For different people at different times, rock bottom can look a lot different.
For Sang Lee, it was a kidney specialist showing him exactly what his future looked like. Living with diabetes for approximately 16 years with a liver and kidneys that were gradually deteriorating, the specialist had one piece of advice
“He basically said something has to change otherwise you’re going on a dialysis machine,” Lee remembers. “It was very sobering. He actually showed me people on the dialysis machine and it didn’t look like it was much fun at all so it was a wake up moment, like ‘crap, I don’t want to be here.’”
Sang can recite the date of his visit to the specialist faster than you can even ask it. It was December 6, 2017. Since then, he’s lost 122 pounds and has been taken off his medications for type two diabetes, sending his initial disease diagnosis to a standstill according to his Certified Diabetes Educator, Megan Tromposch.
It’s a transformation that’s been less than a year in the making despite starting out his life as an active athlete, pushing the boundaries of his physical capabilities while growing up. Over the years, that background got lost as he pushed harder for professional achievement in his career.
“My goal at the time was more money, better positions, more promotions–that was my goal at the time. The health thing really took a back seat. You go to work in the morning and there’s all these donuts and danishes and all that stuff. You’re hungry so you just stuff your face,” Sang said. “25 years of working at a corporate job, eating crap all the time, it’s hard.”
By 31, his approach to nutrition and a sedentary lifestyle caught up to him and he was diagnosed with type two diabetes. While it may be a diagnosis many fear of hearing about, it wasn’t one that phased Sang in the way he went about his life on a day to day basis.
“It didn’t scare me at all,” Sang said. “Nothing for me until 10 years later. When I get tingles in my feet, things happen, but for the first 10 years, nothing changed.”
Over time though, more and more of those symptoms began to surface. As he continued to go see his doctor for check-ups, he noticed his kidney and liver function continued to decline to the point where he says he was getting just 20 percent of his full kidney function while on medications that cost him approximately $1400 per month just to be functioning normally.
As he inched towards his top weight of 352 pounds, at no point did he think his initial diagnosis could be reversed or improved.
“I thought that was it, once you got it, you got it. No doctor ever said you could reverse it, they always just said it’s a lifetime disease, it’s genetics so it’s not your fault per se and that’s all there is to it.”
Over time, he began doing research online looking into whether reversing his disease was possible. At the same time, he noticed an ad for CrossFit Moirai on Facebook, a CrossFit gym in Chestermere, Alberta, advertising a free consultation and trial class.
Upon meeting him for his consultation, owner Carey Swift took him through the traditional protocol–going through his medical history and plan for the trial workout–while laying out a scaled version of the warm-up to complete. Only part way through, Sang couldn’t complete the warm-up of 250 metres of rowing with some modified squats to a bench and told Swift he was done for the day.
“He obviously didn’t seem very happy after ending the short workout, and I assumed he was totally done with the idea of CrossFit and wouldn’t want to come back,” Swift said. “I gently discussed our upcoming 6-Week Challenge and told him I’d email him the registration link. To my surprise and excitement, he said ‘well, I need to do this….and I’m here right now…so can I just sign up now?’”
Weeks later, Sang still remembers his first class with coach Megan Brown today. He laughs at his inability to complete basic movements such as burpees or rowing without failure compared to his powers today.
“Honestly, I was worried about Sang in his first class of the challenge. Part way in, he lost all colour in his face, and had to stop,” Brown said. “My biggest worry was that he would give up before he ever really started.”
Instead, Sang got up and kept going. Through the challenge and his approach of eliminating processed carbohydrates in his diet, Sang started to watch the pounds fall off on the scale while watching his A1C–one of the key measures used to issue the diagnosis of diabetes–decline. Even after the 6-week challenge was over, Sang continued on his journey.
Many times he brought coaches and peers inside the walls of Moirai to either tears of joy or inspiration along his journey. For Brown, there’s still one memory that is clear for her today.
“That’s the morning Sang told me that he saw his doctor and was now off most of his medications and his diabetes was gone,” she said. “I was speechless and I just hugged him and tried everything in my power not to ugly cry. I was and am still so proud of him.
“It was liberating,” Sang said of his reversed diagnosis. To be considered diabetic, a patient has to exhibit a A1C value of over 7 per cent and when Sang initially began working with Tromposch, his stood at 9 per cent. Nearly a year into his journey, his A1C sits at 6.0 per cent–a value manifesting insulin resistance sure, but not one most would consider diabetic in and of itself.
“I’ve heard from other people that it can be done. I was going through a lot of forums and talking to other healthcare people, not just doctors and they were like ‘it can be done, it can be done,’ so it’s just nice to prove the doctors wrong. That was one of my goals.”
Despite the long road of doctor visits and degradation of his health over more than a decade, Sang said he really needed to hit his own rock bottom before making the changes to his lifestyle required to make him the man he is today. A lot of that involved changing his life at CrossFit Moirai, he says.
“My biggest thing about Moirai that I feel the most is working out without fear. Before I came to Moirai I was thinking about just going to a regular gym and whenever you go into a regular gym there’s always judgy eyes, like you’re not doing that right or whatever,” he said. “To me that’s huge, I don’t have to be stuck in the fat kid group.”
Sang said that if it came to him having to take the onus and workout on his own at a conventional gym, he would have long given up on his transformation by now. His time at Moirai has meant so much to him, he said he plans on one day getting the Moirai logo tattooed on his arm.
“To me it [the logo] means everyday just keep on going forward.”
“Sang has been a quiet inspiration for everyone around him: our gym members, his friends, and his family,” Swift says of Sang’s story. “It’s easy to miss his progress when you see him every day…but then you think back to that very first workout when he couldn’t even get through the warm up….to seeing him complete Rocky Mountain Crusher (a friendly CrossFit competition with five workouts and 5 km of trail running mixed in) alongside his teenage son…that’s a huge accomplishment.”
Less than a year into his journey, Sang knows the journey isn’t over. He’s happy he can ski and enjoy life with his wife and two kids while enjoying the occasional piece of pizza without shooting himself up with insulin.
The journey has been an uneven one, but would he change it if he could?
“Here’s the problem, even if I could do a time machine and go back to my 31-year-old self, I don’t think I would have listened at that time,” he said.
“I think people need to experience it for themselves. Even now I talk to people who ask how you did it and I start talking about how you have to workout, you have to go to CrossFit, and then you see their eyes glaze over and you can tell right away, okay they’re not interested, they’re not ready yet.
“I say when you’re ready come talk to me and I’ll share my story with you.”