‘Everything just began to click’: Finding a community in film, college and life

By Martha Bennett

Jacob Wishnek paused briefly in front of his computer to take a swig from his cappuccino. Readjusting his chair to get closer to the screen, he studied a scene from his latest short film, “College Kid,” in one of Swain Hall’s editing labs at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“There!” he blurted out, pointing to the screen. “Do you see that? Oh man, I love that.”

In this scene, the main character, Alex, walks through a parking lot while he listens to “Birds Don’t Sing” by the hypnotic-pop band, TV Girl. Syncopated to each cut, the beat of the song dictates every edit, going from shots of Alex’s feet to close-ups of his face.

Snapping his fingers and bobbing his beanie-wearing head, Wishnek smiled.

“This might be one of the things I’m most excited about,” he said. “I just wanna be sure I can get it right.”

He knows, though, as much as his friends do, that he won’t feel like he got it right.

“He’s always on the move, on the go, pushing forward,” cinematographer and friend Michael Sparks said. “He discounts nearly everything he does, which means he doesn’t always take pride or gain confidence from his achievements.”

A dedicated planner and perfectionist, Wishnek’s work ethic has been shaped by crowded sets where he couldn’t hear himself speak, 48-hour deadlines that made him vomit from getting no sleep and pages of rough drafts that would never make it to a read through.

“Perfection is not possible,” actor and friend Calliope George said. “But it is exciting to work alongside someone who shoots for the moon.”

Wishnek’s had a lot of practice shooting for the moon.

At just 22, Wishnek has been involved in over 60 film projects. From sci-fi fantasies to comedies, he’s developed a desire for telling stories and finding different ways to tell them.

But his passion didn’t begin with a typical movie experience. He has Alex Kim, and what might be the worst song of all time, to thank.

The ‘film guy’

Wishnek was 13-years-old when he opened his front door in Charlotte, N.C. to see Kim, his neighbor, knocking.

“Hey, have you seen Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’?” Kim asked.

A high school student wanting some help, Kim proposed a parody project to Wishnek as an opportunity to get some laughs around school.

“We called it ‘Pi Day’ because March 14, or 3.14159 day,” Wishnek said. “And it kind of became viral.”

Using their parents’ camcorders, Wishnek helped Kim film an off-color music video that generated over 15,000 views on YouTube. The recognition was flattering, but Wishnek noticed something: The video sucked.

Wobbly frames, harsh lighting and odd angles all made Wishnek curious.

“That became my pastime,” he said. “Just researching how to make films. Whether that was with finding new equipment or just learning how to actually shoot things properly to up the production quality.”

There were other learning moments, too. A summer spent at the UNC School of the Arts gave him one of his most important ones.

“Moonrise Kingdom,” a 2012 film by Wes Anderson, was on a laundry list of movies to study for the summer. Known for his stylized form of filmmaking, “Moonrise” checks all the boxes for a typical Anderson film. A consistent color scheme, quirky humor and spanning landscapes paint a charming picture for anyone who sees it.

“I watched it and I was like, ‘Oh, film is art; that’s what this is,’” Wishnek said. “Everything just began to click.”

It wasn’t about cracking jokes — at least most of the time.

It was about finding beauty.

Whether visually on camera or emotionally through script, that’s what made a film engaging. That’s what made them worth making.

So Wishnek began to chase that beauty.

He became the “film guy” at school. Working from project to project, Wishnek always wanted to be busy, whether he was writing, directing or producing. Voted “Most Likely to Win an Oscar” his senior year and accepted into New York University’s prestigious dual business-film degree program, he felt he had paved a road to success.

But New York never happened. It could never happen.

With an annual tuition of over $75,000 and little financial aid, NYU was thrown out of the picture for the son of a network engineer and a business banker. He had to dream smaller, so he looked to the only in-state school he applied to.

“At first I was just trying to put this happy face on about UNC,” Wishnek said. “But deep down I just told myself I knew I would transfer.”

‘It’s okay to need a little more time and exploration, and we should normalize that’

Wishnek had found people with similar interests —even co-founded a student organization for filmmakers — but there was a disconnect. He lacked a community, and Ellie Teller was the person to see he needed one.

A year older and an acquaintance from high school, Teller found Wishnek in one of her classes her sophomore year. She saw a nice kid who always had a nervous smirk on his face, but he seemed lost. He reminded Teller of who she was a year ago.

“When I first came to UNC I had an older brother that was a senior, and spending time with him helped me engage with different communities at UNC,” Teller said. “I wanted to provide similar spaces for him to get out of his comfort zone and start enjoying UNC for all it had to offer.”

She took him to parties, introduced him to the media production major and even gave him his first beer. He may not have been in a big city, or enrolled in a flashy film school, but he began to realize he could belong somewhere. He could belong here.

“Our perceptions of college are that when you get there, everything will fall into place, but I don’t think that’s immediately true for many people,” Teller said. “It’s okay to need a little more time and exploration, and we should normalize that.”

This is what makes “College Kid” so personal for Wishnek to make — it’s about him.

A project four years in the making, the semi-autobiographical film traces Wishnek’s personal growth each year of college. Using musical and color motifs, the film mirrors what UNC-CH and filmmaking have taught him.

“In order to find happiness and fulfillment in your college experience, (in) life in general, you need to find and take part in your community,” Wishnek said.

“And that means putting in the work — doing something — to get there. The film industry is collaborative, not competitive. It’s the community of it all that makes a film thrive, and I think in life you have to find the same thing.”

As he scrolled through the last scene of “College Kid” on his screen, Wishnek spotted an error.

A scene between Alex and his friend Nathan, they’re sitting on a roof, looking at the night sky.

“See there?” Wishnek said, pointing to the screen. “You can see the boom pole’s shadow against the house.”

Embarrassed, he gritted his teeth as he watched the rest of the scene unfold.

“I just feel, in this moment, this sense of meaning,” Alex said to Nathan. “Nothing in particular. No one idea more significant than the other. Just…significance. And it’s a lot.”

Wishnek’s smile began to reappear.

Edited by: Madeleine Fraley 

UNC-CH admitted student days bring about decisions, nostalgia and love

By Savannah Morgan

Outside the Smith Center, students dressed in vibrant Carolina blue cheer and chant. It’s early — just before 9 a.m. on a Saturday — but their energy has a Friday-afternoon intensity.

“Go Heels! Woo!”


Identical blue Mardi Gras beads hang around their necks with metallic whistles dangling from the bottom of the necklaces. The beads bounce as the students jump and shout. One young man dons a UNC-themed bathrobe. White and blue balloons sway at the Smith Center’s Gate A. The festivities aren’t for a Carolina basketball game, though. The cheering students are Admissions Ambassadors, ready to share their love for the University. The March 30 event was one of three Admitted Student Days hosted by the Admissions Office for UNC-Chapel Hill.

Inside the Smith Center, admitted students and their parents sit grouped by their prospective majors. Each major is marked by a laminated sign and a colored balloon — purple, lavender, gold, white, dark green, teal, pink, maroon, orange, yellow, lime green.

Jenny Mades sits towards the front of the large section marked off for biology majors. As she waits for the day to officially begin, she thinks about her experience with Admitted Student Day at North Carolina State University last Saturday. She hopes today will help her compare the two universities.

“I’m really excited to learn about Chapel Hill and Carolina,” Mades said. “I tend to be really indecisive, so it helps to meet students and see the campus and see what the atmosphere is like.”

Mades and her mom look through the folder of admissions materials they received on their way in, looking for something that will strike some internal chord, helping Mades decide between UNC-CH and N.C. State.

Other students made the trip to the UNC-CH to affirm the decision they’ve already made.

Claire Skinner, who hopes to major in biomedical engineering, said she has loved the university since she was little.

“I just want to confirm my decision by getting a feel for the campus,” Skinner said. “But I’m already in love with it.”

‘What they could be a part of’

The day begins with energetic bursts to ensure that students arrive either instantly forming or further cultivating the love and excitement that Skinner and Mades describe.

After students have been ushered in past the enthusiastic Admissions Ambassadors, the event kicks off with a performance by members of UNC’s pep bands — the same students who perform at football and basketball games and other sporting events. Like the Admissions Ambassadors, they too are at the event to share their affection for UNC-CH. They play a mix of familiar, upbeat pop tunes and school-spirit songs.

“We start with the band to keep the energy hype and to introduce some of the traditions the band is involved in, like some of the cheers,” said Tyger Hanback, a junior at UNC-CH who is an Admissions Ambassador and a member of the athletic bands. “We really want to get people excited to be here and show them what an awesome place Carolina is.”

After the band’s performance, the Admissions Ambassadors run out with some helpers from Carolina Fever. The prospective students and their parents have the opportunity to learn some of the cheers that are integral to attending sporting events at UNC-CH, such as UNC Vamp and Carolina Spell-Out. Teaching the cheers is a way to get the students immediately immersed in the University’s culture.

“Letting the prospective students learn the cheers lets people see what they could be a part of here,” Hanback said.

A representative from Carolina Fever gets the attendees on their feet and teaches them how to hold their arms to form a U, N and C for UNC Vamp. She instructs them about the tricky speed changes — slow, then quick — and they hear a preview of the spirited tune from the band. When it’s time to try the moves with the music, the prospective students groan as their parents get a little too into the activity. But after a few tries, everyone feels looser, more confident and most of the room engages in the energetic chant.

‘Putting a face to Carolina’

The rest of the day will be filled with information sessions, lunch in Lenoir Dining Hall and tours of the campus. The prospective students will hear all the reasons they should choose to attend UNC-CH, but more importantly, they will get to interact with current undergraduate students and see some of the official information they have been given in action.

“This day is about putting a face to Carolina,” said Grace Tan, a member of the Admissions Ambassadors Executive Board. “We want them to be able to ask questions and hear this information coming from students. Most of all, I really just want them to see, ‘you could belong here.’”

Working for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions has been a highlight of Tan’s time at UNC-CH. She loves to take students on tours and share her passion for Carolina, especially after a hard day.

“Being involved in Admissions really gives me perspective,” Tan said. “If I leave after a bad exam and get to take students on tours, it shows me how lucky I am to be here. Even if it doesn’t always seem like it, we are so lucky just to get to be here.”

Hannah Williams, a senior member of the athletic bands, is also passionate about sharing her love for UNC-CH, which is why she volunteered to perform in the band for the event.

“This was one of my last opportunities to share my love of marching band in the Carolina family environment,” Williams said. “I want to welcome people and make it feel like home. Because it’s really been my home.”

Admitted Students Day is an opportunity for prospective students to learn why they should choose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as their home for the next four years. Even more so, though, it is a chance for current students to demonstrate how the University has worked its way into their hearts.

Edited by Rachel Jones

UNC DiPhi carries on history of debate, one argument at a time

By Chapel Fowler

Sam Gee sat on the top floor of New West on Monday night, typing furiously as he scoured Google for a punchline.

At the podium in front of him, Luke De Mott was halfway down a rabbit hole already. During the formal debate portion of this Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies (DiPhi) meeting, designated senators met to argue in favor of or against that night’s topic at hand: were J.K. Rowling’s recent retroactive changes to her “Harry Potter” series illegitimate?

Once the floor was open, De Mott launched into a sarcastic rant. The senior Phi senator started off with a friendly jab, telling his rival Di senators they “don’t control fiction.” There’s no objective truth to imaginary worlds, he said, and no incorrect interpretations of art. It’s all up to the reader.

Gee’s typing stopped. He’d found his counterpoint. The sophomore Di senator shot his hand up from his third-row desk. Quoting the famous line from “Hamlet,” he said: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

“So,” Gee said, “is it possible that Hamlet is set on Mars?”

“Well,” De Mott said, “Maybe Mars has a Denmark.”

And with that, the chambers of UNC’s oldest student organization erupted in laughter.

History of the society 

For 224 years, DiPhi has offered  students a platform for robust debate with competition and friendship on the side. In 2019, the society is a bit more modern than in decades prior, with a well-designed website, active social media pages and senators reading speeches off laptops. But the rich history, many procedures and the fundamental goals of DiPhi remain the same.

“I think a bunch of students having a bunch of opinions and wanting to share them on their own accord is a really cool thing,” said Katrina Smith, a senior and joint senate president this semester. “I don’t think there are many spaces like that, where students come here for fun to do this.”

DiPhi, established in 1795, has been involved in all kinds of UNC history. Most notably, the societies’ use of diploma ribbons — light blue for Dis, white for Phis — helped inspire UNC’s now-famous school colors. The societies, which merged into a joint senate in 1959, also operated as the student government for over a century. DiPhi helped shape the UNC Honor System and the Yackety Yack yearbook, among other campus institutions.

But if you take a trip to Room 310 in New West, the history of DiPhi and its participating students truly come to life.

The space itself is regal, with cream-colored walls, blue trim and four massive golden chandeliers. All of the furniture is wooden, save for a chair made of literal cow hide and cow horns. Portraits of famous DiPhi alumni and honorary members hang wherever they can fit.

“It’s so cool,” said Peyton Furtado, a junior and Phi’s president. “To just study in some of these chambers and realize that people like Thomas Wolfe, Joseph Caldwell, James K. Polk have all been in these rooms and have been doing basically the same thing we’re doing.”

The debate comes alive

Each meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. On this night, Jack Watson took the podium after a roll call. As the critic, he alerts speakers when their time is up by ringing a silver bell and critiques his fellow senators’ performances after debate ends.

DiPhi debates start with a resolution, or an opinionated statement. Senators then argue in favor of or against it. This particular night’s resolution revolved around Rowling, who recently tried to add extra information to the “Harry Potter” canon to mixed results. Watson smirked as he introduced the topic.

“First, she said Dumbledore was gay, and I said nothing, because sexuality is a spectrum and I can buy that,” he said. “Then, she said, ‘I never said Hermione wasn’t black,’ and I said, ‘That’s kind of a weird way to say that, but OK.’ And then, she said that wizards used to poop on the floor, and I could say nothing, because it was my fault for retweeting her for so long.”

The debate took off from there. Senators against Rowling’s decision offered strong arguments: that art can’t retroactively be changed, that Rowling should create new diverse art instead.

Those arguing for Rowling advocated just as intensely. One interesting point  brought up the question: Whether publication is the true cut-off point for a book, or is it just an artificial boundary placed on the author? All through the debate, senators snapped their fingers when they agreed with something, and they hissed loudly when they didn’t.

Among the structure and carefully curated arguments, though, there’s plenty of humor. Gee created his own obscene revision and joked that Dobby the elf had “a 10-inch rod.” Sophomore Mo Van de Sompel decided to push back on the idea that all interpretations of art are valid with an off-the-wall hypothetical.

“I choose to believe that The Very Hungry Caterpillar is not a white supremacist,” Van de Sompel said. “But if the author, Eric Carle, comes out tomorrow and says the caterpillar is a neo-Nazi, do I have to accept that?”

The fun continued into DiPhi’s other main staple — PPMAs, or papers, petitions, memorials and addresses. During this “signature free speech forum,” anyone can rant on whatever they want for up to five minutes. On this night, many chose comedy.

Senior Kristen Roehrig recounted the panic attack she had in a Washington, D.C., bathroom (“This will be a good story for an interview someday”). Watson, the critic, talked about how he discovered his inverted nipple (“Lefty goes in; righty goes out”). One senator told the story of a piece of cheese thrown so perfectly it landed inside someone’s pocket; another broke down the phenomenon of orange plastic Garfield telephones washing up on France’s beaches.

“We have lightheartedness in the serious,” sophomore Christina Barta said. “We also have seriousness in the lighthearted.”

The Rowling debate wasn’t exactly political. But political debates are frequent. Last month, six senators presented their argument for the best 2020 presidential candidate. In February, DiPhi hosted the second UNC student body president debate. Other topics that were tackled this semester included the two-child policy, how familiar Americans should be with the Bible and if wars have been beneficial to mankind.

There’s usually a quota — one science debate, one policy debate, one literary debate and so on — but Smith said DiPhi’s been more flexible this semester. Thanks to a wide array of majors and interests in the society, the balance between serious debates and more lighthearted ones “just ends up happening.”

Monday night’s meeting didn’t adjourn until past midnight, but, to no surprise, another DiPhi tradition held true. Senators made the short walk from campus to Linda’s Bar & Grill on Franklin Street for baskets of cheese fries.

They’ll be back at it again next week with a fresh topic: whether or not homeschooling should be abolished. They’ll be debating, like they have been for 225 years.

In the words of the DiPhi Facebook page: “The conversations don’t ever have to stop.”

Edited by Caroline Metzler and Nick Thompson

The fight of a lifetime: a woman’s story about surviving cancer

By Molly Smith

Cindy Dewey stood up with the sunrise, pulled a blonde wig over her scalp, hid any signs of discomfort with a dab of makeup and drove to work.

She felt her face flush when colleagues examined her more than usual before she gave a presentation; their gaze darted from the bags under her eyes to the sweat glistening on her forehead.

“You look a little tired. Are you feeling OK?” one asked.

 “I’m totally fine,” she said with a smile. 

Her feet could barely fit in her shoes that day. She was swollen from head to toe. 

The night before, she made ice packs with Ziploc bags to soothe a skin rash, took steroids prescribed to relieve the itching and used what strength she had to Google how much Benadryl was safe to ingest.

The swelling crept up to her neck and slowly began to suffocate her. She laid awake in bed, staring at the paint on her walls and wondering if that was the last time she’d get to look at them. 

Dewey was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer in 2017 at UNC Hospitals. She stopped after three rounds of chemotherapy because of a severe allergic reaction. She believes her symptoms were overlooked, her diagnosis was oversimplified and her cancer overtreated.

Diagnosis: ignored

It started with an ordinary visit to the doctor. As many cancer stories go, Dewey didn’t suspect anything was wrong. She exercised every day. She watched what she ate. And like most 52-year-old women, she dreaded mammograms. 

A few women in her life had been affected by breast cancer, but none in her immediate family, she would tell the nurse after the screening. Then came the waiting. 

Waiting as women came and went with their results. 

Waiting and realizing that she was in the cancer area, spotting bald heads. 

Waiting and worrying and watching the clock.

“It’s probably nothing,” a nurse finally said, “but there’s a small growth.”

Moments later, she was looking up at a slew of women standing over her, holding her trembling hand through the biopsy that revealed she had cancer. It was treatable, it was early and the tumor was the size of a pencil eraser.

But in the space of a day, that little nothing became something that affected her whole life. Before long, something turned into everything that she agonized over for the next year.

Two weeks later, Dewey had surgery to remove the tumor and see if the cancer spread – it hadn’t. Her oncologists were convinced she wouldn’t need chemotherapy. Maybe a few weeks of radiation at most, they assured her.

Her two children celebrated in the bright consultation room. They thought the battle had begun and ended all in a month. They watched the surgeon promise a quick recovery with light in their eyes as they slowly removed their armor. 

Then, Dewey was asked to take the test. The Oncotype DX test is for patients just like her, with early stage, low-risk cancer. It uses genes to assess how likely the cancer is to return.

“Wouldn’t you want to have all the information available?” Oncologist Carey Anders urged. 

Her results read “33” in bold, black digits. Scores 31 and up signal a high probability of recurrence, and lower than 18 is safe. Suddenly, her life was in danger again.

“They were telling me I would die if I didn’t do the treatment,” Dewey said. “It was like night and day.” 

Dr. Hyman Muss, another breast cancer oncologist at UNC, said that when the value of chemotherapy is great, oncologists try to talk patients into it. But it’s always a mutually agreeable decision.

Dewey agreed to four chemotherapy sessions. 

The next time she visited the hospital, the nurse prodding her arm for an IV didn’t believe she was allergic to the adhesive tape. She broke out in hives. At a later visit, doctors ignored her after she insisted the anti-nausea medication gave her a blinding headache. It was the main side effect of the drug.

As her energy drained, she laid down in the waiting room before one of her last visits.

“Must be nice to rest,” a nurse said as she passed by.

“Must be nice to not have cancer,” Dewey thought.

She developed a self-titled syndrome she called “bitch cry,” the phenomenon of getting assertive when not listened to, then falling into a depressive, guilty state.

“I ended up with this continuous knot in my throat because I didn’t want to have to be that way,” she said. “I wanted them to take care of me.”

After Dewey’s allergic reaction, Dr. Anders warned against stopping chemotherapy before the sessions were over. Allergists would later tell Dewey that it was threatening her life. 

If she could go back in time, she wouldn’t agree to the treatment.

The bumpy road to recovery

Dr. Muss is confident that the cancer hospital has a “more is worse” approach to chemotherapy. He said that treatment is a balance of the benefits and risks.

“I’ve been doing this for 45 years,” Muss said, “and we’ve learned so much about who doesn’t benefit from chemo.”

Its purpose is to kill any cancer cells that may have spread, he said. But there’s no test to know the exact possibility of a relapse.

“We don’t know that chemo actually reduces the chance of cancer coming back,” Dewey said. “We’re loading chemicals into people’s bodies thinking that’s what’s doing it.”

Bari Sholomon had a similar diagnosis: stage one, didn’t spread, aggressive tumor determined by the test, chemotherapy.

Dewey knew Sholomon as her daughter’s former high school counselor. Then, as a fellow cancer survivor. Then, a workout buddy.

The two participated in Get Real and Heel at UNC – an exercise-based strength program for early-stage breast cancer patients who finished chemotherapy. Physical therapists train the survivors to rebuild their stamina and use exercise as a healing tool, both mentally and physically.

“I stayed with them for three or four years after I stopped chemo,” Sholomon said. “I got my strength back that way.”

Dr. Claudio Battaglini co-founded the program in 2004 after studying the connection between exercise and quality of life in cancer patients. Breast cancer survivors who exercise regularly are 40 to 50 percent less likely to redevelop the disease. 

“They really feel that their lives have been stolen from them, so we help them regain a sense of empowerment,” Battaglini said.

Dewey won the battle for her life, thanks to Get Real and Heel and therapy. She still doesn’t know what went wrong in her treatment plan. Maybe it was just protocol. Maybe it was ego. Maybe it was overprotection.

“Regardless, I should’ve given myself permission to trust my instincts and use my voice,” she said. “I gave away my power. But now I’m stronger.”


Edited by Johnny Sobczack and Spencer Carney

Boxing class helps patients pound Parkinson’s

By Molly Horak

“Two minutes!” Walker Peterson roars as the opening verse of Ozzy Osborne’s “Crazy Train” blares over the loud speaker.

Greg Gehab grunts, wipes away a drip of sweat with his forearm, then picks up the pace. “One, two, one, two,” he yells back as he strikes the punching bag with all of his strength.

For 120 grueling more seconds, Gehab and the seven other men and women enrolled in Peterson’s Friday morning boxing class attack their bags with a vengeance only the most determined boxers can muster. “Quitting is never an option,” one of the participants muses as the athletes are finally rewarded with a water break at the end of the round.

The Friday morning class isn’t training the participants to fight an opponent under the bright lights of a boxing ring. No, they’re fighting a much more dangerous enemy, the one slowly wearing away at their brains.

This is a Rock Steady Boxing class, a form of physical therapy for patients with Parkinson’s disease. Boxing provides a way to fight back, says Gehab.

Gehab had never heard of Parkinson’s disease, at least not until 2008 when he received the diagnosis that would change his life.

He called his wife, crying. In order for the disease not to kill him, his doctor said, he had to start working out.

A life-interrupting disease

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease that occurs when brain neurons that control movement become impaired and die, according to studies conducted by the National Institute of Health. When these neurons die, they produce less of the chemical dopamine, leading to symptoms such as tremors, stiffness of limbs, slowness of movement and impaired balance and coordination.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s, which affects more than 10 million individuals worldwide. However, studies have shown that increased high-intensity exercise can slow the progression of the disease by training the brain to use dopamine, which is released during vigorous exercise, more efficiently.

Gehab’s neurologist never told him what sort of exercises to do. After his diagnosis, he began regularly attending his local YMCA in Nashua, New Hampshire, yet didn’t feel like he was getting anything out of his time in the gym.

In 2011, Gehab’s health took a turn for the worse when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The cancer was removed, and he entered into remission, but Parkinson’s still plagued him. His workouts weren’t doing much to increase mobility, and his medicines weren’t working. He was losing morale.

Rock Steady heads east

His daughter, who was living in Indianapolis, had heard of a new program designed to help Parkinson’s patients: Rock Steady Boxing.

Skeptical, Gehab caved into his daughter’s pleading and agreed to attend a class.

“They warmed me up doing something like this: running, punches, stretching, core. I thought I was going to die,” Gehab said. “But by the end of the class, I knew I had found what I wanted to do.”

His next goal? To bring Rock Steady to the East Coast.

Gehab completed the certification to become a Rock Steady Boxing coach in 2013. It took him a year, but he finally got one person to participate in his program. From there, the phenomenon spread.

“Everyone laughed at me; they thought I was nuts,” he said. “Boxing helping Parkinson’s patients? They were incredulous. But after working with a boxing coach, he could see how fluid I was, how it was helping.”

When Gehab and his wife moved to Raleigh in 2016, the Triangle became his next target. Within a few months, he had found a home at Title Boxing Club in Cary. The first class had 20 boxers, Gehab recalls. Now, Rock Steady Triangle offers classes in Cary, Raleigh and Chapel Hill and serves over 120 participants.

“Who are we? Rock Steady!”

There’s no such thing as a typical Rock Steady class, said Walker Peterson, a Rock Steady Boxing coach at Title Boxing Club in Chapel Hill. Workouts tend to be slightly slower-paced and more methodical than the classes usually offered but contain the same basic principles: stretches, core work and boxing combinations.

Sets of exercises are structured in the traditional boxing-round format: three minutes of an intense set of exercises followed by a one-minute rest period. Boxers are encouraged to yell out numbered sequences that match the type of punch thrown — one for a left jab, two for a right cross and so on. This help memory and vocal strength, which are common symptoms of the disease.

It’s not a typical workout, Gehab said, but it’s the kind of workout he likes. He needs to be pushed to the point where he doesn’t break.

“I need to do it; I have to do it because first and foremost, I’m a Parkie too,” Gehab said.

In the three years since Rock Steady first opened its doors in the Triangle, it has seen enormous growth, said Jessica Shurer, a clinical social worker and coordinator with the UNC Movement Disorders Center.

The Triangle is uniquely positioned for a vibrant Parkinson’s community. Both Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Schools of Medicine are home to Movement Disorder Clinics designated as a Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence, meaning they provide the highest level of care and outreach for Parkinson’s patients, said Diana Parrish, who works with the Parkinson’s Foundation.

Shurer, who worked with Gehab to bring Rock Steady to the area, said she sees patients and focus-group participants have an increased range of movement and stronger relationships after enrolling in a boxing class.

“People really gravitate to the energy of it, the ‘rah-rah’ way to fight not only the bag but their disease,” Shurer said. “There’s this component of friendship and camaraderie that everyone is in this fighting together.”

“Who are we?” Peterson bellows at the crowd jogging laps around the gym floor.

“Rock Steady!” they yell back, their voices wobbly with exhaustion as the workout comes to an end.

“Who are we?” Peterson asks again in a voice tinged with the mix of encouragement and skepticism that only a coach at their peak intensity can summon.

“Rock Steady!” the group says louder, with more energy.

“What do we do?”

“Fight!” The group erupts in a series of grunts, whoops and hollers, a primal release of the frustrations built over the last few days.

In his red tank top emblazoned with the Rock Steady logo and the mantra, “fighter coach,” Gehab pumps his fist in the air a la “Breakfast Club” and smiles.

“I see people come in and have lost their confidence because Parkinson’s can take your confidence away,” Gehab said. “But boxing, it helps bring the confidence back; it gives hope back. You can do things you hadn’t been able to do before.”

“It’s saved my life.”

Edited by Jack Gallop and Sara Hall