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To hell and back

After battling back from cancer, A Millard man wants to share what he's learned with others

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published March 22, 2007, 4:21 p.m.)

Readers of The Week first met Dave Tollkuhn, of Millard, in the spring of 2001 while he was battling cancer.

Writer Dale Reich described him as a pessimistic loner whose life had taken some hard knocks that left him resentful and reserved.

But through illness he was beginning to see another, brighter side of life shown to him through the good in people and the importance of family and friends.

We visited Tollkuhn again recently and were met with a very different man than the one described back then.

He now has completely kicked cancer’s butt and is the picture of health. His easy smile is warm and bright and his eyes are full of life and passion.

To see him it’s truly hard to believe that not long ago he was seriously questioning if he had the strength to live through another day of the two years of chemotherapy he endured.

And now he wants to share what he’s learned with anyone who feels his lessons could help them. The most important of those lessons—take care of your body and it will take care of you.

Before being diagnosed with leukemia in January 2000, Tollkuhn was a woodworker by trade and a sponsored runner and triathlete by choice. He earned his bachelor’s as a physical education instructor and master’s in physiology, making fitness his true purpose.

“I was a triathlete for 25 years and a trainer for over 30,” he said. “My whole life was fitness, training myself and training others.”

Then in 1999 he started feeling weird, bruising easily and feeling tired. The fatigue became so intense that he could no longer ignore it. After a few blood tests, the word cancer knocked the word fitness out of his life—or so he thought.

In a somewhat strange way, he proudly shows photos of himself in those sickest of months—strange because they’re not pretty pictures. He does it not for the pity affect, but for the amazingly stark comparison affect.

The “during” photos show a gaunt, pale hunched man with a caved-in chest, stick-thin legs and bloated face and abdomen.

In the “after” photos his face alone is totally different. There is life in his eyes and a wide smile on his face. His chest is picture-perfect and his abdomen is no longer bloated but rather the six-pack abs that many feel is unachievable.

Seven long years later cancer is still a word that Tollkuhn uses to describe his life; but fitness is again a In fact, two years ago he once again achieved world-class triathlete status with the help of dear friend Julie Thorburn.

“I’m proud of the fact that at the age of 48 I placed in the top 100 out of 5,000 of world’s top athletes at Chicago Triathalon,” he said, eyes twinkling. “I’m proud that I competed not only in my age group, but I’m more proud of the fact that I finished in the top 100 of 5,000 of the world’s top athletes.”

Now Tollkuhn wants to share what he knows is true with anyone who wants to learn.

“You have to look down the road with some foresight,” he explains. “If I wasn’t as fit going into this, there’s no way I would be alive now.

“That’s what I’m passionate about with my clients—we have this gift of movement; don’t let it get taken away.”

To spread his message, he has operated the Shadowlawn Gym on Mound Road in Delavan for the past year. He sees several clients a day from all stages of the fitness spectrum trying to help them help themselves before, during or after something happens to take away their gift of movement.

“I’ve had a sneak preview and when you have that taken away from you,” his voice and eyes trail off. The rest of the sentence isn’t necessary.

The building also houses Shadowlawn Pottery and was once a school. Most of Tollkuhn’s gym hasn’t changed one iota since those days when kids played kickball under its roof.

There is no heat. The walls are aquamarine. Ropes hang from the ceiling and cages cover. The clock that no longer works. But weight-lifting and exercise equipment now fill the gym floor.

“I call it Dave’s meat locker because it’s cold,” he laughs. A few space heaters dot the gym, but it is chilly. “I don’t want to change a thing. It’s less than an ideal place on purpose to toughen people up because this can happen to everyone sooner or later whether it’s age, surgery, cancer, an accident or the inevitable getting old.”

In warmer months he takes his clients off-site to take advantage of the many fitness opportunities around our area.

“If you’re feeling bad now, say your back or your knees bother you, what’s going to happen later? It’s a slow erosion process. But it’s 100 percent reversible. Yeah, we’re all going to die, but why be miserable at the end?

“I try to inspire clients to be the most they can be. But people are fearful of trying to turn back the aging process or reestablish a certain amount of childlike nature.”

It’s the fear that holds so many people back, he says. Fear of failure, fear of pain and fear of the unknown are most people’s biggest obstacles.

“Our brains lie to us and our bodies are kind of like traitors; they don’t always have our best interest in mind. Our egos tell us we’re too tired at the end of the day to do anything.

“But I can take you for a run/walk and in 10 minutes you’ll feel that surge. That’s that fear thing. But if you force yourself out the door and just do it, it will happen every single time.

“Don’t listen to your mind lie to you. If you do day after day after month after year, before you know it, it’s gone.”

Frustration plays a big role in why people give up too, Tollkuhn says.

“They’ve been told that they can accomplish (fitness) the fast and easy way. They show up and use the equipment and expect, ‘voila.’

“They give it the good ol’ college try, then they quit. Rather, this is one of the hardest things they’re going to do, but it’s worth it.”

Tollkuhn worked for two years after his illness before his body began to react to all of the hard work he was putting into it. Much of that is attributable to the disease and chemotherapy, but few know as well as him that if you keep at it, it will happen.

“I have less of a tendency to sugarcoat things because of what I’ve been through, but I’m no boot camp sergeant either.

“I’ve been through hell and back. I’m 50 years old and I try to convince them they can do this too.”

It’s easy to believe Tollkuhn when he speaks because it’s evident that he knows what he’s talking about. Add that to the passion he has for what he’s saying and coming home to the easy chair and remote control feels like a Class A felony.

His system is to start slow and tackle that inherent fear—that naughty voice in our heads that tells us we’re too tired—and see where he can take it.

Tollkuhn encourages anyone who is interested in discussing fitness, cancer, rehabilitation from trauma—either emotional or physical—or anyone interested in personal training to contact him at 745-1182.

“I just enjoy showing people what they can do,” he said. “It’s very satisfying. I want people to discover what I have discovered.

“I lost my physicality and spent two years in bed. If I had not been as fit as I was going into this, I would have croaked.”

Tollkuhn is far from the man we met six years ago. His health is back 100 percent, and granted he’s still a bit introverted and not emceeing karaoke nights, but his inspiring pull to reach out and help people learn what he’s learned is something to be admired.


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