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Shelby man, 70, celebrates road to recovery with state record

He bench presses 200 pounds

By: Sarah Wojcik | Shelby - Utica News | Published September 14, 2016

 While at the Planet Fitness at 23 Mile and Van Dyke Sept. 7, David Palugyay, 70, of Shelby Township, displays his gold medal that he won Aug. 15 from the Michigan Senior Olympics for his performance in the bench press.

While at the Planet Fitness at 23 Mile and Van Dyke Sept. 7, David Palugyay, 70, of Shelby Township, displays his gold medal that he won Aug. 15 from the Michigan Senior Olympics for his performance in the bench press.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

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SHELBY TOWNSHIP — After overcoming debilitating back surgery that ended his firefighting career, and then a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery a decade later, a Shelby Township man made a commitment to physical fitness that saved his life.

David Palugyay’s most recent accomplishment in his fitness journey is a gold medal and state record in his age and weight class in the bench press division of the Michigan Senior Olympics, which took place at the Rochester Athletic Club Aug. 15.

“I had to struggle to rebuild my body, and then I had to struggle to build my heart,” Palugyay said. “My wife and I both realized the benefits of physical fitness.”

In 1996, Palugyay retired as fire chief from the Hazel Park Fire Department at the age of 49 after a neurosurgeon fused his lower spine together and told him he had failed back syndrome. Because it was a small department, Palugyay said, he continued to fight fires as chief and experienced 10 documented injuries to his spine over the course of his 23-year career.

After months of lying in bed with a brace around his abdomen, Palugyay said he realized the only way he was going to resume a normal life was if he exercised.

“When I started, just simply walking was a struggle. I couldn’t walk from one end of the house to the other. Seriously, I had to take a break,” he said. “My doctor said, ‘Don’t ever lift more than 15 pounds, ever. Don’t even think about it.’ That’s when I knew I had to rebuild my body.”

Ten years later, Palugyay suffered a heart attack and had to have quadruple bypass heart surgery, he said. He said he had gained weight and gone up to 232 pounds. When he graduated from high school, he said, he weighed 190.

“I was a walking time bomb,” he said. “It was the second time in my life where walking from one end of the house (to the other was difficult).”

Today he weighs 178 pounds and works out at Planet Fitness almost every day. He also regularly rides his bike and takes walks with his wife, Linda, who accompanies her husband to the gym every other day.

“His doctor was aware he was doing this and supported it,” Linda said. “I’m 67 and he’s 70. We feel so good for our age. We are able to wrestle with our grandchildren, who are getting very big, and we are able to participate in life.”

David and Linda have been married for almost 23 years and have been together for 30 years. They have five children and six grandchildren between the ages of 5 and 15.

“I think what I saw in David was this desire to be the best that he could be and, at the time, he was so weak and so ill. He got his strength back by sheer determination,” she said. “I’m very proud of him for not settling for a life less than what he could have.”

David said he heard about the Michigan Senior Olympics through a newspaper article about a local woman in her 70s who had competed and won several gold medals.

“I was kind of limited as to what I could do because I have an artificial knee, my back is not real good and I have a little bit of a heart problem, so I said powerlifting is the only thing,” he said.

On Aug. 15, David was one of 19 men — including four in his class — and seven women who participated in the bench press event. All participants lifted three times. He bench pressed 200 pounds, winning a gold medal and beating the state record in his class.

“I was very happy knowing all of that and just very honored and humbled about the whole thing,” he said. “It was incredible seeing some of these old-timers — men and women — who were just incredibly strong in this statewide competition.”

He said he was very nervous coming into the event, but he far exceeded his expectations and participants in other Michigan Senior Olympics events gathered to cheer on the competitors.

Although these were David’s first Michigan Senior Olympics, he said they likely will be his last.

“I’m kind of lanky and I trained with heavy weights to get into this. I’ve much lowered that weight since then,” said David, who stands 6 feet tall. “I’m not a natural weight lifter.”

He attributed a large part of his recovery to Linda, who took care of him during his rehabilitation and did a lot for him.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. … I have a loving wife and family, and I have a lot of incentive to make it, hopefully, a long life,” he said. “I think that, once you face death and then you have a day where you welcome it because you feel so bad, you say, ‘I know I’m on bonus time, so I better enjoy myself.’”

David said he is not one to talk about his medical history, but if his journey to becoming physically fit could inspire anyone else suffering from any pain or ailments to become more active, then he wanted to share his story.

“I’m not pain-free, but I’m doing so much better than I used to be,” David said. “I feel like I’m 30. I used to roll out of bed in my 50s and it would take, seriously, 10-15 minutes and I was in agony, but when I started to work at it, the pain started going away.”

Exercise, he said, is the best medicine there is.

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