Can-do spirit bolsters widowed father, grandfather to fight multiple sclerosis in YMCA pool
Apr 17 2003 12:00AM
By Linda Fausel - Staff Writer
New Berlin Citizen
Step by step, he pushes the aluminum walker toward the water, slowly, methodically, on legs betrayed by multiple sclerosis. He pauses in the doorway to the swimming pool at the West Suburban YMCA in Wauwatosa.
"Through these doors is Camelot," he says with a smile.
New Berlin resident Greg Genal, 66, swims laps at the Y five days a week. The water provides a relaxing reprieve from his constant adversary on land -- gravity. Swimming strengthens the retired gym teacher's degenerating leg muscles and adds might to his mental state.
"Exercise has always been in my life. Now it is just more important. I'm not a great swimmer speed-wise, but my heart and lungs are getting stronger," he said.
Genal makes friends wherever he goes, setting an example of acceptance of life's trials.
Genal was employed by the School District of Waukesha as director of health and physical education. He retired in 1984. His MS diagnosis came in 1991.
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, unpredictable neurological disease that can cause debilitating physical problems such as loss of balance, slurred speech, tremors, numbness, fatigue, problems with memory and concentration, paralysis and even blindness.
Difficulties with his right leg prompted Genal to see a doctor. He visited four doctors before receiving a diagnosis. "The last one said it was MS," he said.
Adopts fighting spirit
Genal decided the best way to deal with the news was to fight it. He joined the Y in 1991 and has been a regular member ever since.
"I like doing something I am reasonably good at," he said. "This is adult recess time, so I use it well. I don't let MS make me someone different than I was before I had it."
He glides across the water, intently focused on his laps. Each one holds special meaning for the man who is a widower, father of two and grandfather of four.
Genal said he regularly swims at least 42 laps in honor of his son, Scott, who would be 42 years old. Scott, a captain in the Air Force, was killed in November 1993 when his plane went down during a training mission in Texas.
Genal often wears a green camouflage jacket, a Christmas gift from his son, and he keeps Scott's memory alive by talking about him whenever he can.
Both of Genal's sons, Scott and Shawn, graduated from New Berlin West High School and from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Shawn Genal, 37, lives in South Carolina, is married to a woman named Shawn and together they have four children. They are expecting twins in a few months.
"My granddaughter, Gabrielle, wrote a story about her Uncle Scott, her Grandmother Diane and her Papa who loves to swim. I sent a copy to the First Lady," Genal said. Barbara Bush wrote back and the little girl was thrilled.
Genal's family is very important to him. Swimming allows Genal to focus on remembering.
Some days, the father dedicates laps to his son. On other days, he pushes his way back and forth with someone else on his mind -- his late wife, Diane.
Diane died in August 1999 from a recurrence of breast cancer. She was 61. The couple were just two years shy of celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary.
"Diane had a bout with breast cancer in the 1980s and they removed one breast," Genal said. "We thought she was healed.
"After the boys left for college, she got a job as a bookkeeper. She was out shoveling snow one day and complained about her back hurting. We went to the doctor and they told her she had a tumor on her spine. We tried radiation but it didn't work. The doctor told her to get her affairs in order."
Sitting in the car in the hospital parking lot, Genal expressed his shock and anger when his wife shared the prognosis. He asked her what she wanted to do.
"Let's go to Kopp's," she said.
"That is how she was. During the five months she lived after the diagnosis, I think she only spoke maybe three times about how unfair life is," Genal said.
Knowing the importance of exercise, the two spent their last months together doing what they both loved.
"We rode around our cul-de-sac, Diane on a three-wheeler I bought for her and me on my scooter," Genal said.
Both Greg and Diane embraced an optimistic and upbeat view of life.
Started family business
After Greg's retirement in 1984, the pair started their own business and named it Ready, Go! Genal hired teachers and trained them to work in area schools, teaching children the basics of healthful exercise. Diane kept the books.
"I would do physical education classes for principals of schools in the archdiocese," Genal said. "I would talk about what gym class could really be. Through the medium of play, you can teach children a lot of concepts about themselves, way beyond jumping jacks."
From 1984 to 1999, Ready, Go! employed about 20 teachers.
For now, Mr. Ready, Go! is concentrating on his own physical health. He heads for the Y for his daily dose of gravity-free bliss.
Staff members say his freedom in the pool is a perfect match for his buoyant attitude about life.
Michael Smith, youth and family director, said people like Greg have the ability to change people's lives.
An inspiration to others
"Greg is someone that doesn't let his disability hold him down," Smith said. "I find him a great inspiration to myself and everyone around.
"At first people are a little worried about him because of his walking ability, but once they get to meet him they realize that he has so much drive inside of him, you can't help but sometimes envy someone that has that much drive."
Emilie Franske, YMCA membership and marketing director, agrees.
"When you see Greg, you notice that he walks with canes," Franske said. "Then you notice that when you try and help Greg, he very graciously refuses help. When you start talking to him, you realize what a wonderful person he is and you just want to get to know him."
Last week, Genal had a mishap while driving home from the Y. The spring snow storm on April 7 created slippery conditions all over the county.
Genal's van skidded off the road and into a small creek. The van was totaled because of water damage. Genal took it all in stride.
"They hadn't plowed the road yet and I went over the road, through the fence and down into the creek," he said. "I told the firefighters, I just was swimming."
Staff members are helping him buy a new set of wheels. In the meantime, friends have been driving Genal back and forth to the Y so he can continue his daily laps.
"Greg is someone that doesn't let his disability hold him down. I find him a great inspiration to myself and everyone around."
© New Berlin Citizen 2003