Iron Butterfly: This disease won’t stop me powerlifting

Living with a skin condition that’s likened to third degree burns forced Dean Clifford to develop both mental and physical strength that, against all odds, he harnesses on the gym floor.

It’s Saturday evening. I am sitting at Suncorp Stadium, in the seat that has been mine for so long now. I’m in my element, my home away from home. I’m watching the game and cheering on my mates on the Brisbane Broncos as they take on the Canberra Raiders. This is one of the few places where I feel completely comfortable. Welcome to my favourite place in the world.

Sport is in my DNA, rugby league even more so. Except, I have never played. I haven’t even laced up a pair of boots. I was born with a very rare genetic skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa, more commonly known as EB, or Butterfly Children. My skin is as fragile as tissue paper, which means even the smallest everyday tasks pose huge threats to my life. As a baby, I could not be touched or picked up by my parents. As a young child I struggled to crawl and walk. That meant that playing a contact sport like rugby league, or any sport for that matter, was considered a complete impossibility. Just staying alive was a huge daily fight. I was given a life expectancy of no more than 5 years. The experts said the pain would be impossible for anyone to handle. Strong painkillers and medications were recommended just to keep me alive.

Yet, here I sit at the age of 38. Amazingly, I am living a full and active life without any painkillers whatsoever. What is even more amazing is that that very sick little kid grew up to become a powerlifter! Which brings me to my second favourite place in the world, the gym.

I know what you’re thinking – why would someone who has to be so careful with their body enjoy being in an environment like the gym? There are a million things that could go wrong. The answer is this: even though I was born with EB, I was also born to be an athlete, perhaps I was even born to be a powerlifter. After all, from when I was born I had to use my strength if I wanted to survive. My parents could not pick me up, so I had to climb onto their backs. Then, because I struggled to walk, I had to push myself around in a heavy old wheelchair. My feet and legs have always been bad, so I rely on my upper body strength greatly. It shouldn’t have surprised me when I fell in love with powerlifting.

One day, my mate suggested I try lifting some weights in the gym when no one else was around. I was nervous, to say the least. The skin on my hands, back and body in general is still very fragile. But, I trusted my mate would help if anything went wrong. We started with just the 20kg bar, no weights – no problem. Then we added 2.5kg each side, fine. So we added another 2.5kg, and so on. We were both shocked and amazed when, at the end of my first day in the gym, I was bench pressing 60kg. At the time, I weighed in at just 65kg. We monitored my skin closely, to make sure there wasn’t any damage, and, incredibly, there wasn’t! The next time I tried, I could easily press 65kg, my bodyweight.

So, with the help of my close friends at the Broncos, we began working on a gym program based around what my skin and body would allow. We started slowly on a three days per week program lifting 30kg for sets of 10. Then we added sit ups, resistance band work and modified pull-ups (I have so much scar tissue around my shoulders they now no longer allow my arms to reach up over my head). A 6-week gym program pretty quickly developed based around everything I could do. It helped me push the boundaries just a little bit every day. At the end of each six weeks we would test my strength out on the bench press, and time and again I got a new PB.

Twelve years later, the gym feels like a home away from home. When I need time off for medical or health reasons, I count down the days until I can get back in the gym again. I once began with sets of 30kg, now I regularly begin my programs at 80kg or 90kg. My PB on the bench press is currently 150kg – well over double my body weight. You can click HERE to watch me attempting to beat another PB of twenty-five 60kg bench presses.

I once had a weak and fragile body. Now, I am strong and balanced on my feet. This is nothing short of life changing. Being able to lift weights and exercise has freed me, both physically and mentally. I encourage anyone that has thought that lifting weights is beyond their capabilities to reconsider. Start off light, don’t overdo it, and be willing to push yourself. It’s amazing what you can achieve.

My seat in Suncorp Stadium and the gym are havens where I can embrace who I am, but there’s actually one other place where I also feel completely at home, and that’s on stage, sharing my story. As a motivational speaker, I love inspiring people from all walks of life to be the best versions of themselves. In 2017, along with others, I shared my story of living with facial differences on ABC TV’s You can’t ask that, which you can click to watch HERE. Like the gym and my time with the Broncos, sharing my story is life affirming and makes all that I have been through worthwhile.

Dean Clifford is a motivational speaker, recreational power lifter, mad NRL fan and brand ambassador for Toyota Australia. As a spokesperson for DEBRA Australia, he raises awareness of the challenges faced by people living with Epidermolysis Bullosa.