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Mike Barwis: Beyond the Muscle

Celebrating the Detroit premier of his new television show on Discovery, former Michigan Strength & Conditioning coach Mike Barwis is a man who puts others happiness and health above his own.

Photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel
Photo courtesy of the Discovery Channel

He sat in his chair hunched over with his elbows on the armrest. His signature gravely voice and eyes that pierce the core maintain the facade of intense aggressiveness that he is famous for.

As soon as he starts to talk, you begin to realize that he is more than a man who loves to push athletes to the edge. More than someone who is opening up his gym to cameramen for a paycheck.

For Mike Barwis, he is as genuine as they come.

"I don't do things for money and I don't do things for fame. I do things because I want to help people," said Barwis. "If I can help people I will not say 'No.' That's what I do."

"I've got 25 (championship) rings in a closet somewhere, who the hell cares? It comes down to the lives of the individuals you impact every day."

Barwis is showcasing his gym, Barwis Methods, to Funny or Die and Discovery Channel film crews with his own television show called American Muscle. The show gives an inside look at how Barwis and his staff run his gym and push his members to the limit to find their physical potential, especially athletes.

However, don't tell Barwis this show is all about him.

"My list: God, family and everybody else. I'll always come last, there are a lot better people out there than me," declared Barwis. "The question is: Do you really let who you are manifest into greatness in someone else? That's what I want to show. I want to show that it's OK to struggle, and it's OK to fall. Somebody's gotta help you back up, so maybe you should be that somebody?"

"Or, maybe if you're down, you can look at the screen and see an elite athlete going through the same things you're going through and it's not so bad when you realize other people suffer too."

Barwis has been coaching strength and conditioning for many athletes and sports (collegiate and professional) for over 20 years. With recent stops in West Virginia and the University of Michigan, his "insane" methods -- as former Wolverine Larry Foote liked to describe it -- started to become more popular.

Regardless of all the success he's had with athletes during his stay in both Morgantown and Ann Arbor, one moment in particular stuck out with him the most.

The brother of former Michigan offensive lineman Elliott Mealer was lying in a hospital bed after being in a tragic car accident that killed their father and Elliot's girlfriend while leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He was given a 1% chance to walk again.

Barwis visited Brock Mealer in the hospital and told him that he would get him walking again.

The rest is history.

"Brock Mealer still comes here. After all those years he comes here and walks a mile with nothing," said Barwis with an obvious sense of pride. "That man right there is one of the sole reasons I do what I do today. He's helped 50 other people to walk by doing that. I'm just the schmuck guy that God chose to be a facilitator, there's nothing special about me."

Mealer and Barwis have always shared a special bond. From the second they met, they have been forever intertwined into each others lives.

It all culminated into one special moment at Michigan Stadium in 2010. Next to his two brothers, Mealer rose out from his wheel chair and walked (with the assistance of canes) across the turf to touch the banner.

"When he walked across the field, I just wanted to watch him. It was probably one of the more uplifting moments of my life," said Barwis. "Not because of what I had done, I was proud of what he did for himself and his family. He healed a family on that day."

"He let them all see no matter how bad that situation was, he was not going to lay down and God was not going to leave them. That's pretty damn special."

Barwis is in the business of healing, he works with many people with disabilities. After his show was announced, the waiting list grew from a couple hundred to a couple thousand people.

In typical Barwis fashion and following his "everyone else before me" mentality, he doesn't charge a single cent to people with disabilities through his First Step Foundation.

"First Step Foundation is why we are doing this tonight, to raise money for people with disabilities," said Barwis. "I work half my hours a week with people with disabilities for nothing. I get more out of that any money you could ever pay me. I love those human beings and they're struggling. If God gave me the gift to sit beside them and help them, and who the hell am I if I don't?"

At the end of the day, deciding to stay in Michigan with his wife and kids was made easy by Barwis' admiration of the University of Michigan. Although his time coaching in Ann Arbor was relatively short, the people still made a considerable impact on his life.

"The human beings in this area and the University of Michigan have always reached out to me. They embraced me from the day I got here and they embraced me the day I left the institution," said Barwis. "In my opinion, (U-M) stands for the right things. On the day I left, I had every single kid waiting in line crying waiting to hug me and to tell me they loved me."

"Those lives, that's what I remember about Michigan."

As for Barwis, he'll be remembered as a man who did the right thing because he wanted to, not just because he had to.

Underneath the muscles lies the pure heart of Mike Barwis.

American Muscle premiers Wednesday, July 9 at 9 p.m EST on the Discovery Channel.