Strength Building

Photography by Brianna Stello

By Shelley Hill Young

Ryan Becknell is a surfer and a guitar player. He’s worked as a personal trainer for more than 10 years and talks passionately about the capabilities of the human body: Walter Payton’s precision, a client’s endurance during a grueling car race, a professional surfer’s courage on an epic wave and a female client’s strength in a push-up competition.

He talks knowledgeably about the ingredients of the kombucha he’s drinking and doesn’t judge because I’m gulping down an oversized mug of eggnog latte.

“I love the aesthetic and physical capabilities of the human body,” the Charleston native says. “That’s it.”

Ryan believes in total wellness, which includes heart health, stress management, getting enough sleep, fueling your body with nutritional meals and breathing deeply. His motto is: “Eat light, breath deep, move every day, sleep well.”

So when Ryan started having “staggering pain” radiating from both his shoulders down to his hands a little more than a year ago, it was devastating and life-changing. He suffered temporary paralysis in his shoulders and left arm, and lost 25 pounds of muscle.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he says.

Ryan had always been able-bodied. But he found himself in and out of hospitals for almost a month before doctors could diagnose the problem: He had a rare autoimmune disorder called Parsonage-Turner Syndrome. He came down with a normal virus and the disease was caused by his body’s immune response.

For a month, his wife washed his hair because he couldn’t. Now, his long wavy dark locks are his battle flag.

“When I feel like I’m back to myself again, I’ll cut it,” he says.

After the disorder was diagnosed, Ryan started working with a physical therapist. His goals? Drink a glass of water, wash his own hair and, of course, surf. But his doctor warned that he needed to be mentally prepared to never regain feeling in his left hand.

Ryan returned to work at Premier Fitness in West Ashley in May when a client asked him to help her with her hip. He reluctantly went back to the studio. After the appointment, he says, he exhaled. “I think I’m back,” he said to himself.

A few months later, he co-hosted the Lip Sync for Lungs fundraiser, which raises money for the American Lung Association.

“There’s something that makes you want to give when you’re suffering,” he says.

Ryan’s aunt passed away from complications from smoking when he was 14, and it deeply affected his family.

“The effect her death had on me led me to be a wellness practitioner,” he says.

Ryan says he’s starting to rebuild muscle tissue and has gained weight. Days before the interview he celebrated his 36th birthday and the year anniversary of when he got sick. He checked the last thing off his list about two months ago when he hit the waves for the first time. Now he’s got plans to travel to Vail this month to go snowboarding and to Australia in February to go surfing. Next, he wants to add being able to play guitar again to his list of accomplishments. He has played since he was 18 and performs with popular reggae band The Dubplates.

Ryan says his experience has made him a better trainer.

“I have a new understanding of what it’s like to struggle with your body,” he says. “I can relate on a way I never could previously.”

And, he says, it’s made him focus on the things that are most important.

“Who are the people that I love? What do I love to do? It’s a natural process of elimination,” he says. “There’s nothing like trauma to make you do that.”