He swam the length of the Mediterranean Sea for sports, earned a sixth-degree black belt, opened a martial arts school in his first years in the United States, crafted and taught life-or-death Israeli combat fighting, dribbled his way to a national basketball championship and spent 20 years designing a custom exercise machine system. Miki Erez did it all even after most of his lower body was paralyzed.
Miki’s eyes peeled open to the iridescent whiteness surrounding him. Sterile walls. Blinding artificial lights. Bleached floors. The sight felt familiar now. He hated that. Sitting up in the hospital bed, Miki grasped for the torn bicycle inner tube he had tied to the metal bed frame at the beginning of his stay. He began his exercises. One, two, three. Other side. One, two, three. He could now lift both of his arms without any back spasms.
Miki Erez grew up near a military base in a small village east of Tel Aviv, Israel. His father served in the Israel Defense Forces, fought in six wars and rose through the ranks to be a general. But tanks weren’t Miki’s thing—as a boy he built gliders and was a regular at the aviation club. He dreamt of soaring through the clouds.
Six years into his service in the Israeli Air Force, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 left Erez with a life-changing spinal cord injury at the age of 24. To this day, he doesn’t speak of the helicopter accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Eight months and three surgeries after that day, he would be discharged to a rehabilitation center.
On his first visit home from the hospital, reminders of his limitations hid around every corner. Just walking up the stairs to his front door was an ordeal. The spices on his top shelf were out of reach. The narrow hallways were nearly impassable. Over the months in the hospital, Erez had a lot of time to feel sorry for himself. But he decided to focus on what he could do rather than what he couldn’t. Exercise became his outlet. “I began to understand that if I don’t do it, nobody else will do it for me,” Erez said. “Every single muscle that I could take advantage of and could support me, I start to work out.”
Despite being unable to stand up or walk without leg braces and crutches, Miki refused to use a wheelchair. “I was sort of walking on my ego,” he said. While in rehab, he spent most of his time at the only place he could shed his hardware. Every day, belly down on a wheeled stretcher, he maneuvered himself down street pavement and over sidewalk cracks to the center’s swimming pool. On the ground, he moved inches in minutes. But in the water, he went miles. “It was the only place I could be free,” Miki said. “I didn’t need any equipment to move around.” Miki didn’t give up his newfound freedom when he finished his physical therapy. He went on to out-lap competitors in Lake Tiberias, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean at the Israeli Veteran Disabled Games.
Miki was mostly numb from the waist down, but he wouldn’t accept that his disability was completely unchangeable. To challenge his standing balance, he tagged along with a friend to a place not many disabled people would dare go—a karate dojo. “I couldn’t stand, so I used to lean my back on the wall and do the punches and kicks,” Miki said. “I started training there relentlessly.” Each jab got faster and more precise. For the next six years, he fought his way to a third-degree black belt. Erez grew used to underestimation and pitiful looks. He ignored them. In 1979, he made Israel’s national full contact karate team and competed across the globe. In every match, he was the only disabled person on the mat.
Still, things a fully-abled person doesn’t think twice about in their daily lives were obstacles for Erez. A staircase without an elevator. A sidewalk with a ledge. A cramped bathroom stall. “I didn’t like that people were schlepping me,” Erez said. “I wanted to become strong enough to sit on the stairs and push myself up with my arms.” He set out to bulk up his upper body to do just that. But Erez didn’t want another physical therapist, so he went to a typical gym by himself. On the weight floor, it was risky to maneuver around heavy machinery in crutches. So Miki crawled from one machine to another. When he made it to each bench, he tied himself down with his black karate belt.
Erez had fallen in love with the South Florida landscape while traveling with the Israeli karate team, and in 1980, he left Israel behind to open up his own martial arts school in Hollywood. For 15 years, he grew the Kyokushin Karate Dojo in Hollywood, FL from the ground up and met his wife, Lissette, when she was a leading student in his classes. He taught American fighter pilots and military personnel the Israeli combat fighting techniques of Krav Maga. He earned his Ph.D in Asian martial arts from the International Council of Higher Arts Education and Applied Science.
But Erez wasn’t going to stop at swimming, martial arts and pumping iron. A meeting with a spinal injury support group in 2008 brought him to his next physical challenge: wheelchair basketball. When Miki arrived at his first Miami Heat Wheels practice with his crutches, he began to see wheelchairs in a new light. “Everybody was playing basketball, running here and running there with the wheelchair,” Erez said. “I was sitting there like an idiot. I couldn’t participate in anything.” The team managed to scrounge up an extra wheelchair with some dings and cracks. Miki jumped right in. And he never stopped.
Using a wheelchair, Miki didn’t need to sit every few minutes to relieve his joints. Lisette didn’t have to slow her walking to match his pace. Nothing was “too far” anymore. The constraints of his pride began to loosen with each practice. “This is really when my brain switched from walking to sitting,” Miki said. “I saw the capabilities.” Miki has spent the last 12 years on the team. In 2015, he and his teammates won the National Wheelchair Basketball Association championship in Louisville, Kentucky. Lissette, who never misses a practice or game, thinks of the players as bionic people. “You see part man, part machine being one,” Lissette said. “It’s very strange. But these guys are amazing when you see them moving. It’s even beautiful.”
Ever since he’d crawled on the floors of gyms years ago, Miki knew the disabled community needed a safe and independent way to stay fit. He decided to do something about it on the way home from a Tony Robbins motivational convention in 2000. As inspirational quotes from the day lingered in his mind, memories of his first days living with a disability overcame him. For Miki, taking control of his fitness had been the most important aspect of mental and physical rehabilitation. It meant he was strong enough to be completely independent and self-reliant. But over his years of physical training Miki found that gyms were never built for disabled people, no matter what “accessible” labels they flaunted. Wheelchair users had to be able to safely take control of their own bodies without depending on rehab centers and physical therapists who had never been disabled. For this community, fitness is about more than physique—it’s a matter of life and death. According to Miki, it’s very easy to gain weight when you spend your life sitting. This, he said, can lead to other medical problems on top of one’s condition. “When a person has been sitting in a chair for many years, a lot of people think ‘oh poor thing, he wants to walk.’” Lissette said. “But it’s no longer a desire to walk. It’s a desire to be as strong and fit as you can while sitting.”
When Miki and Lissette arrived at their Palmetto Bay home that night, Lissette retreated to their bedroom. But Miki silently slipped away to his office. Loose sketches and cryptic notes piled up across his desk. By sunrise, he’d rendered the first blueprints of what would turn into a 20-year project: the first-ever exercise machine system built especially for wheelchair users.
He began to bring those drawings to life by piecing together a crude prototype in his own garage. The entire machine design was a compilation of Miki’s own training experiences. He crafted a harness inspired by those inside Air Force helicopters to secure the wheelchair user in place. He engineered a weighted pulley system for upper body resistance training. He incorporated a punching bag, familiar from his karate training. He added a handcycle (like a bike for your hands) to keep up his endurance for swimming. He hung a climbing rope to practice self-lifting out of the wheelchair.
He spent years in trial and error, tweaking weights here, moving cables there. His basketball teammates, neurologist friends and even his own wife were the first to test the machine. After several more years of paperwork, planning, patenting and FDA approval, Miki finally set out to find a manufacturer. But not one in the United States would take on the challenge. “They told me it’s not that difficult to build it, but it has a lot of parts and is very complex. And I said, ‘So? When you build the washing machine, you do what? You build all the parts!’”
After a three-year domestic search proved fruitless, he decided to look south of the border. Months later, Miki and Lissette voyaged to Mexico to see the first built machine in-person. Miki looked over every nut, bolt and screw of his now real-life masterpiece. He quickly pointed out flaws while Lissette, a native Miamian, translated his critiques in Spanish. With a lengthy list of adjustments and a deadline to make them, Miki vowed he’d be back. A year later, they returned and finally gave the green light to manufacture the machine. They call it: Wheelchair Fitness Solution.
As of 2018, one machine now lives in clubX, a gym in Coral Gables, Florida. It’s the first of its kind to exist, let alone be available for public use. Miki and Lissette plan to start a non-profit organization dedicated to donating more machines to rehabilitation centers and organizations across the country.
“You cannot say ‘I’m disabled, I can’t move, I’m too heavy, I’m too weak,’” said Miki. “This doesn’t help you. You have to turn your frustration into motivation.”
- There are about 2.7 million wheelchair users in the U.S. (Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information)
- December 3rd marks International Day of Disabled Persons. (Source: United Nations)
- Instead of Handicappped, say Disabled instead. (Source: National Disability Authority)
- About 15% of our global population is afflicted with disabilities. (Source: United Nations)
words & design_emmalyse brownstein. photo_courtesy miki erez.