CrossFit Games Athlete Rainer Hartmann Describes Battling Through ALS Diagnosis and New Life Outlook
Rainer Hartmann has an athletic career that spans decades: German National Bodybuilding Championships in the 80s and 90s, starting one of the first 100 CrossFit affiliates in 2007, and competing against Jason Khalipa and Josh Everett in the 2008 CrossFit Games. Athletics carried the now 60-year-old throughout life until a devastating diagnosis in 2021 turned his world upside-down.
Hartmann was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) a neurodegenerative disease that progressively shuts down nerve function throughout the entire body. The disease gained notoriety in 2014 for the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” which raised awareness and funds for the condition. There is currently no cure.
Hartmann: “You go in (and get diagnosed) and basically get a death sentence.”
The diagnosis process started for Hartmann in 2019 at the CrossFit Affiliate Summit in Canada. He did a workout that included a run around a lake, during which he experienced extreme pain in his shin, foot and knee. He had to walk back to the hotel by himself, which he says took hours. Hartmann had an emergency physician examine him at the gym, who thought it was a drop foot.
Back in Cincinnati, where Hartmann lived and owned his affiliate CrossFit Cincinnati until April 2021, doctors speculated the pain was due to scoliosis. Hartmann put off surgery because he didn’t want to lose mobility and the ability to exercise until October of 2021. At this point, Hartmann had lost significant weight and couldn’t squat his own body weight anymore without his knee collapsing.
In March of 2022, Hartmann’s doctor suggested a new diagnosis: ALS. This was confirmed in June of this year when the degeneration had spread past Hartmann’s leg.
Since his diagnosis, Hartmann’s life has changed drastically. He now uses a wheelchair and has had to stop “CrossFit style” workouts and instead does more traditional bodybuilding movements. He completed the Open in the Adaptive Division last year, did an “Adaptive Murph” for Memorial Day, and did 60 “Adaptive Burpees” for his birthday. He says it is frustrating to be so limited in his exercise, especially looking back to just a few years ago when he could deadlift 400 pounds. Even so, he tries to keep a positive outlook.
- “I can still get up every morning, I can still get around on my own, and I’m still able to work, so it could be worse,” Hartmann said.
Besides the physical changes the last year brought for Hartmann, he’s dealt with lots of emotions that come with a life-changing diagnosis. Chiefly among them, he’s adjusting to not moving all day long. A lifelong exerciser, Hartmann says he’s never been one for rest days and it’s difficult not having a fun distraction.
Also, Hartmann has dealt with questions of “why” since his diagnosis. The cause of ALS is not known and it affects healthy, active people just as much as other groups. He says this has taught him to “take nothing for granted,” something he wishes he could tell a younger version of himself.
There have been some bright spots in this tumultuous time in Hartmann’s life, though. Local gyms have held competitions fundraising for ALS, and Hartmann has met peers with similar diagnoses through the internet.
Rogue and Caity Henninger have also played a role in Hartmann’s life the past few months. He was originally signed up to be a volunteer at the Rogue Invitational in 2021 but had to back out due to his health issues. The competition’s directors and Henninger were extremely accommodating according to Hartmann, providing him with tickets, Uber rides to and from the competition each day, and making sure he was taken care of during the competition.
Though Hartmann struggles to stay positive amidst his condition and the hardships it brings, he says the support from the fitness community and beyond helps him through tough days.
Hartmann: “It’s good to know that people will watch out for me.”