Peter Grootenhuis possesses one of the most brilliant scientific minds in the world, but his body is fighting a losing battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Teaching from his wheelchair, Grootenhuis is an inspiration to everyone at Pacific Martial Arts in San Diego. His message — “Quitting is not an option!” — is one of many legacies he will leave in his wake.
By Terry L. Wilson
“My World Is the Dojo”
Before moving to America, Grootenhuis began his lifelong journey in the martial arts in his native Netherlands, training in shotokan karate. The intricacies woven into those kata proved to be a perfect fit for a man who excels in unraveling the secrets of the universe.
“Strange as it may sound, martial arts gives me complete relaxation,” Grootenhuis says. “When I’m in the dojo, I think of nothing else. My world is the dojo. I am totally focused on what I have to do, and nothing else exists.”
Grootenhuis is more than a teacher of martial arts. He motivates by example in areas of life that extend far beyond the dojo.
“Mr. Grootenhuis has always been a master motivator,” says student Alison Pivonka Smith. “He was my first teacher. I was a terrified 45-year-old white belt in a class full of teenagers. Somehow, he found a way to make me want to hang in there. When I was diagnosed with cancer, he told me that when I was training, I wasn’t just a cancer patient. He showed me how to just let it go, and I am forever grateful.”
Coming from Grootenhuis, advice about the value of letting go and embracing fate with a warrior’s mindset is especially poignant. To him, they are not just words. Grootenhuis suffers from ALS, an incurable neurodegenerative disorder. This is the same disease that afflicted the great Stephen Hawking and that legendary sport karate competitor Kevin Thompson is fighting.
But even as the disease continues to progress, Grootenhuis refuses to give in. His body may be failing, but his mind still possesses the brilliance of a scientist and the stoicism of a warrior.
“When I joined Pacific Martial Arts, I realized there was much more than just technical skills to master,” Grootenhuis says. “There are virtues that a warrior must have. A warrior’s attitude is that he must not be fearful, as that is a waste of time. A warrior must be alert, and when needed, his training must take over. And that warrior attitude is what I must have every day fighting ALS.”
It Started With One Foot
One of the things that make ALS so pernicious is how sneaky the disease is. It often starts with small, almost-unnoticeable symptoms that vary widely from person to person. For Grootenhuis, the first sign seemed like an innocuous foot injury.
“About three years ago, I noticed that my right foot was very weak,” Grootenhuis says. “Coincidentally, I had just been in a karate tournament. I had tried to kick my opponent, and he had a very good block on that same foot. So I thought it was just a little injury and that it would go away.”
Careful to avoid further damage to the foot, Grootenhuis kept training. However, it weakened further. In 2016 Grootenhuis was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
“Of course, ALS is not a good disease to be diagnosed with,” he says. “The prognosis with most patients is very short. Ninety percent of patients die in two to five years after the onset.
“It’s a disease that’s progressive. It starts with small things, then spreads out over your body and you lose the ability to control your muscles.
“In my case it, started in my right foot and went up to my right leg. At that point, I could still use my right. I could still do karate. I could still walk. My instructor, master Jerry Devine, was extremely accommodating. He told me not to do what I could no longer do but to do what I could do and focus on that. And that has become the mantra of my life. I no longer worry about what I can’t do because there are still so many things that I can do.
“One thing I’ve discovered is that this disease is slowly destroying my body, but my mind is good. I’m not mentally handicapped — I’m just physically handicapped. It’s truly mind over matter, and that’s how I’m trying to live.”
The Power of Observation
Members of the Grootenhuis family draw strength from each other when confronting Peter’s daily struggle with ALS. His two grown daughters and son live at home or nearby, and they embrace the precious time they have together.
They support his never-ending quest for perfection in martial arts. The kids may not be training in karate with their dad anymore, but they are always by his side, cheering him on.
“I think Peter is a very powerful martial artist because he observes very well,” his wife Marjolein says. “Because karate is an art filled with a variety of different techniques, Peter is able to step back and use his powers of observation to quickly analyze each move. That is even more so now that Peter is unable to move himself. He focuses on others and their techniques, and breaks down [moves] to the last detail.”
Pacific Martial Arts student Mark Adams also attributes Grootenhuis’ academic mind to his efficacy in explaining martial arts techniques.
“Mr. Grootenhuis has a background in science, and he brings that same kind of rigor to the study of martial arts,” Adams explains “He is very strategic in his thinking about how students can make their moves better by making incremental changes based on scientific principles.”
“I used to think that my own way of learning was based on [how I personally] did it, but now I believe you can learn as much, or even more, by observing people,” Grootenhuis says. “My own emphasis has changed from doing the moves to focusing on the techniques to understanding what the best body mechanics are to support what you want to accomplish.”
Marjolein adds, “Peter has a lot of power and strength, and that’s also why he is a good example for all of us in the family. He is gifted with a wonderful brain that he uses in his work and also in the martial arts. I am very proud of Peter. He is a real warrior.”
A World-Renowned Scientist
With more than 70 patents to his name, Grootenhuis has been recognized worldwide for his contributions to medical science. In 1995 he received the Royal Dutch Chemical Society Gold Medal, an award given to the most promising chemist in Netherlands.
His most recent accolade was the prestigious 2018 International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and Gedeon Richter Prize for the discovery and development of drugs for the treatment of cystic fibrosis.
“I am a chemist, and I work in the pharmaceutical industry for Vertex Pharmaceuticals,” Grootenhuis explains. “I’ve been working for the same company for the past 16 years. I have been leading a project team to discover new medications for the treatment of cystic fibrosis.”
Cystic fibrosis is a progressive genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time. This leads to extensive lung damage and, eventually, respiratory failure.
“Cystic fibrosis is a very bad genetic disease, and we have been working on this since 2000,” Grootenhuis says. “The team I led was very successful. We discovered the first drug that is able to treat the cause of cystic fibrosis.
“It was tested in the clinic and turned out to have an enormously positive impact on the cystic fibrosis patients who were qualified for this particular medication. That was an immense breakthrough. And since then, we’ve had three drugs that have been approved by the FDA. At this point, we are able to effectively treat about 50 percent of our cystic fibrosis patients. This is a fairly rare disease, and there are only 70,000 patients worldwide, with 30,000 in the United States.
“These drugs have changed people’s lives, there is no doubt about that. And the best things are yet to come because we are now testing two other drug combinations that are working very well in our laboratories. I think that if this works as well in patients, up to 90 percent of them will be able to get very effective treatment for their disease.
“This accomplishment has been the most rewarding achievement of my professional career.”
A Source of Undaunted Inspiration
It might seem painfully ironic that, after a career spent making breakthroughs in the fight against one genetic disease, another is slowly tightening its grip on Grootenhuis. His students and classmates can see that he is suffering, but the third-degree black belt refuses to accept defeat. He continues to teach and train to the best of his ability.
“He is accepting his situation with grace and dignity,” student Jeff Platt says. “Mr. Grootenhuis inspires all of us: No matter what the situation, attack it head on. He is not just a black belt in class but is also a black belt in his personal and professional life. Those are the qualities he brings to class.”
“Mr. Grootenhuis is an inspiration to all of us,” student Rohan Shinkre adds. “We are all very motivated by him. If he can continue to teach in his current state, then anyone can do anything.”
Pacific Martial Arts shot a video documenting Grootenhuis’ tenure as a student and teacher at Pacific Martial Arts. It is a heartfelt tribute to his courage, tenacity and resolve to be the best that he can be one day at a time.
Clip after clip shows Grootenhuis as a powerful traditional karateka. His kata are performed to perfection. His gi snaps crisply, and the audio is overflowing with echoes that reveal the strength of his kicks and punches.
We see him training with his young daughters, letting them chase him around the living room in their karate uniforms, happy and smiling, a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
Later clips, taken after his diagnosis, reveal how his legs have weakened. He continues to teach and train on crutches. Instead of viewing the crutches as a means of transportation or a handicap, Grootenhuis treats them as a weapon for self-defense.
Footage from a few months later reveals that the crutches have been replaced by a wheelchair. But Grootenhuis continues to teach and train from his chair.
Eventually, ALS took the use of his arms, rendering them too weak to punch or block. But no disease, no force on Earth, could take away Grootenhuis’ passion for martial arts. His brilliant analytical mind took over, and he began writing a book.
“Adapting to his terminal illness carried a lot of pathways to deal with,” Pacific Martial Arts master instructor Jerry Devine says. “In Peter’s case, he decided to use his remaining time in a positive way by increasing his footprint in our dojo by writing a book on the history of PMA that includes a scientific breakdown of our weapons and kata. This is akin to the original days of karate when Japanese-speaking instructors in the USA could show a technique but not explain it because of the language barrier. Peter’s case is the reverse: He can explain but not show it.”
The Kobudo Book
Compiling the history of Pacific Martials arts was a daunting task, but Grootenhuis accepted the challenge with the same zeal he exhibits when teaching.
“This was the perfect project for me at the time because my physical ability was declining and I could contribute more intellectually,” Grootenhuis states. “I started by writing down the vocabulary that we used in kobudo, and as I went through my notes, the project became larger and larger.
“I expanded the book to included how each movement of our kata should be done, and it grew from there. When I began the project, it was just going to be a pamphlet of sorts. Then I showed it to master Devine, and he said, ‘You should write a book.’ That’s how the project got started.”
An endless stream of discussions between Devine and Grootenhuis flowed like a river of knowledge regarding the original philosophy and how the system has evolved over the school’s 40 years.
“For me, this was a great opportunity to learn the history of the school and to write it down, and it became a wonderful collaboration between the two of us,” Grootenhuis says.
The finished product was a 142-page book that documents every kata, every weapon, every grip and every move, as well as the terminology and step-by-step photos.
“We recorded all the history of our dojo, and at the same time, we did a technical write-up of our weapons program,” Grootenhuis says. “We began adding pictures, then at some point it began to take the shape of a book and feel like a book. Because this was the 40th year of the dojo, we printed copies and distributed them to our members.
“I am now writing a second book with master Devine that we actually want to publish. This book is much more technical, and we think it will appeal to a much broader audience.”
A Legacy That Will Live On
Since the interviews referenced in this article, Grootenhuis’ ALS has progressed. As of May 13, 2019, the disease had invaded nearly every muscle in his body, leaving him unable to feed himself and barely able to speak.
Grootenhuis knows his time is limited. But then, none of us is here forever. The important thing is that we use whatever time and opportunities we have to make the world a better place. Grootenhuis’ legacy will live on. It will be carried by thousands of cystic fibrosis patients as their suffering eases thanks to his work. It will be remembered by his family. And it will live forever at Pacific Martial Arts each time a student decides, no matter what the challenge, that quitting is not an option.
Terry Wilson is an Emmy Award-winning TV personality and freelance writer. He may be reached at [email protected]
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