In relentless pursuit,
The first e-mail replies arrived within minutes. They would be followed, in the days to come, by a flood of phone calls, letters and visits. Powell heard from old teammates, college coaches, former and current wrestlers and their parents. "I know that you have the will to get past this sickness," wrote Jonah Galaz-Englebert, a 2006 OPRF graduate. "No other outcome is possible because you are far too strong and great of a human being to not triumph over this, and too many people need you."
Another former wrestler, Peter Lovaas, wrote, "I just want you to know that you have changed my life for the better, and ... maybe one day I will be able to do for someone what you have done for me."
The response buoyed Powell. Yet when parents asked if they could hire him a dog walker or get his meals delivered or pitch in for a housekeeper, Powell said no. When Fred Arkin, whom Powell had coaxed out of retirement to be his freshman coach, tried to relieve him of the more tedious duties—the paperwork and phone calls—Powell refused. This is the stuff that keeps me going, he said. But what he meant was: I'm going to beat this thing by myself.
He came up with a motto: Winning. He talked about trying to "win every day." He read self-help books. He swallowed 28 pills a day, cycling through the medications that would sustain him over the following months: Prograf, methotrexate, an immunoglobin called IVIG, a B-cell blocker called Rituxan. He created the ultimate anti-inflammatory diet. Breakfast became egg whites with tons of garlic, served with spinach salsa and avocado; dinner was kale and grass-fed beef. He cut out salt, drank gallons of green tea. He bought an organic 70% cacao bar and promised himself he could eat the first half when his CPK got down to 5,000 and the rest when it dropped to 2,500.
And yet his body didn't respond. For Powell, a CPK of 200 feels like having just finished a three-mile run; 600 is like walking around with a bad flu. Powell's remained in five figures. In the first month he lost 40 pounds. His collarbone jutted out, his skin yellowed from the meds. He couldn't hold a push-up position, let alone do a push-up, and needed a cane to walk (though, true to form, he used a sword cane). He couldn't walk his dogs across the street without fearing that his bowels would betray him. Sammy Brooks went with him to Costco to push his cart. Junior wrestler Sam Koenigsberg had to help Powell up and down the stairs.
No matter how bad it got, though, Powell never missed a wrestling practice. He might need to stay seated, he might fall down in front of the boys, but he was not going to stop coaching. At one clinic he felt so weak that he pulled aside the Dardanes twins and Brooks and told them to call an ambulance if he collapsed.
In May 2009, Powell was called to the dais at the Illinois wrestlers' and officials' banquet to receive the award for Class 3A coach of the year. He struggled to get up, then hobbled to the stage on his cane "looking like a 94-year-old man," as Arkin remembers it. Coaches from around the state watched, stunned. Was that spindly figure really the same Mike Powell they'd seen roaring and hopping around six weeks earlier?
Then, one afternoon in early July, Powell felt a tiny bit better. His CPK numbers, which had been slowly dropping due to the medications, began to plummet. That's when he knew: He was going to beat polymyositis. It was happening too. By August, when Mike and Elizabeth got married, his CPK was down to 210. In October it dipped under 200. He felt and looked almost normal. By mid-October he was able to do seven pull-ups, 17 dips and 24 push-ups, numbers he tracked obsessively. He set a goal of winning a practice match by Christmas against Brooks, now a star sophomore drawing interest from top colleges. He began demonstrating technique again, doing light cardio and going through drills. His wife, friends and family counseled him to slow down. Are you doing too much with wrestling? they asked. Of course not, he said. Wrestling is what's curing me.