Greg Panora had it made.
An American record-holding powerlifter in the 242-pound weight class, he was living the life most lifters only dream of, training at Westside Barbell with legendary powerlifting coach Louie Simmons. But after suffering a major stroke at age 29, he felt lost — until he found CrossFit.
Panora started lifting weights to get better at sports. Throughout high school, he dabbled in shot put, wrestling, football and basketball, trying to find his place. But when he bench-pressed 405 pounds at age 16, he realized he’d already found it.
“I was better at lifting weights than any of the sports I was playing,” Panora said.
During his senior year in the small town of Stow, Massachusetts, Panora was recruited to play college football. But he had a dream to become a professional powerlifter. His dad told him to go to college instead.
So he went to the University of Maine, studying to become a high school history teacher. Though he continued to lift, breaking the junior world record at age 21 with a 940-pound squat, a 600-pound bench press and a 800-pound deadlift, four years in the classroom brought him down from the clouds. He resolved to join the ranks of the 9-to-5 working class.
Even after Simmons himself asked Panora when he planned to move to Columbus, Ohio, to train at Westside, Panora was unyielding.
“I’m ready for the next phase in my life,” he said.
“Well, if you want to be the best in the world, come see me,” Simmons said to Panora.
For the next three days, Panora ruminated over his decision, remembering younger days pursuing every sport he could.
“I was looking my whole life to be really good at something,” he said.
After realizing this was his chance to do just that, Panora packed his car and drove 15 hours to Columbus, with just $400 in his pocket. For the next six weeks, he lived out of his car, parking in an industrial lot to sleep and showering twice per week at a truck stop. He lost 20 pounds — a side effect of his poor man’s diet of cereal bars.
“When you live in a car, you can’t cook,” Panora said.
After finding a roommate, he got a job working with troubled kids. His main goal, however, was to get his name on the board at Westside.
“At Westside, you earn your respect,” he said.
Panora spent his first few months getting coffee and loading bars for veteran lifters. But after winning the 2006 American Powerlifting Federation nationals with a 1,000-pound (geared) squat, a 685-pound bench press and an 800-pound deadlift (fully geared with a double-ply denim bench shirt, a triple-ply canvas suit, doubly-ply polyester briefs and wraps), he earned his right to the platform.
From that point on, competing was his top priority.
“All I thought about was my next contest,” he said. “My whole life was competing.”
On May 9, 2010 — Mother’s Day — life as he knew it was taken away from him.
The night before, he spent the better part of Iron Man 2 in the theater bathroom, fighting the urge to vomit. He woke up at 11 that night unable to move the right side of his body. Chalking it up to a tweak in training, he went back to sleep. When he awoke the next morning in no better condition, he called his mother.
“Mom, something’s wrong,” Panora said, his speech garbled.
“Why are you talking like that?” she replied.
She told him she thought he had suffered a stroke, but he didn’t believe her. He was only 29 years old. After trying to shower and giving up, he stepped out of the bathroom to find a crew of EMTs waiting, called by his mother.
Though the doctors could not discern a cause, the diagnosis was clear: Panora had suffered a massive stroke. He spent two weeks in the hospital and the next three months in Florida for speech therapy and rehabilitation. In his last month of rehab, his trainer suggested he lift weights. Though he struggled to grip the bar to deadlift, he could bench-press 450 pounds easily. Still, his fine-motor skills were so badly damaged that he lacked the ability to grasp the edge of a towel.
“The pathways in my brain were so made to lift weights that it was more second nature to me than picking up a towel,” he said.
Though he could bench, he could not deadlift or squat, and after finishing rehabilitation, he retired from powerlifting. He retired and spent the next two years drifting from job to job in a state of depression.
“This had been something that has been my passion my whole life since I was 17, and all of the sudden, I didn’t have it anymore,” he said. “I had no drive left. I was ready for everything to be over, ready for it all to end.”
After quitting a job at a call center in Maine, Panora’s friend gave him two phone numbers. Each was for a gym owner, and it would be a last-ditch effort for Panora to find a job he could tolerate. The first number was a bust; the second was CrossFit Casco Bay.
Initially, affiliate owner Adam Nelson was hesitant. Would CrossFitters be interested in a powerlifting class? But he agreed to give it a shot. One brave soul became a class, and one class became two. Today, Panora’s Power Hour is one of the most successful in the affiliate, said current affiliate owner Nicholas Beal.
“All our athletes who participate in Greg’s class have seen the obvious benefit of being stronger,” Beal said. “But the real benefit has been in their confidence the strength brings them. They begin to be comfortable around heavy weight.”
According to Panora, the benefit is mutual.
“It’s amazing, I’ve never in my life met a better group of people,” Panora said. “From day one, everyone took right to it … it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
In fact, it was the athletes at CrossFit Casco Bay who brought Panora out of retirement. After agreeing to compete alongside members in a Connecticut powerlifting meet, Panora discovered a new goal: to become the best raw lifter in the world, without aid of straps or special garments.
And after training with the programming he writes for his class, on April 26, 2015, he put up a total of 2,102 pounds without gear at a Revolution Powerlifting Syndicate meet in New Hampshire, making him “the best crossover lifter of all time from geared to raw.”
Today, more than 10 years after Panora drove to Columbus to lift weights with no more than $400 to his name, he’s finally found his place: CrossFit Casco Bay.
“Do I do CrossFit? No,” Panora said. “But do I love it? Yes. It’s an amazing community of people, and it’s been the most incredible thing that’s ever happened to me.”