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Iron Will

Frank Contreras

A young man confronts his physical disability with a 900-pound leg press at the shrine to body worship.

By Michael Learmonth

Each weekday morning, after all the white shirts have gone to their cubicles, the serious ironheads trickle in to Gold's Gym at Hamilton and San Tomas in Campbell. Lithe, muscular bodies clad in clingy workout wear rule the roost. A thick-limbed off-duty fireman throws a few more iron donuts on the bar, shiny women breathe in steady cadence on the step machines upstairs, and an orange-skinned couple stops to chat at the front desk.

They all recognize Frank Contreras, who arrives at the gym at 9:30 and heaves metal until noon four days a week. As he goes through his regimen--upper body on Monday and Wednesday, lower on Tuesday and Thursday--some smile, others wave or stop and ask how the training is going. Some say Contreras inspires them to work out harder. When Contreras tells one friend he had trouble getting motivated at his last gym, she replies in genuine disbelief, "You, unmotivated? I can't imagine that."

Contreras, 29, has cerebral palsy, making even the simplest physical movement a struggle between his brain and his body, which at times behaves as if it has a mind of its own. When he was an infant, Contreras' doctors told his parents he would probably never walk or even speak intelligibly. Sure, Contreras walks with a lurch and speaks with a slur, but last week at Gold's the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Contreras leg-pressed 900 pounds. Next week, he's going for 1,000. By comparison, Bill Zahiralis, 30, the strapping 195-pound manager of the gym, presses 600.

"It helps me walk better," Contreras tells me. "Sometimes I can't believe the weight I am doing. It also helps my self-confidence."

Cerebral palsy is not a disease. It does not get worse, and as Contreras will attest, some of its effects can be overcome. The condition is usually caused by a deprivation of oxygen sometime before, during or immediately after birth. It can also be caused later in life by a tumor or head injury. Contreras was born with his mother's umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, depriving him of oxygen long enough to damage the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that controls physical movement. Sometimes the deprivation of oxygen can cause mental retardation, but often enough, as in Contreras' case, people with cerebral palsy have normal or above-average intelligence.

"I might be slower than everyone else, but I have an advantage [over other people with cerebral palsy] because I can walk," Contreras says. "Mentally, I can do anything, but physically I know I cannot do certain things."

Contreras takes a break from his Tuesday upper-body workout to sit down with me at one of the café tables at Gold's Gym. He's dressed in a striped spandex weightlifter's suit that is shorts and a tank top all in one piece. His physique is compact and sturdy. As he perches on a stool, elbows on the table, his unruly fingers and arms cooperate fully while they are at rest. His speech is very slow, but easy to understand after a few minutes. To form each word he must first wrestle a tongue that tends to leap and twist in his mouth.

"Everyone has a disability," he explains. "It's just that most people can hide it."

On his three days away from the gym, Contreras holds down a part-time $6-an-hour job at Toys "R" Us in Sunnyvale. There, he is able to do all the customer service jobs except for operating the cash register. Finding work, he says, is difficult. Before he got the job at Toys "R" Us, Contreras won a settlement from the Great Mall in Milpitas, which was found to have discriminated against him in a job interview.

Contreras would like to supplement his shifts at Toys "R" Us with another job to help make ends meet. His disability check from the government is $600 a month, but from that a dollar is deducted for every $2 he makes on the job.

"His dedication just boggles my mind," says Tania Rands, 27, a longtime friend and graduate student at Princeton.

Inside the body Contreras struggles to control lives a thoughtful man, remarkably patient with others even though he is often misunderstood. Contreras' future plans include marriage and children. A recent romance ad placed in Metro yielded no takers. "There are times I would like to meet someone," he says, "but it is hard because I'm afraid they will reject me. They look at the outside, not in."

But if romance is a challenge, making friends at Gold's clearly is not. Sitting with Contreras is a little like sitting with that popular friend at lunch in high school--an unlikely niche in the land of sweat, iron and body improvement.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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