CrossFit Helps Adaptive Athlete Battle Rare, Incurable Genetic Disease

December 15, 2020 by
Photo credit: Joey Mullany, (
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Joey Mullaney is not your average 25-year-old. He’s earned two degrees, is a motivational speaker, and in less than a year from now, he will become a published author. What’s more, is that he has done all of this with a rare degenerative muscular disorder known as Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA). Found in .002% of the population, this rare genetic disease is incurable and causes progressive loss of mobility, coordination, vision, as well as heart issues. Despite all this, every week, you’ll find Mullaney religiously crushing workouts and getting stronger to combat his disease.

The big picture: When the progression of his symptoms became more significant at age 18, Mullaney knew he had to do something to help delay them. When doctors recommended that he start working out to keep his muscles strong and active, he turned to the gym.

  • In high school, he began working out in a standard gym. “I was only doing beach body, weightlifting workouts trying to impress girls,” he said.
  • “Because of my disease, every doctor who specializes in FA tells you that if you don’t use your muscles, you lose them,” Mullaney continued. “That got drilled into me when I was in high school,” he added.
  • “When I got to college and started using a motorized scooter, I noticed I was getting weaker,” Mullaney said.
  • “That summer after my freshman year, I knew I needed to find a trainer or gym,” he said.
  • “I followed my mom who is a pretty big CrossFitter. I followed her to CrossFit EXP and I was set up with Nick Normandin,” he finished.

After arriving at EXP, Mullaney began working with Normandin to adapt CrossFit for his abilities.

Changing perspectives: When he first started, Joey wasn’t head over heels for the sport of fitness. Within the first two weeks, he wanted to quit.

  • “I hated CrossFit because it was hard,” he said.
  • “I wanted to quit after two weeks, but fortunately for me, I found inspiration in people like Steph Hammerman, Kevin Ogar, and Alec Zirkenbach,” he continued.
  • “I found Wheelwod through them and saw how much they were doing,” Mullaney said.
  • “Especially Steph Hammerman stuck out to me because she’s a cancer survivor and has cerebral palsy. I just saw how much CrossFit was doing for her and how positive it was for her,” he elaborated.
  • “Thank God I stuck with it because it’s really prolonged the progression of my disease,” he added.
  • “Immediately, it just helped with energy and my muscles,” he concluded.

Putting his fitness to use: Since starting CrossFit seven years ago, Mullaney has used the sport of fitness to keep himself strong and active so he could continue to do the things he loved.

  • Since starting CrossFit, Joey has earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. He has also begun working on his memoir, which will be published in the fall of 2021.
  • “I’ve been working on it forever and I got sick of just talking about it,” Mullaney said.
  • The book will primarily focus on his life with Friederich’s Ataxia, as well as how he’s managed to overcome it.
  • “I talk a good amount about CrossFit, working out and that journey,” he added.
  • His book also focuses on the idea of “partnering with time,” and making the most out of the limited time we all have.
  • It is this theme that has driven him to push himself and to continue pursuing CrossFit as a way to delay the progression of his disease and make the most of the time he has.
  • From everything he has done, it is clear that Mullaney has taken the past 7 years to live a rich and meaningful life that will inspire others to do the same.

What’s next? For Mullaney, his memoir is just the start. Moving forward, he hopes to start a non-profit organization to help give adaptive athletes similar opportunities that he had in fitness.

  • “I understand that cost is a prohibitive factor for many in CrossFit,” he said.
  • Mullaney understands the positive impact that CrossFit has had for him in delaying the progression of his disease and hopes it can have similar impacts on athletes like him.
  • “I want to get adaptive athletes who need exercise to get into CrossFit,” he said.
  • While insurance covers things like physical therapy for adaptive athletes, it does not cover the cost of gym memberships, which can be extremely beneficial to athletes like Joey in helping to improve their condition. 

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