Australian Story: The fight for life

Photo by Barbara Oehring

Tommy Hopkins is a fighter. He fights for himself but mostly he fights for others.

With a background in martial arts, Tommy’s aim was to be a personal trainer and to run his own fitness centre. He achieved this in 2006 when he set up his gym, Fitlife. Little did he know then, where his goal might take him. Tommy is a boxer. He has seen many positive results from boxing. Physical strength, confidence, increased self-esteem, physical and mental well-being are just some. Boxing often develops toughness, discipline and patience. Some boxers overcome ego and attain humility. Others box to deal with pain, anxiety, disability or disease. For colleague and personal trainer, Jen French, ‘Boxing’s therapeutic.  It gives you power.’

‘Boxers are the fittest people on the planet,’ claims Tommy. ‘It’s a violent sport, but we take the violence out of it.’ One percent of people at Tommy’s gym fight in the ring. The others acquire their skills and fitness in non-contact boxing, by striking punching bags.

Tommy’s reputation has travelled fast and people from different backgrounds have approached him for training. There were young people wanting to learn how to defend themselves from bullies. ‘They don’t have to hurt anyone,’ says Tommy’s wife and personal trainer, Suzi. ‘They just need to know how to defend themselves.’ There were young kids in trouble with the police. They needed to find themselves and live a crime-free life. Young girls came to develop independence, confidence and self-safety. There were some struggling with Autism and others with Motor Neurone Disease and Multiple Sclerosis. Councils asked Tommy to run programs for seniors and for people with dementia. Tommy rose to the challenges, accepting all with his attitude, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’ The gym now has 150 to 200 people training regularly. Jen French, says, ‘The gym is unique. Tommy doesn’t hold anyone at arm’s length. He makes it easy for everyone. And people come for the special space. It’s like family.’

Photo by Barbara Oehring

Tommy has always adapted his training to suit each individual. To assist people with Parkinson’s Disease, he visited the USA and trained with Rock Steady Boxing, an organisation which aims to enhance the quality of life for people experiencing Parkinson’s Disease.  ‘People with Parkinson’s need rhythm and they need to move, to sing and to hit,’ claims Tommy. There are now 900 gyms around the world which follow the Rock Steady methods. Tommy’s gym, Fitlife, is the only accredited Rock Steady Boxing gym in Australia.  He’s also a provider for the National Insurance Disability Scheme (NDIS).

Eager to extend the experience of gym attendees, Tommy has organised trips to Thailand where participants undertook training in Muay Thai. With ‘normal’ boxing people use their fists. With Muay Thai they use not only their fists but their elbows, knees and shins. There were also boot camp experiences in Bali where there was no boxing but trekking, lifting, running and workouts with tyres. ‘Such experiences take fitness and confidence to a new level,’ says Tommy.

Tommy is keen to solve problems. For a young woman, unable to stand, he designed equipment enabling her to be upright as she trains. ‘Now she stands and we can meet, eye to eye,’ he says with much satisfaction.

A crucial component of the training is fun and laughter. Tommy’s quick wit frequently turns a participant’s fear to courage, their sadness to joy. Tommy’s trained top fighters for events like the Commonwealth Games. He loves training fighters in the ring.  But perhaps his greatest pleasure is training others – fighters whose opponent is disease or disability. He says he uses tough love. Others agree and add that beneath the tough love is the kindest heart.

Fitlife is located at 5/1154 Burwood Hwy, Upper Ferntree Gully.

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Teresa Cannon

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