CrossFit Games athlete Rainer Hartmann describes his struggle with ALS diagnosis and new outlook on life

CrossFit Games athlete Rainer Hartmann describes his struggle with ALS diagnosis and new outlook on life

Image credit: Rainer Hartmann

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Rainer Hartmann has a sports career that spans decades: German National Bodybuilding Championships in the 80s and 90s, founding one of the first 100 CrossFit Affiliates in 2007, and competing against Jason Khalipa and Josh Everett at the 2008 CrossFit Games Athletics carried the 60-year-old throughout his life until a devastating diagnosis in 2021 turned his world upside down.

Hartmann was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative disease that progressively shuts down nerve function throughout the body. The disease gained notoriety in 2014 for the “Ice Bucket Challenge”, which raised awareness and funds for the disease. There is currently no cure.

Hartman: “You walk in (and get diagnosed) and you basically get a death sentence.”

The diagnostic process began for Hartmann in 2019 at the CrossFit Affiliate Summit in Canada. He did a workout that included a run around a lake, during which he experienced extreme pain in his shin, foot and knee. He had to walk back to the hotel on his own, which he says took hours. Hartmann had an ER doctor examine him at the gym, who thought it was foot drop.

Back in Cincinnati, where Hartmann lived and owned its subsidiary CrossFit Cincinnati until April 2021, doctors assumed the pain was due to scoliosis. Hartmann postponed the surgery because he did not want to lose his mobility and ability to exercise until October 2021. By this point, Hartmann had lost a lot of weight and could no longer squat without his knee collapses.

Image credit: Rainer Hartmann

In March 2022, Hartmann’s doctor suggested a new diagnosis: ALS. This was confirmed in June of this year when the degeneration spread beyond Hartmann’s leg.

Since his diagnosis, Hartmann’s life has changed dramatically. He now uses a wheelchair and has had to stop ‘CrossFit style’ workouts and instead do more traditional weight lifting moves. He finished The Open in the Adaptive Division last year, did an Adaptive Murph for Memorial Day, and did 60 Adaptive Burpees for his birthday. He says it’s frustrating to be so limited in his exercise, especially thinking back to just a few years ago when he could lift 400 pounds. Despite everything, he tries to keep a positive attitude.

  • “I can still get up every morningI can still move on my own and I’m still able to work, so it could be worse,” Hartmann said.

Along with the physical changes the past year has brought to Hartmann, he has had to deal with many of the emotions that come with a life-changing diagnosis. Especially among them, he adapts to not moving all day. A longtime coach, Hartmann says it’s never been a day off and it’s hard not to have a fun distraction.

Additionally, Hartmann has dealt with “why” questions since his diagnosis. The cause of ALS is not known and it affects healthy, active people as much as other groups. He says it taught him to “take nothing for granted,” something he wishes he could say to a younger version of himself.

There were, however, some bright spots in this tumultuous time in Hartmann’s life. Local gyms held fundraising contests for ALS, and Hartmann met peers with similar diagnoses via the internet.

Rogue and Caity Henninger have also played a role in Hartmann’s life in recent months. He originally signed up to volunteer at the Rogue Invitational in 2021, but had to pull out due to his health issues. The meet directors and Henninger were extremely accommodating according to Hartmann, providing him with tickets, Uber rides to and from the meet each day and ensuring he was looked after during the meet.

Image credit: Rainer Hartmann

Although Hartmann struggles to stay positive amid his condition and the struggles he brings, he says the support from the fitness community and beyond helps him through the tough days.
Hartman: “It’s good to know that people will pay attention to me.”

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