a man with narcolepsy lifting up the world with continents shaped like Z's

Sleepy Strength Is More Than Being Strong and Exercising

Exercise and strength training have been a part of my life as long as excessive daytime sleepiness. By the time I was in middle school, I had begun to struggle with my sleep and it coincided with the awkwardness that is puberty.

Early on I looked to weight training as a way to add muscle mass and strength to make up for being vertically challenged. Growing up, I was fascinated by the size and musculature of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and in those days, I associated strength and masculinity with one’s physical appearance.

Pursuing my interests in strength training

Another one of my favorite strength athletes was Bill Kazmaier, World’s Strongest Man in 1980, 1981, and 1982. Watching his battles on World's Strongest Man reruns was must-see entertainment in my house. A fascination with strength and my quest for physical improvement was a healthy outlet and ultimately led me to major in exercise science at Belmont University.

My goal was to train and compete in both an amateur powerlifting competition and an amateur strongman event. It was always curiously frustrating how I was able to become fairly strong but unable to add muscle mass.

Training through my sleepiness

In early adulthood, before my type 1 narcolepsy diagnosis, I was able to train through my sleepiness by incorporating multiple strategic naps. As the severity of my symptoms continued to develop, I began to find it harder to keep up my workouts. An early misdiagnosis of ADD resulted in a prescription for stimulants which was enough to help me make it through class and some workouts, but the dosage was insufficient to treat narcolepsy.

The goals I had set early on to compete seemed distant memories. Energy and wakefulness were pipedreams, especially once my two daughters were born.

After my diagnosis at age 25, I believed that a return to “normalcy” was possible and I could return to my workouts in earnest. Alas, the reality of living a life with a chronic illness began to set in, I had to reexamine some life goals. Even working at a gym, I found mustering the wakefulness to workout seemed impossible. Despondent, dejected, and discouraged, my weight increased as my lifting decreased.

Meeting the legend himself

A year after my diagnosis, my boss told me that none other than Bill Kazmaier, World’s Strongest Man, was going to be in town to demo some equipment and I had a chance to lift alongside the legend. While some may get shy when they meet one of their childhood heroes, I am not one of those people. I was a chatterbox, asking questions about his strongman days, his goldfish eating competition, and his powerlifting world records. By the end of our workout, the World’s Strongest Man knew my bear-hug embrace.

Something transcendent happened during that workout. Physically my lifts were down, but mentally I was changed. It was then I came to the realization that competing in a strongman event may not be in my future, but I could still be the World’s Strongest. I would become the World’s Strongest Person having narcolepsy with cataplexy. I was able to redefine what success looked like for me. Was I actually going to be the strongest person on the planet having narcolepsy with cataplexy? Maybe, but more importantly, I was going to project that strength into my life and into my workouts.

World's Strongest Person having narcolepsy with cataplexy

Why not call myself the World’s Strongest Man having narcolepsy with cataplexy? The reason was simple, I wanted anyone to be able to use the title, male or female. When the toughest battle a person faces any day is getting out of bed, that person should be allowed a hyperbolic moniker.

Physically, there are days when I don’t have the strength I desire, but mentally once I walk through the gym door, I’m the only one who can stop me. I’m not competing against anyone but myself, and second place is never an option.

Keeping big dreams alive

The nonlinear process of grieving the loss of dreams can be a long process. Redefining goals and success in life has been imperative for me to move to acceptance. Just because I have to put to rest old goals, doesn’t mean I can’t dream big. One thing people with narcolepsy have ample experience with is dreaming.

Bill Kazmaier once famously declared: “Yes, I actually think I am the strongest man who ever lived.” Echoing those words: “I am Matthew Horsnell and yes I actually think I am the World’s Strongest Person having narcolepsy with cataplexy.” Prove me wrong.

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