An Epic Battle

289 wins. 29 losses.

Golden Gloves winner.

Goodwill Games contender.

Special Olympics coach.

Olympic hopeful.

Boxing was Tommy Gage’s life, and the world was his ring.

It wasn’t until several years later he would go head to head with his biggest contender.

It was a fight that would prove to be the most difficult of his career. The fight of his life.

Tommy’s love for boxing began when he was four.

Rain or shine, Tommy was in the gym training with his dad after school.

His determination to get in the ring was outstanding and by the time he graduated high school, he boasted more than 200 wins.

On fire with passion, he was offered a boxing scholarship by the United States Olympic Training Center (USAOTC) to Northern Michigan University.

He racked up numerous victories throughout his career and retired in 2012 with an incredible record of 289-29 and the hope to coach a new generation of kids wanting to box.

That same year, Tommy’s life took a drastic turn.

It was Christmas day and the door to Tommy’s bar, O’Malley’s Irish Pub, was open.

It was the way he liked it.

He didn’t want anyone to spend Christmas alone. No matter the holiday, you could count on a warm meal and good conversation at Tommy’s place.

His wife Janice was on her way to the bar when she got the call.

Tommy was on his way to the hospital. He’d had a stroke.

Doctors did what they could to control the bleeding, but it was in the area of the brain they couldn’t get to. The only option was to put him into a medically induced coma.

It was the most terrifying day of Janice’s life.

“I didn’t understand what the doctors were saying. They kept saying stroke and they kept saying coma, and they weren’t sure what was going to be the end result,” Janice said. “I thought I was going to lose him.”

Tommy woke 12 days later and was placed in rehabilitation.

For three months in the hospital, Tommy underwent physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy – just about anything and everything to help with his recovery process.

The stroke left Tommy paralyzed on one side and with a condition called aphasia that affects his ability to speak – one of the most frustrating parts of his injury.

To go from 90 miles an hour to 0 is difficult on anyone, especially for someone like Tommy. Tommy was used to being a fighter, a provider, the do-all. Now he had to accept help from others.

As with anyone who has had a stroke, it was apparent that Tommy would need follow-up care. And after Tommy’s rehabilitation, life became a question of now what? Tommy had completed rehab, his three-month stay in the hospital, what next?

Janice didn’t know where to turn to get the resources and additional help Tommy needed for a hopeful recovery.

She looked into several options like outpatient therapy, but it was far from where they lived. The more time that passed without a clear answer of where to go, the less optimistic they felt.

“It was hard because Tommy wanted to recover and knew he could,” Janice said. “It was about finding the right place to do that recovery – to get that help and continue to get into a routine.”

That right place was United Way-supported Paraquad.

A short drive from their home, Paraquad specializes in empowering people with disabilities, and helping them gain independence and a better quality of life.

Tommy and Janice took a tour and knew it was the place they had been searching for.

When the staff learned of Tommy’s desire for a quick recovery, they were honest with him: It would be a long process but a worthy one.

This gave Janice the optimism she was looking for and Tommy the drive and determination to give it his all.

Tommy received physical and speech therapy services through Paraquad’s Health and Wellness Program three times a week. With their help, Tommy expanded his capabilities and enhanced his limitations. It was no easy feat but progress came.

Soon, with many months of hard work and determination, Tommy was back on his feet.

And on Christmas, 3 years after his stroke, Tommy did what doctors thought would be impossible – he hugged Janice with both arms.

Janice says it was the best Christmas present she’s ever received.

A hug – such a small act – became a meaningful representation of how far Tommy had come and proves what a true fighter can do with the right type of assistance.

A true fighter is something Tommy’s always been. But this fight is different. This fight is out of the ring and bigger than any other he’s taken on. It’s the fight to get his life back. And it takes all the strength and motivation he can muster.

“I always had hope,” Janice said.

Now Tommy can get back to doing what Tommy does best – being himself.

He’s managing a bar, The Iowa Buffet, with Janice’s family, something he hadn’t been able to do in three years. He does most everything – cooks, cleans, stocks, bartends – just like he used to.

He’s constantly moving and that’s the way he likes it. It’s made a huge difference.

Tommy’s always run on determination and it’s never been truer than now.

He’s getting back into the swing of things. He’s working hard, recovering from the symptoms of stroke and is on the path of living his best possible life.

“It makes me feel good because he feels good,” Janice said. “It makes us both understand that the recovery is a process, but it’s definitely possible.”

After the stroke, doctors said that Tommy had one year to regain use of his legs and arms. Today, with the help of Paraquad, he’s still improving. He’s defied the odds and won the fight.

Going to the gym and working out as an athlete is one thing.

But going to a gym and knowing what to do to help your recovery process is not something most know how to do. It’s not something you easily learn and is nearly impossible to do on your own.

But having the right resources in place at places like Paraquad make a surmountable difference to those like Tommy.

While progress is slow, it’s being made, proving that nothing is impossible so long as you’re willing to fight for it. And Tommy is a pro at that.

“Boxing is easy. This is rough,” Tommy said.

But it’s something he’ll keep fighting for.

“It’s for her,” he continued. “It’s always for Janice.”

Watch Tommy's Story

About Paraquad

Paraquad empowers people with disabilities to increase their independence through choice and opportunity. They strive to be the leader in advancing independent living and envision an integrated community in which people with disabilities are valued and participate in all aspects of society. They have been a United Way funded agency since 1990.