat out alone so it wasn’t long before I swam across the lake,” Powell said. “That’s where it all got started.”
Powell continued his swimming career throughout high school and college. Despite his success as an athlete, he always knew he had a different calling.
“In 7th grade I had to write a term paper on what I wanted to do with my life and I wrote it on being a coach,” he said. “I was 12 years old and I’m 81 now and I’m still coaching so that’s pretty much what I’ve done all my life.”
After coaching a high school swim team for 10 years, Powell decided it was time to move on to coaching at the collegiate level. Powell applied for an opening at Western Kentucky University but was in the running with a coach who had previous college coaching experience Powell’s prospects looked up after his competition decided to take a position at University of Arkansas instead. Powell later discovered the man he was in the running against was his old high school swim coach, who went on to recommend Powell for the position.
Powell came to Bowling Green in 1969 and has been here ever since. He was the founding head coach for the WKU swim and dive team and maintained that title until he retired from full-time coaching in 2005. Although the WKU swim and dive team was suspended for five years beginning April of 2015, Powell has continued to coach.
“I just love working with other people,” Powell said. “I think the gratification of teaching somebody else to swim is better than knowing that I can swim.”
He often advocates that it is never too late to learn how to swim, and he enjoys giving lessons to anyone, regardless of age. He was once approached by an 89-year-old woman who wanted to learn to swim so she could spend more time with her grandchildren at the beach. Powell not only taught her to swim, but even once got her to jump off the diving board.
“It’s never too late,” Powell said. “She was 89 and learned how to swim, anybody can.”
Despite also having a history as a track runner, Powell said that swimming is the best form of exercise, especially for people who may be older.
“Running is great, but you pound your ankles, you pound your shins, you pound your hips and it’s harder on your body, and swimming is weightless,” he said. “It’s just so good for you.”
When Powell was 75 he broke a bone in his back, which made it difficult for him to walk or exercise. A doctor in Bowling Green told him surgery was necessary, but they would “lose him on the table.” Powell’s son told him about a doctor in Nashville who had performed surgery on a 92-year-old woman who hadn’t walked in three years. She is now able to go up and down stairs without support even though previous doctors had also told her she wouldn’t survive the surgery.
When the Nashville doctor found out Powell was one of only two people in the United States over 75 who could still swim a mile under 30 minutes, he said the surgery would be no problem.
“I tell all my students, you better swim every day, and then when you fall apart when you’re 75, they’ll be able to put you back together again without any problems,” Powell said.
Powell continues to swim five days a week and advocates the importance of continuing to exercise as one gets older.
“Some people say, ‘You do all that exercise just so you can live an extra year?’” Powell said. “No, it’s while you’re living, feeling that much better … the pep and the energy that you get from working out can’t be beat.”
One of the traditions that has stemmed from Powell continuing to swim as he gets older is his annual birthday swim. On his 46th birthday, he came to the pool as he does most mornings but didn’t have a plan in mind for his workout that day.
“I don’t always know exactly what I’m going to do when I start swimming,” Powell said. “And I said ‘Ah heck. I’m going to swim 46 lengths.’”
Some of the swimmers Powell coached at the time heard what he had done and it became a tradition. In the 35 years since its inception, Powell has never missed a birthday swim.
Despite facing health issues that only allowed him to swim three days in the entire month of January, Powell said he will continue to spend time in the pool and have his traditional birthday swim for as long as he can.
“My main motivation to continue swimming is to stay alive,” he said.
Ella Brown runs track, swims, cheers and plays goalball but there’s one thing that sets her apart from most high school athletes: she’s visually impaired.
On April 18 of 2009, Brown and her family went to a mud bog, a type of motorsport where off-road vehicles drive through a pit of mud. Brown was playing hide-and-go-seek with friends when one of the truck’s steering and throttle became jammed. The truck came out of the pit and towards the crowd. Brown was struck and became pinned between two trucks.
Although an ambulance was called, a medical helicopter from Vanderbilt Hospital was in the area picking up an overdose patient. Due to the severity of Brown’s injuries, she was picked up first and flown to Nashville, where she spent two weeks in the hospital.
Both of her lungs had collapsed, she had a ruptured spleen and multiple broken ribs and her arm had been ripped open. She was 6 years old.
Doctors originally thought Brown would never be able to see again. During her accident, oxygen was temporarily cut off from her brain, damaging the areas that control sight and motor skills. It wasn’t until Brown commented on the “pretty colors” as they were preparing to leave the hospital that they discovered she was only visually impaired as opposed to blind.
After leaving Vanderbilt, Brown went to a rehabilitation center in Atlanta for two and a half months. Over the next six and a half years she went on to have both physical and occupational therapy to regain her lost motor skills.
“I had to relearn how to do everything…how to eat, how to walk, how to talk,” she said. “I had to repeat what you learned as a baby when I was six.”
Brown grew up going to public school, where she had an educational assistant to take notes and fill out tests for her. Now 15-years-old, she is finishing up her second year at the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville.
“Coming here I’ve learned to be independent, do things for me on my own,” she said.
The Tennessee School for the Blind was founded in 1844. According to their website, their mission is to “provide free, appropriate, and individualized educational services to eligible students in a safe environment that will promote independence and positive self-image.” They accept students of all ages, ranging from 3-21 years old. Students have the option to reside in one of the dorms on TSB’s campus or commute from home. For Brown, the transition of living in a new place was a difficult one.
“When I first came here I was not happy. I did not want to be here,” she said. “I sat in my room and was miserable all the time.”
Everything changed when she discovered the school’s athletics program.
“I decided that I would go out for track and it used up so much of my time that I didn’t really miss being at home,” Brown said.
Since starting track, Brown has joined every sport the school has to offer, saying goalball is her favorite.
Goalball is a sport unique to the blind and visually impaired community. Compared to a combination of hockey and soccer, goalball consists of teams of three, each trying to block the other team from getting the ball into their goal.
“The great thing about it is everyone’s blindfolded and the ball has a bell so you can hear it rolling towards you,” she said. “Everyone’s on an equal playing field.”
Before her accident, Brown loved to dance. But when she went to return to the studio after her accident, she was told she couldn’t do it. Brown has continued to dance on her own and has now been dancing for the past 10 years.
“I just want people to know that we can do everything that everyone else can do, we just might do it differently,” she said. “I think some big misconceptions are that because we’re visually impaired or because we’re blind we don’t do anything and we can’t do anything…we all can do something.”
After her accident, doctors had delivered the news to Brown’s parents that she would most likely be a vegetable for the rest of her life.
“The doctors came in and told my parents ‘She’ll never walk. She’ll never talk. She’ll sit in bed all day and that’s how you’ll have her,’” she said.
This was one of Brown’s driving forces when it came to her recovery and getting back into sports after her accident.
“I just want to prove to the doctors that I’m up doing sports and I’m up functioning in a normal world,” Brown said. “That’s my whole motivation to do all of this…is to break barriers and prove people wrong.”
Brown said this mentality extends beyond sports and the walls of TSB.
“Don’t say we can’t unless you’ve seen that we can’t do it,” Brown said. “We as a community, we try to break all the misconceptions and the roles that have been put on blind and visually impaired people…we will find a way. We’re very determined people to find a way to do something that completely sighted people can do.”
Right now, Brown’s main goals in life are to do a co-ed tandem run in track and to graduate college. She plans on attending Middle Tennessee State University where she wants to study special education. After getting her degree, Brown hopes to return to TSB to teach.
When she was in grade school, Michelle Losekamp tried her hand at basketball, softball and volleyball but found that team sports weren’t her strength. It wasn’t until she got to high school and tried out for the track team that she found her calling. Losekamp started off with sprinting and worked her way up to running the 1600-meter, which went on to become her favorite event.
Losekamp stopped running after high school and wouldn’t take it back up until later in life. She worked as a chemistry lab technician but decided to become a stay at home mom when her first daughter was born 22 years ago.
She attempted to get back in to running when her daughters were younger, she said it was difficult to find the time. While she didn’t participate in any type of traditional sport or exercise, Losekamp kept moving by gardening and completing renovations on her home.
It wasn’t until she was 40 years old that she returned to her old sport; health reasons and weight gain were her main concerns.
“Once I got past that initial ‘getting back into it’ period I just was feeling so good about myself. Mentally you feel so much better,” Losekamp said. “I had kind of forgotten over the years how much I loved it.”
Losekamp worked her way back into the world of running by training on her own and competing in both road and trail races.
“Just what I get out of running is motivation enough,” she said. “It’s just how good I feel both physically and mentally.”
Losekamp estimates she ran around 20 road races in her first couple of years back with distances ranging anywhere from 5 kilometers to 25 kilometers.
Now at age 46, she continues to run road races but has found a love for trail races because of the environment and unpredictable aspect of it.
“You get out on the trail and you don’t worry so much about pace. You just kinda deal with the terrain you have and enjoy it,” she said. “You have to really be present to roots and rocks and tree branches and everything else. It forces you to just really be in the moment…there’s something very relaxing about that.”
However, not everything about her return to the sport has been positive. Losekamp said there is a difference in the way men and women are treated in the running world. “Getting chicked,” she explained, is a term used when a woman passes a man while running.
“I’ve heard that both on the road and the trail,” she said. “And, a lot of guys, I think just think they’re joking. I think some guys even think it’s some sort of term of respect but I find that really offensive.”
Losekamp says she’s observed that men don’t seem to be bothered when they’re passed by other men while running, but take issue when it’s a woman.
“The idea that there’s a special word for when any woman passes them, as if just being a guy makes you inherently better than every woman out there,” Losekamp said. “I mean, it’s such a ridiculous notion.”
Losekamp recalled a specific race where she could see a male runner ahead of her walking with about a quarter mile left on the course. She said he was waving the male runners on but when she passed him, he did a double take and began sprinting.
“It didn’t bother you when guys passed you, but a woman passes you and that makes you run again?” she said. “I don’t know what to say to that other than to beat him.”
Despite his efforts, Losekamp won out in the end.
She even has her own way of supporting other female runners during her races. She typically tries not to pass other women on the course, instead she starts fast to get ahead. She said she doesn’t mind being passed by other women, though.
While she is disappointed with the way woman are sometimes treated in the running community, she isn’t surprised.
“There’s just kind of that undercurrent of sexism that, you know, is in every part of life I guess,” she said.
She said it creates another reason for her to be dedicated to running and push herself.
“Honestly that’s also a bit of motivation for me to keep physically fit – is to kind of push back on the notion that women are weak and need help,” she said.
Typically when people use the phrase “across the tracks” it’s hyperbole. In Bowling Green, Ky., however, there is a unique community of people just on the other side of the railroad tracks, or as Danny Carothers refers to it, the west side.
Carothers grew up in this area of Bowling Green. Until the time he was 18 he lived in what is now called the Housing Authority, although he knew it as “the projects.”
Despite running into trouble in his youth, Carothers turned his life around to give back to his community.
“I got caught up in a little trouble with the law,” he said. “I promised God if he gave me another chance that I would just volunteer and help kids as much as I can.”
He is now involved in a variety of programs on the west side, primarily mentoring the younger generation growing up in the under-privileged area.
“I just help where I’m needed,” he said. “They know me around the community as somebody who loves to deal with the kids.”
Carothers was one of the founding members of the Bowling Green Youth Flag Football League alongside Tyreon Clark. Now in its second season, the program has over 60 kids in attendance.
Each week boys and girls ranging in age from 4 to 12 years old gather in the field beside Parker Bennett Elementary to run through drills.
Many of the kids come from lower income families and qualify for the free lunch program but when they’re outside playing, it’s all about learning and having fun.
The program serves a dual purpose of providing a safer alternative to traditional American football while also giving mentors in the community an opportunity to have an impact on the children involved. While they run through typical football drills and practices, the coaches also incorporate life lessons and teach manners into their coaching.
“I’m a very giving person, I don’t want to see nobody mistreated, nobody hurt,” Carothers said. “That’s my goal, just to teach them how to get along with everybody.”
Carothers said he hopes the program also helps to keep the kids out of trouble.
“I just don’t want to see our kids fall by the wayside because it’s easy to do,” Carothers said.
Carothers also makes a point to stress the value of education to the kids he works with. Carothers dropped out of college, which he said was the worst thing he could have done. Whether they go on to college or a trade school, Carothers is proud of the kids that he works with.
A few of the student athletes he has coached have gone on to schools like Western Kentucky University, Austin Peay University, Liberty University of Virginia and Georgia Institute of Technology.
While he has kids of his own, Carothers continually hopes to serve as a guiding male figure in the lives of kids who may not have that at home.
“I just want to be able to stand in the gap for some of our kids that don’t have somebody there to, you know, make ‘em pay attention or make them wanna have friends of all races and nationalities and just treat people right,” he said.
When it comes down to it, it’s more about the relationships and community rather than the sports. In such a diverse area, closing the divide between people is one of Carother’s main goals.
“I just want the kids to learn how to get along with each other,” he said. “It don’t matter what color you are, don’t matter what background you come from.”
Carothers wants people to know that even though the people on the west side may have grown up in a different environment or live a different life than others are used to, they’re still like anybody else.
“You just have to get to know people on the west side,” he said. “We are different, no doubt, we’re very different kind of people but we’re great people. We’re some of the best people you could ever want to meet.”