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Jared Wells Has Cystic Fibrosis. Bodybuilding Changed His Life.12:54
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(Courtesy Jared Wells)
(Courtesy Jared Wells)

A longer version of this story appeared on the podcast Endless Thread.

Jared Wells is originally from Utica, New York. And he recently started training to become a pro bodybuilder.

Right now, Jared's still 'bulking up,' as they say. He weighs about 150 pounds.

"My arms really aren't that big — they're getting there," he says. "My thighs are still kind of thin. I've got some pretty decent calves. Ripped abs. And then I'm building my chest up."

If you think Jared's size and weight sound a little small for your average bodybuilder, you’re not wrong. This is partly because Jared’s new to bodybuilding. But also because it’s been a big year of transformation for him.

"January of last year, I weighed 117 pounds," Jared says. "And I’m just about 6-foot-1. So as you can imagine, that's not very good. I was kind of looking at death’s door. My lung function had fallen severely. My mom and I had kind of been planning for the worst.

"I was kind of looking at death’s door. My lung function had fallen severely. My mom and I had kind of been planning for the worst."

Jared Wells

"We had talked to the doctors about hospice — we had been thinking about that. But I definitely — I looked my mother in the eye and told her that that might be something I want to set up — you know, a will, hospice, the whole nine."

Jared has cystic fibrosis. He's lived it for just about 22 years — since he was born.

Cystic Fibrosis

"Cystic fibrosis is a degenerative genetic disease that affects the lungs and sometimes the pancreas or digestive system," Jared says. "We have a hard time clearing mucus out of our lungs, so it builds up and can cause infections and make it very hard to breathe. Kind of clog it all up. And eventually, some people have the digestive issue where the mucus can cover the digestive tract and make it really hard to absorb the nutrients that most people would."

Despite this, Jared says that, thanks to his mom and his older brother, he had a pretty "normal" childhood. He went to school, hung out with his friends — pretty typical.

Not so typical? The medications and time-consuming treatments that he had to keep up with every day. Enzymes to help him absorb the nutrients in his food. Nebulizers.

"I also have a machine called the vest, which is literally a machine that pumps air into a vest," Jared explains. "Fills it up, and then vibrates it very quickly to help break up that mucus to make me cough it out."

As you might imagine, this stuff can get pretty tiring. And last January, Jared was freaking tired.

"After so many years, I was kind of just sick of it," he says. "You know, even if I did everything right, I felt like I was still going to get sick and I was just prolonging the inevitable. And I kind of just let my let myself go. I kind of just decided to enjoy my life to the fullest instead of doing what I need to do to prolong it."

So instead of doing his treatments, Jared would go hang out with friends. He started drinking a little bit more. He started sleeping more.

This doesn't seem like a big deal on the surface. But when you have cystic fibrosis, backing off of the fight starts to turn into a death sentence. And Jared knew that. He just thought he was ready for it. One day after a doctor’s visit, he had the talk with his mom about setting up his will and preparing for hospice. Preparing to die.

"I think it was maybe the very next day, my lung function had dropped so much that I was practically suffocating myself," Jared says. "I just remember calling my mom saying that we need to go to the hospital. And then being in a wheelchair, finally getting admitted into the hospital.

"And I remember coming out of that saying to myself, like, ‘There's got to be more.’ And something just clicked that said, ‘I'm not ready yet.’ "

Hitting The Gym

This is when Jared decided to do something totally out of character for him — and especially out of character for someone with his disease. He had this friend from town whose dad ran a bodybuilding gym in Utica. And that friend invited Jared to come work out sometime. If he wanted.

So one morning, pretty soon after he decided he didn’t want to die after all, Jared hit the gym. But this was not your so-called “sports club” with cucumber water and a sauna.

"It’s a super old-school bodybuilding gym," Jared says. "There is no windows — only a few skylights — and then we have one big garage door to open. Walls are concrete with, like, paint chipping on them. There's a wall of all the people that have trained there that have gone pro. And then, of course, you've got all the old-school bodybuilders and women bodybuilders with the signed, framed photos."

On his first day, Jared says he followed around his friend Vinny Donnelly like a little puppy.

"We did a decline bench press," Jared says. "I was only doing the bar, but you gotta start somewhere. To be honest, I was thinking it was going to be a one — a couple times and then kind of quit. But I don't know what it was. I just started going every day. And, you know, after Mr. Donnelly, Vinny's dad, had wanted to take me on as a project, everybody looked at me and said, ‘Well, you're not getting out of this now.’ "

Jared says Mr. Donnelly’s about 6-foot-3 — a pretty massive guy.

"He is very hard of hearing, so sometimes you gotta scream in his ear," Jared says. "But you ask him any questions about bodybuilding, he's more than happy to help anyone. He's just that kind of guy."

Mr. Donnelly had actually trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno in Venice Beach, so there’s some legit bodybuilding pedigree there. And he saw something in Jared. Partly, attendance.

They’d train at 6 a.m. every day, because Jared wasn’t really into having an audience. There were fewer people there to stare at Jared, who was frail and pale and didn’t look like he could lift much of anything.

"I’d have to say it was probably, like, two or three weeks down the road when I started actually having energy," Jared says. "And I put on five pounds of weight, and I was like, ‘This is amazing. This is exactly where I've wanted to be.’ "

In the first three months, Jared put on 35 pounds.

"And that's not even the best part of it," Jared says. "My lung function, it jumped up to about what it was three years ago — which was kind of unheard of. Typically, with cystic fibrosis, when you lose that substantial amount of lung function, it's very, very hard to get it back. And I had kind of done what seemed impossible."

r/GetMotivated

Since then, Jared has had a pretty mind-blowing journey. And all in the last year. Eventually, somebody caught wind of his story on Facebook and posted pictures and Jared's story to Reddit. It blew up — just like Jared had. Then came more posts with pictures of Jared at the gym and captions like, “Jared didn’t take today off, did you?” He basically became his own meme.

"I never would have expected in a million years for people to be so impressed or motivated or inspired by what I've done," Jared says.

Jared says the whole thing — his work at the gym and the results he’s had, the training under Mr. Donnelly and the Reddit reaction — has him thinking about the future in a way he hasn’t before.

"I can, kind of, take control of my life again," Jared says.

Since he started bodybuilding, Jared has taken big steps. Nine months of heavy training in Utica after years of not training at all. He recently moved away from home to Denver, a drier city where he can breath better. He’s gotten a new job in an appliance factory. He’s even considering becoming a motivational speaker.

"If I can inspire someone to to take control of their life or, you know, do something more with their life, that's everything," he says. "And then being able to show my mom that everything she did when I was younger is not going to waste.

"She was really excited to get me out of Utica. I mean, the day of, she got very emotional — and, I’m not gonna lie, that was probably the first time I've seen her cry — when I left."

And recently, Jared competed in his first bodybuilding competition.

"You're expecting to go in there and have to look tough, act tough, and then everybody's just as friendly as can be," Jared says. "And it's like, ‘Oh, well, this is definitely not what I expected.’ "

How’d he do? In both classes he competed in, he hit top five. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson are co-hosts of the podcast Endless Thread. Josh Swartz is the producer. Thanks to Paul Vaitkus for mixing and sound design.

This segment aired on February 16, 2019.

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