Valerie Zilinski was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2018. Now she teaches Strong and Steady Fitness at Transcend Fitness in Terrace. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)

Skeena Voices | Former fighter goes toe to toe with Parkinson’s

Valerie Zilinski runs Strong and Steady Fitness classes for people living with Parkinson’s

Valerie Zilinski is a fighter.

Her kickboxing career ended nearly two decades ago, but since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2018, she’s been fighting to improve the lives and mobility of people in Terrace.

Originally from North Vancouver, the 57-year-old mother of three landed in Terrace in 1990 after a brief stint in Prince George.

“I drove in over the old bridge and I was like ‘where am I? What have you done, why am I here?’” she said.

“It’s just such a small place considering I grew up in North Vancouver, but I loved raising my kids here, I loved the outdoors, it’s beautiful and away from the rat race of the city so this is where I stayed.”

Fitness has been a pillar of Zilinski’s life. Her kids say she is addicted to it — she does two or three fitness classes a day, plus a hike or walk. As a child she enjoyed gymnastics, skiing and track, but had the most success in combat sports much later in life.

“I put my son in karate and then I sat and watched him a couple times and I’m like ‘oh jeez that kinda looks like fun.’”

She attended a fitness class run by her son’s karate teacher. He recognized her as a natural athlete and encouraged her to try kickboxing. Zilinski’s quickness and fitness earned her qualification first in B.C., then in Ottawa at nationals where, despite being in her late 30s, she won a spot on the national team.

Competing in the 50 kilogram weight class, Zilinski found herself fighting much younger women in B.C. and the United States. During provincial competitions in Vancouver she had to fight 18 and 19-year-olds, but was successful anyways.

Sometimes, fights had an age limit but no weight class, which created some difficult matchups.

“You are just fighting anybody over 35, so at one point down in the States I was fighting a woman, she was probably 280 pounds, and she flattened me,” she said.

“I was so nervous fighting her because I didn’t know how to fight her, because I was used to somebody moving around, she just came at me.”

Despite being lighter, smaller and having a shorter reach than some other kickboxers, Zilinski’s success punched her a ticket to Ireland to fight in the 2003 world championship with Canada’s national team. Unlike in some higher profile sports, she paid for all her own travel and even footed the bill for her Team Canada uniform.

“I don’t really look at Ireland with fond memories because it was just a very stressful time to be away from home, to be away from my kids, to be fighting and I got beat up pretty badly in Ireland, like I got my bell rung for sure.”

Zilinski thinks she suffered a concussion in Ireland, so when she returned home, she made the decision to hang up her gloves as a competitor and focus on teaching kickboxing fitness classes three times a week at the arena. She loved seeing people reach their fitness goals, but after several years decided to step away because she had been doing it for a long time.

But in 2018, everything changed.

First, she started noticing some shoulder issues and tremors in her hand. Her doctor suggested she had some neurological damage in her shoulder. The problem continued to progress for around two years and many visits to the doctor.

Zilinski’s brother has Parkinson’s disease, an incurable progressive nervous system disorder, and although Parkinson’s is not hereditary, she started to suspect she had it too, and got an appointment with a neurologist visiting Terrace.

“She did about six or seven tests, verbal tests, physical tests like having to move my feet in a certain way, my hands in a certain way. And she just looked at me and said ‘you have Parkinson’s, here’s your prescription, see you later’… just like that.”

“[I was] devastated. Yeah I was pretty upset but I was by myself, my husband was out of town,” she said.

“I felt sorry for myself for several days and I had to tell my family and tell my kids, and because I have a brother that already has it they already know what it looks like and I was pretty upset for a while, and my [family] doctor was shocked.”

It was time to dust off the old gloves.

Zilinski heard about Rock Steady Boxing, a fitness curriculum for people living with Parkinson’s disease that focuses on balance, mobility, strength and rhythm.

“I can either sit and have a pity party for myself or I can do something to help myself and help others because I’ve always liked helping other people,” she said.

“There’s no cure for Parkinson’s but they’ve shown that working out definitely delays the progression of it.”

After completing an online course, she flew to Denver, Colo. to become certified as a Rock Steady instructor and bring the fight against Parkinson’s disease to Terrace. Transcend Fitness offered her the equipment, time and space to run her class, which takes place Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

These days, her class is called Strong and Steady Fitness because Rock Steady Boxing charges an annual fee of $850USD to use the name, and she does not want to pass any extra costs down to her clients.

“The classes really make a difference, they help a lot of people, I have a couple people that have been going for a year and they’ve maintained, they haven’t progressed any, they’ve got a lot more mobility, they are a lot stronger, they’re happier.”

Zilinski said she is self-conscious about the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease which can include tremors, stiffness and difficulty moving.

“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, it’s okay, everybody is going to deal with something in their life, this was my row to hoe.”

Around 13,000 people live with Parkinson’s disease in B.C. and many don’t want others to see the symptoms, so it’s easy to become reclusive. Zilinski is starting a support group so others don’t feel like they are “on an island” or have to shoulder the weight themselves.

“I’m trying to get more people in Terrace to do [the classes] because I know at least six people with Parkinson’s, just that I know,” she said.

“If I can help one person navigate this disease then that’s a good thing, even if it was one person that I changed the trajectory of where their Parkinson’s was going because it’s not a fun thing to have, but it’s livable.”

Parkinson’s disease progresses differently in each person, but one possible symptom is high-stepping while walking. Zilinski said one man in her class was able to reteach himself to walk properly using poles and music with the right beat for his step.

Last week, she participated in her second Parkinson SuperWalk. In 2019 she walked in Vancouver, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic she took to the streets of Terrace with friends and family this year, raising nearly $3,500 and earning the badge of SuperStar Supreme Fundraiser from the Parkinson Society of British Columbia.

“I just try to enjoy my life because this day is the best day I’m going to have, everyday that I have a good day is the best day.”

“I try to go in with that mindset and so if I can help people doing my fitness classes, if I can help them have more better days and maintain their mobility and independence, what better thing can there be.”

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