Cathy Free
April 14, 2017 03:48 PM

Sheila Powell never imagined herself in a boxing gym, working a speed bag, shadow boxing and pivoting from left to right, but three days a week, that’s where you’ll find her, dancing in a ring at Legends Gym in her hometown of Lehi, Utah, in a fight for her life.

Five years after she learned that she had Parkinson’s disease, a neurological affliction that affects movement, Powell, 60, has regained her balance and muscle tone and doesn’t struggle as much with her speech, thanks to rigorous boxing workouts through a program called Rock Steady, taught in 280 gyms nationwide.

The retired schoolteacher had just finished fighting breast cancer when she learned in 2011 that her stumbling and hand tremors were caused by Parkinson’s and there wasn’t much modern medicine could do to alleviate her symptoms of the disease that has no cure.

Then last year, while attending a health conference in Salt Lake City, Powell was astonished to see an 80-year-old woman “beating the tar” out of a punching bag with pink boxing gloves.

“She said that boxing had helped reverse some of her Parkinson’s symptoms, and I thought, ‘If she can get in there and fight to lengthen her life, well, so can I,'” Powell tells PEOPLE. “I decided right there that I was going to become a boxer.”

Powell was stunned when she learned that a gym down the street from her home was one of only two places in Utah to offer Rock Steady non-contact, repetitive boxing classes for people with Parkinson’s.

“Right there in my own backyard,” she says. “It was like it was meant to be.”

After showing up for her first 90-minute class with a dozen other people in various stages of Parkinson’s, “I felt for the first time that I wasn’t alone — that we all had a common fight,” she says. “It wasn’t easy at first to keep my balance, but with patience, I was able to pick up my feet and get moving.”

Like others with Parkinson’s disease, Powell has struggled in recent years to perform simple tasks like buttoning shirts, tying shoes and climbing stairs.

Through a boxing routine that focuses on footwork, balance and agility, “she’s a different woman from when she first walked in the door,” says Powell’s coach, Sherri Bickley, 41. “She used to need a cane and shuffled her feet, and now she’s picking them up. She’s learned some great defensive moves.”

Powell has also found her voice. Once soft-spoken and unable to speak without stammering or mumbling, she is now loud and confident, shouting in the gym as she counts each time she hits the bag. 

“When she first started boxing, I have to admit, I was skeptical — I didn’t think it was going to work,” says Sheila’s husband, Lee Powell. “But after six weeks, when I saw her walk up the stairs without falling, I could see it was working. She was walking in a straight line for the first time in years.”

The best part about his wife’s new routine, though, says Lee, is the difference he’s seen in her demeanor. The quiet, sad woman is gone, he says, replaced by a vibrant and athletic woman who can’t wait to climb out of bed each morning and get moving.

“When Sheila is boxing,” he tells PEOPLE, “she doesn’t think she has Parkinson’s. It’s like all it fades away. It really is remarkable. It’s like a miracle, really.”

In between classes, Powell, who now hopes to become a boxing coach, works out with a speed bag in her garage, to the delight of her eight grandchildren who line up to cheer on the sidelines.

“My grandfather was a professional boxer, and even though I’m a late bloomer, I feel now like I’m carrying on that legacy,” she tells PEOPLE. “I’m literally pounding the heck out of this awful disease. One punch at a time, it feels good to fight.”

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