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    Lead from the Front: Veteran Chris Kaag helps others achieve through Corps Fitness and I.M. Able Foundation



    Story by 1st Lt. Hutton Jackson 

    326th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

    “I make sure that people who attend [Corps Fitness] don't make excuses. Because the Marine Corps doesn’t allow you to make excuses.”

    When you step into Corps Fitness, a cross fit gym located in Wyomissing, Pa., it is easy to recognize the Marine Corps’ influence. From the use of the word “corps” in the gym’s name to the military memorabilia adorning the walls, it’s clear that Corps Fitness owner Chris Kaag’s service in the Marine Corps has formed a basis for his business and how he trains the individuals who frequent his gym.

    Yet the Marine Corps’ impact on Kaag extends beyond the name and aesthetic of his gym. It’s what shaped him into the person he is today, and as Kaag states, is what ultimately saved his life.

    “The Marine Corps has definitely been a big influence on the way that I'm able to do things and now with Corps Fitness. The Marine Corps is what saved my life,” Kaag stated. “I still have a very strong connection and friendship with my drill instructor. The Marine Corps teaches you how to not make excuses and instead improvise, adapt, overcome and move on. I didn't get a chance to be a drill instructor. But now I get a chance to wear people out and it's awesome.”

    Kaag has never let excuses prevent him from accomplishing his goals, and hates when people let excuses get in the way of achievement. It would have been easy for Kaag to make excuses when doctors diagnosed him with a disease known as adrenomyeloneuropathy, a rare genetic disease that affects the nerve cells in the spine and eventually caused Kaag to lose the ability to walk. Kaag, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four and a half years, would have his career cut short and eventually be confined to a wheelchair. Yet, Kaag didn’t let his new disability hold him back and turned to his love of fitness to cope.

    “After I graduated from Penn State, I realized I didn't like the office world. I started doing some fitness classes at a gym I worked at and realized that I could turn it into a business."

    Kaag started teaching classes out of the back of his truck in 2004. His goal: motivate and inspire people, just like the Marine Corps had motivated and inspired him. Now, 16 years later, Kaag continues to motivate people not only through Corps Fitness, but through his foundation, I.M. Able, that works with individuals like himself that require adaptive fitness equipment.

    “There's a lot of people who doubt themselves; they doubt their abilities, and we get them in here and we redefine what they're able to accomplish.”

    Kaag first developed the idea to start the I.M. Able foundation after visiting a children's hospital in Baltimore, Md.

    “Here I am, a 21-year-old still walking at the time, in a hospital and you see kids on breathing and feeding tubes, confined to wheelchairs, confined to beds and that really made an impact on me.”

    After seeing the needs of so many disabled youth, Kaag decided to start I.M. Able in 2007 in order to provide adaptive equipment to those in need. The foundation started off by providing hand cycles which Kaag says can cost anywhere between $2,000 to $10,000. The foundation eventually expanded to providing more equipment such as mountain bikes and adaptive skis.

    “It's the best time to be disabled right now, because there are so many opportunities to get out and be active,” Kaag said. “You just have to know somebody who can show you how to use the equipment and that's why I'm proud of our facility. We have around 20 pieces of adaptive equipment that we give to people to let them try it out to see if that's something that they want to try.”

    For Kaag, being able to impart his love of fitness and provide other disabled individuals with the equipment necessary has been rewarding.
    “Over the course of these past 16 years, there's been a lot of stories and it's amazing because we provide that motivation and that encouragement for anybody,” Kaag said. “I want to be able to provide resources and take those obstacles out of their way. I just want to motivate people like me and reassure them that they can live a very fulfilling, happy life, despite their challenges.”

    One of the lives that Kaag has impacted is Beth Kase, a triple amputee who now teaches classes at Corps Fitness and is a board member of the I.M. Able Foundation.

    “Beth has no hands, no foot and part of a leg missing. She comes in here and she kills it five, six days a week. It's amazing to see what she can do,” Kaag said.

    Kase lost both her hands, one of her legs and part of her remaining foot due to complications from strep throat, pneumonia and the flu in 2015. 10 months into her recovery, Kase visited Corps Fitness and met Kaag.
    “I saw Chris as somebody who knew what was going on. He's fully aware of the different issues that people have and the different needs that they have,” Kase said. “When I come here, it's like family.”

    Several months later, Kase applied for a grant for a bike.

    “I got into racing and it put the wind in my hair. It made me want to get back into things.”

    Kase began competing in more races and then started volunteering with the I.M. Able Foundation.

    “It was a recovery process. It was... it was a journey because I couldn't do everything initially, it took a lot to get stronger,” Kase said. “I.M. Able offered inclusive fitness where they had an occupational therapist and I began coming to bi-weekly sessions, and I began getting stronger.”

    After six months, Kase told Kaag that she wanted to finally “play with the big boys.” She wanted to do CrossFit.

    The Corps Fitness trainers adapted the workouts for Kase and a prosthetics company started developing devices for her arms so she could use the equipment necessary. After going through five different iterations, Kase finally settled on a pair of hooks that allowed her to lift up to 500 pounds.

    “I've really learned how to overcome adversity,” Kase said. “I show people my hooks, I explain how I started and how it progressed. It doesn't happen overnight. It took me a long time.”

    Now Kase not only participates in CrossFit workouts at Corps Fitness, but also leads many of them. She also volunteers and helps others with disabilities who are rehabilitating.

    “The I.M. Able Foundation allowed me to come in as a disabled individual who wasn’t working and couldn’t afford it,” Kase said. “Because the foundation helped me, I wanted to give back to the foundation. As a volunteer, I meet other amputees and challenged individuals and then I get to share with them what I do here. If I get one person to come here, I’ve touched a life, just the way my life was touched.”

    Kase’s story is just one of the many lives that Kaag and his foundation have impacted. When Kaag is not in the gym motivating others, he can usually be found pushing himself physically, often going mountain biking with a handcycle.

    “Every time I talk to people, I let them know that you may see a guy in a chair, but I'm the happiest guy you're going meet. I have very fulfilling life. And while I don't have the Marine Corps uniform anymore, I still am a Marine. I still am serving. I still dedicate my life to helping as many people as I can.”

    Kaag said he doesn’t intend on ever retiring and is continuously thinking of new ways of helping others. He recently started an initiative called Operation Lead from the Front, which pairs veterans suffering from PTSD with youth who have physical disabilities.

    “There are a lot of veterans that are coming back, some have PTSD, some have problems getting back into the civilian world. Well, now I team them up with our adaptive youth.”

    Kaag recounted how he paired a Marine who had been battling PTSD for about four or five years with a young man who wanted to be in the military but couldn’t because he had cerebral palsy and needed to use a walker.

    “I told the Marine, ‘it’s your responsibility to train him, get it done.’ Later, I get a text from the Marine and he said ‘that kid just saved my life,” Kaag recounted. “It’s win-win, because now the kid is able to be active and work with a Marine and at the same time the Marine has a new mission and can have a new sense of fulfillment.”

    Kaag considers himself lucky to be able to understand the needs of the many different individuals that come to his gym.

    “It's been great to have both I.M. Able and Corps Fitness together. Sometimes these gyms really don't know how to accommodate those with adaptive needs,” Kaag said. “I get so excited when I see somebody who comes in here who may have an adaptive need because I know we will figure out how to get them as active as possible.”

    “We see the benefits that people can attain from being dedicated to improving themselves. And that's exactly what we want to do. We want to provide that motivation and camaraderie to make sure that everybody knows they're a part of something special.”



    Date Taken: 09.30.2020
    Date Posted: 09.30.2020 17:28
    Story ID: 379924
    Location: WYOMISSING, PA, US 

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