SALT LAKE CITY — Everything about Ed Goble is a contradiction.
A massive human who spent 20 years as a professional arm wrestler, he is physically shattered and an emotional lighthouse. When I first met him, he acknowledged wondering if his family would be better off without him, while at the same time exhibiting the kind of fight that inspired awe.
On a couch surrounded by strangers, he mourned the man a stroke and cancer had stolen, while opening himself up to becoming something he could feel more than see.
When we met in 2010 at a fishing retreat for men battling cancer, he was struggling to come to grips with the reality of redefining masculinity as he’d known it for 46 years. When we talked last week, the 54-year-old revealed a man who has remade himself by embracing the fragility of life with the passion of an outdoorsman.
The father of two boys doesn’t flail against the unfairness and uncertainty of life. He takes it in, takes it on and gives each unknown, unexpected and even the unwanted opportunities the best of himself.
And most days he does that with the kind of humor that transforms grim realities into unexpected adventures.
Goble’s idealic life veered from its planned path when he suffered a severe stroke in 2008.
“I had to take a year away from work, and learn to walk again,” he said. “I still use a cane for my balance. I came back to work, and three weeks later found out I had stage four cancer.”
At the time, his two sons, Fisher and Hunter — yes, he loves the outdoors that much — were 9 and 10. The youngest, Fisher, was asked to write a book about his favorite thing, and among the teacher’s suggestions were pets, toys, activities.
“He decided to write about me, his dad,” Goble said. “I still keep it with me in my truck all the time.”
Eight years ago, he read that book at the end of the second day of Reel Recovery retreat where we met. It was one of the most gut-wrenching experiences I’ve had on the job. He talked about feeling like Frankenstein because of the scars surgeries and biopsies had left all over his body, and then he joked that a part of him was OK with that because, well, he really did love Halloween that much.
His admission that maybe his family would be unburdened by his death brought other men to tears, as some couldn’t help but offer him words of encouragement.
He was intensely, terrifyingly vulnerable, and at the same time, his honesty about denying the gravity of his situation by not writing a will and the emasculating side effects of cancer treatment seemed to reveal a mythical level of strength.
Eight year after we met, he emailed me to let me know he was going to be competing in an arm wrestling tournament this weekend at FitCon.
“My cancer never went away,” he said matter of factly. “They found four more types of cancer and it was one surgery after another. I haven’t gone a year without them finding more cancer or surgeries.” Last year was his best year with a biopsy that revealed a benign mass.
In nine years, doctors have found five types of cancer in 13 places. He’s had more than 40 procedures and 12 major surgeries.
“I’m an overachiever,” he said laughing.
Every year, he’s gone and watched Survivor at the Summit (a fundraiser for Cancer Wellness House at Snowbird) with envy.
“I always wanted to hike it,” he said. “I just haven’t had the energy. Last year, Fisher and I hiked it, and it was a pretty humbling experience.” As if he needed any more humbling.
Participants travel the 3.5 miles to Hidden Peak in honor of those who’ve inspired them. For Goble, it is his wife, Connie, and the countless people he’s met on his journey, some of whom were not as lucky as him.
“Just to be hiking that and realizing it wasn’t just for me,” he said of why it was more emotionally taxing than physically demanding. “I was hiking for all of my friends that I’ve lost, just thinking about people like Dov (Siporin).”
It was Dov’s death three years ago that moved Goble from that comfortable rut most humans yearn to settle into, especially when something like chronic illness won’t allow it.
“After Dov passed, I just told myself, ‘I’ve got to get back on track’,” he said. “I’m tired of being sick and tired.” So against the advice of doctors, he returned to weight lifting with the hope that he might one day arm wrestle again.
“Even though the doctors told me I shouldn’t arm wrestler (because of vascular issues related to the stroke),” he said, “I feel best when I’m exercising. It was hard that first year trying to ride a recumbent bike again and just starting to lift weights.”
He couldn’t bench press because it left him nauseated and dizzy because of the stroke.
“I just did pull downs and dumb bells and whatever I could,” he said.
Last year, a specific dream took shape that Goble will realize this weekend.
He and his youngest son, Fisher, now 17, went to FitCon last year to watch a professional arm-wrestling tournament.
Fisher was desperate to see his father compete. Ed said he asked a few of the competitors for a practice contest but most refused.
The man who won the tournament agreed to arm wrestle him, and to Goble’s surprise, he won.
Still, the light-hearted, introspective man isn’t going into this weekend’s competition with dreams of grandeur. He’s approaching it with the methodical gratitude and reality that’s accompanied every day since his stroke.
“With the medications I’m on, I’ve put on like 80 pounds,” he said. “It’s hard for me to get back in my regular arm-wrestling bracket (198 pounds).” So Saturday, April 7, he will compete in the Battle of the Arms at FitCon at the Expo Center in Sandy in the 199-and-over bracket.
“It did my heart good to say, ‘I can make a comeback,’” said Goble, who won the World Amateurs in 1995, multiple state championships, and traveled the world competing for Team USA. “I just want to have fun and see how I deal with things, given the exercising and not practicing or anything. Of course I’d love to win. But we’ll see how I do.”
Goble will have the most dedicated cheering section in his wife, Connie, and his sons when the event kicks off at noon.
“The butterflies are coming back,” he said. And when he’s nervous, he’ll think of those who’ve inspired him — people like Dov and his son, Fisher, who is autistic and attends Spectrum Academy. It is in that setting that Fisher plays sports like cross-country and soccer.
“These kids would never have an opportunity like this in another school,” Goble said. “It’s humbling to watch these kids play their games.”
Goble has embraced opportunities to learn the depth of humility, the healing power of gratitude. He hasn’t let dark days diminish his ability to see beauty in every experience or his knack for finding humor in even the most humiliating and discouraging moments.
And if he has advice, it’s pretty simple — enjoy what you have right now. “Back then, I just wanted to live in the moment because I didn’t know what was coming next,” he said. “You can’t plan for the future or live in the future — or the past. That’s really what got me through. I just lived in the moment.”