Keenan Flynn wants to pump you up! At least, that's what I imagine him saying to me if we ever met. Keenan, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was 2 years old, is into fitness the way that I imagine a younger Arnold Schwarzenegger was into fitness. Listening to him talk about the role that exercise has played in his growth and development, both physically and emotionally, puts the general public's overall attitude toward fitness to shame.
From the time of his diagnosis to age 11, Keenan diligently followed the standard CF care and routine that were laid out for him by his care team. That kind of management helped to keep him healthy enough that CF didn't really affect him. But as he reached those pre-teen years, he became more aware of CF, its consequences and what it meant to be a person with CF.
Keenan felt that a lot of the messages associated with CF were too negative, and he felt like not much was expected from him. In particular, he was becoming acutely aware of the messages that he was receiving regarding his health. Even at such a young age, he was bothered by the overall lack of positive messaging surrounding exercise and nutrition for people with CF. He felt like he was treated like a china doll: too fragile and breakable. Keenan didn't want to accept that having CF meant being defined by negative measures: "'You're so thin. You're so sick.' I wanted to be an athlete and I didn't want the fact that I had CF to stand in the way of that.”
Growing up, many of Keenan's role models were professional athletes. By watching them, he concluded that athletes must have healthier lungs to be able to push their bodies to perform physically. It logically followed that exercising was how they got there. After getting the okay from his doctor, he began exercising … and it paid off. In high school, Keenan ended up playing on the football, lacrosse and basketball teams. Eventually, he settled on pursuing football and the 6' 4," 200-pound Keenan wound up playing football at Georgetown University. He initially started off as a wide receiver in high school, but at college, his coaches switched him to linebacker where he grew to 240 pounds. Today, at age 35, Keenan hasn't slowed down one bit. He participates in marathons, Tough Mudders, and does cross-fit and yoga several times a week.
Keenan credits a healthy mental attitude, and a non-acceptance of seemingly negative messages, for his physical development. He also credits his parents with initially helping him develop this attitude. “My parents didn't take on my disease as if it were their own when I was a child,” explains Keenan. “I wasn't treated differently than my brother."
The focus shouldn't be on being sick, Keenan notes, but rather on deciding to be healthy and believing that you can do more. When Keenan looks back on his teenage years, it still bothers him that he didn't receive that mental encouragement from his care team to be more physically active and expect more from himself. He had to figure it out on his own. “I don't think of it in terms of, 'it's harder to breathe with CF or it's harder to run with CF.' That's irrelevant because I don't know any better. Everyone has their own problems. This is simply my challenge,” said Keenan.
Keenan is ready to spread the message that everyone with CF should be encouraged to do the most they can do, the most their bodies will allow. In his pursuit of healthy lungs, Keenan has become what he had always dreamed of, an athlete with healthy lung function.