Cory Arth: A Life-Loving Physical Therapist With World-Class Professional Experience and a Penchant for Mac and Cheese.
Out of all the stories I have written, Cory’s has been without a doubt the most challenging of them all. Where should I begin?
In the short seven months that I have known him, Cory and I have run more than 100 kilometers side by side including a full marathon, attended the first Ultra Music Festival in China, biked through Shanghai countless nights listening to Odesza on repeat and shared the most sensitive parts of our lives. He provided incredible mental support following the accident that had me missing a few teeth for over a week, and selflessly opened new opportunities for me to enjoy a side of the city I otherwise would have never been able to experience. Cory, in a nutshell, has had my back since day one.
This story, however, isn’t just about my friendship with Cory. Rather, it serves as an opportunity for you, the reader, whoever you may be, to learn more about the man who has selflessly dedicated a significant portion of his time to making everyone around him safer and more aware of their own physical capabilities not just in Shanghai, but across the world. A man who has impacted hundreds, if not thousands of individuals with his unparalleled appreciation for life and the positive energy he never ceases to transmute across communities.
This is more than just a story.
This is a heartfelt tribute to his greatness both as an individual and a dear friend.
The only documented case of cannibalism.
To the best of my knowledge, Cory has never partaken in such horrific activities, so you can rest assured that he remains as harmless as you’ve known him to be (unless you’ve fallen under the wrath of his cups… Those who’ve experienced them will know what I’m talking about.) Cannibalism is, however, what his hometown of Truckee in beautiful Northern California is most famous for, and how our conversation basically started.
Living in the one of the only regions of the United States that combines the spectacular beauty of a national park and all the desirable amenities of a world-class resort, Cory quickly developed a strong sense of adventure and an immense love for nature, with immediate access to its surrounding and breathtaking wilderness via his own backyard. This was, what some might view as, Heaven on Earth.
Cory dedicates his initial professional inspiration to his dad whom he’s looked up to since he was a child. He describes his father as a “truly selfless and brilliant man and an excellent clinician who would spend late nights answering phone calls from frantic parents about their sick children”, values that Cory still holds dear to this day: “I loved his intelligent but no-bullshit take on everything” he praised.
Questions of whether he wanted to become a doctor “like his daddy” were commonly asked around his little mountain town. But it was his encounter with an athletic trainer from the San Jose Sharks - a Pacific Division professional Hockey team - while in High School that really sealed the deal. During her visit, she shared some of the benefits her job comes with which, unsurprisingly, resonated with Cory on a very deep level: “I get paid to watch all of the games at ice level, travel with the players and help them recover from injuries” she said. “It’s pretty sweet.”
Sports medicine was now on Cory’s map.
Playing with toys and forcing other people to exercise all day? Sign me up!
When you’re 30 minutes into the conversation and you’re hearing stories of the ginormous chauffeur of a billionaire Sheikh in Qatar who, for lack of better words, serves as his drug dealer, event planner and world-class pimp, you know you’re in for a treat. I was hooked, fully immersed and ready to reschedule my 4:00 pm meeting across town; unwilling to let go of Cory’s memorable tales.
In 2004, he took his new career aspirations down south where he enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a Biopsychology major. He was determined and willing to embrace the “work hard, play hard” mindset commonly championed across campus at UCSB, with an “adapt or die” intensity.
In the course of his 4 years of undergraduate studies he willingly endured over 1,600 hours of volunteer student athletic training experience that included biopsychology research lab work, leading recreational outdoor excursions and leadership programs in addition to the usual university class load: “During that process I got to experience both extremes of elation while traveling independently around the western part of the country with the nationally-ranked men’s Volleyball team and total disenfranchisement with the process of filling water bottles and ice bags.” he recollected with slight nostalgia.
His work involved teams across all sports: men’s and women’s Soccer/Football, Lacrosse, Rugby, Ultimate Frisbee, Field Hockey, Softball, men’s Water Polo, men’s Basketball, men’s Indoor Volleyball, Track and Field and Baseball. Despite the tedious hours he had to put up with, Cory embraced every minute of it all.
Throughout this process, he realized he didn’t have the passion to force himself through Medical school like many of his friends did, and instead found the world of physical therapy “amazingly interactive”. Indeed, he saw it as “a profession with nearly the requirements of Med School, an emphasis on psychology and a clinical life that allows you to play with toys all day and force other people to exercise”.
After graduating from UCSB in 2008, Cory took a one-year hiatus to travel to 13 countries in Europe for 2 months and complete a few pre-requisite courses at a community college in San Diego so he could enter the graduate school he wanted. Once the pre-reqs in his pocket, he moved to San Francisco to join the Doctor of Physical Therapy training program where he finally felt fully engaged in everything he was learning, and where he settled for the next 3 years. (I guess he’d abandoned the idea of, basically, having Stan Conte fired).
His social life and health conditions took a drastic turn when his long-time girlfriend of 4.5 years ended their relationship while he was still working on getting his Doctorate: "I convinced myself that living alone with a comfy couch, a big TV, and a full wine rack was happiness. I barely made it out of school and was completely burned out."
After some serious and challenging get-your-shit-together efforts, Cory did manage to make it out of grad school and went all-in on his career in Physical Therapy. He tried every outlet, including intensive care in the hospital, burns and wounds as well as pediatrics, geriatrics and neurological care like strokes, brain injuries and spinal cord injuries. Through all these experiences, he pretty much saw it all. His advice: "Don't get diabetes, ever. Trust me."
Coincidentally, an alumnus from his graduate school who also came from and lived in good-old Truckee called the Director of his program looking for someone to do sports medicine in the mountains. Cory was now getting ready to pack up again.
Home, sweet home.
So… You want to go to China?!??
On his first day, his boss sat him down and gave him the talk I wish I'd had during my orientation: “Well, I can’t really pay you much and you won’t have that many clients” he said. “You’ll get $40 per person, so good luck with those student loans. But for the most part, you’ll be working with professional and Olympic skiers, snowboarders, Iron Man athletes and some of the best extreme outdoor athletes in the industry.” It gets better: “If you’re good enough, I’ll also arrange for you to travel and get paid to perform sports medicine services around the world.”
As inspiring as that speech was, this isn’t exactly how things played out. Barely a month into his new job, Cory saw his boss walk in one morning with the biggest possible grin on his face asking his new recruit: “Soooo, you want to go to CHINA?!??”
After receiving the opportunity to train with a local Chinese softball team contracted by the performance company EXOS, Cory first flew to Phoenix, Arizona to undergo intensive training for a week where he got to work with the biggest superstars in baseball and American football. He was then ready to venture deep into the remote militarized jungle of Yunnan, a province in Southern China that borders both Myanmar and Laos.
His experience was like nothing he could have foreseen, spending 2 months using non-verbal communication to work with athletes and bypass the translator he had been assigned who had no medical knowledge and could understand less than half of what Cory said. Despite all the cultural and language barriers, this was surely an experience to look back on with nothing but delight.
What about that chauffeur in Qatar?
Right, I’ll get to that.
Following his trip to China, Cory moved back to Truckee for several months. From oil-bathed dumplings to juicy American comfort food; green and humid jungles to white snowy mountains, our newly proclaimed Elite Physical Therapist was home. Although he was missing his recent adventure, another career-changing opportunity would soon rise up again.
During a usual Health and Safety screening for Ski Patrollers at a ski resort in the region, he received a (missed) call from Sue Falsone, former Head Trainer and Physical Therapist of the Los Angeles Dodgers to come work for the NFL Combine, a full-on skills competition for college players that heavily impacts their draft selection and position (Note: Sue was the first female in sports history to be head of an organization in one of the top 5 highest grossing sports leagues: NFL, MLB, English Premier League, NBA and NHL): “I was SOOOOOOO pissed” Cory recalled, painfully. “It was like missing a call from a CEO, and I probably had the same stupid voicemail greeting I had since college.” After multiple interviews with their company, he was officially brought in by EXOS in January 2014 on what initially started as an 8-week contract. 6 days a week, 12 hours of work every day. He put up with an intensive and exhaustive work-load and eventually stayed with the team until August. He was working with world-class athletes and appreciated every second of it.
By the end of his extended contract with Combine, he was assigned as the Performance Physical Therapy Consultant to the to Al-Arabi Football Club in Doha, Qatar for 3 months (ahh, there it is!) At that point in his early career, Cory was already building an impressive resume all the while embracing memorable life experiences both at home and abroad.
He spoke of one particular highlight of his time in Qatar with both a serious face and chuckling pauses at times; a car ride he shared with a billion-dollar Sheikh and his highly talented chauffeur. Cory’s memory recalls the scene as follows: “As we’re about to drive from one of our Away games, the Sheikh who hired me pulls up and says ‘Why don’t you hop in my company car?’ Next thing I know, this huge dude from Atlanta who’s driving us around starts making all these calls with Bluetooth like ‘Hey yo baby it’s on again tonight! We’re going out, same spot. Sheikh wants all the tigers and coke and everything’ and I’m in the back hearing him call all these girls one by one. It’s basically like volleyball courts on fire with exotic wild animals, black-market drugs and street-racing cars (…) That Sheikh will invite you over to his house, show you one of his one hundred Bugattis and say ‘Take one, it’s yours.’ It’s everything you think it could be, times 1,000.”
After Qatar, Cory went back to Los Angeles for a second run with Combine in January 2015 working with professional athletes across the NFL (American football), MLB (baseball) and MLS (soccer) until he was asked to bring out his passport again; this time, for Brazil.
Gun fights and Samba.
In May 2015 he flew down to Rio de Janeiro to work with the Clube Atletico Paranaense football team for a year and a half. He used his time in Rio wisely to help the 1,600 football athletes he was overseeing while keeping in close sight his core mission to “empower the resident medical staff and coaches with a system and common language that would allow for whatever changes were made in the treatment room to seamlessly translate and persist on the field.” (I had to paraphrase - there’s no way I could have come up with this myself). This process, he says, allowed him to put all the textbooks and research articles aside and utilize everything he had tested and learned from his experience in the U.S., China and Qatar to become more proactive when it came to preventing injuries from happening.
Yet this wasn’t the first time Cory refused to solely rely on traditional medicine and school knowledge to deal with his clients. Suffering from severe injury and only a few weeks ahead of the 2014 NFL draft, Xavier Su'a-Filo, a young and promising American football player, was in desperate need for help. Being one of his first-ever athletes at Combine, Cory was then faced with immense pressure, yet felt confident enough to use what he had learned from other trainers and school as well as the principles he believed in to put together his own program from scratch. By the end of Combine, Xavier was offered $24 million and is now playing for the Houston Texans.
Cory’s passion truly lies in the realm of professional sports; an industry he has thrived in since his Truckee days. He has worked with a massive pool of elite athletes, many of whom he is proud to call his friends and remains in contact with. During our conversation, he shared the story of Alan Rushel, a famous footballer he was working with while in Brazil who went down in a plane crash with his football club somewhere in Columbia in 2016. Alan was only one of six survivors. His entire football team had been wiped out. “Some of these guys have exceptional stories,” he told me, “and I think those super genuine life experiences have been truly mind-opening.”
Cory’s experience in Brazil, as you should come to expect by now, was nothing short of unforgettable from both a pleasant and chilling perspective. By mid-summer of 2016, Cory had found himself in the midst of a Zika outbreak that had the whole country shaking; their then-president Dilma Rousseff had just been impeached, the Rio Summer Olympics gave rise to massive social unrest and the government had failed to provide enough financial support to their firefighters and officers. “The whole country was going to sh*t” he stated. ” The police came to the airport before the games and posted grotesque pictures of murdered cops in the Sevillas with signs that read ‘Welcome to Rio. Pay to stay, pray to leave. We can’t protect you.’”
One distinct morning, Cory and his colleagues were making their way back to their hotel room in Copacabana after a night out in town when they suddenly began to hear unidentified music playing some miles away. As the noise became progressively louder, they looked out their window to find “a massive truck with a Samba performance on its stage”. They decided to climb to the rooftop of their building for better and clearer visibility of what was really happening: at a glance, 40,000 people had assembled on their block to dance and sing together. Cory, to his own astonishment, was at the world-famous Rio Carnival. “In downtown Rio, they had over 1 million people showing up for these parties” he happily recollected. “I think the idea behind the carnival is: whatever we were upset about before, just let it all go. They’d literally be ready to shoot one another at some point, then they’ll just throw the guns away, grab some cocktails with cachaça and say ‘Samba, let’s bring it all together.”
Unforgettable times, indeed.
From a “fat fu-k” (his words) to running a fu-king marathon.
In the Fall of 2016, his work in Brazil was done. He flew back to the U.S. and rejoined his Combine team in Los Angeles for two months. A sequence of unfortunate events shortly followed, including losing an Olympic sports residency in New York City, a high-paying position with Adidas and the girl he was ready to marry all in the span of a few weeks. By the beginning of 2017, Cory was heartbroken, practically homeless, and saw his weight gains spike again.
Fortuitously, a prominent doctor by the name of Roger Zhao (also known as Shanghai's Dr. Zhao) he had become close friends with while at grad school called him to offer him a position at an American clinic in Shanghai (the opportunity presented itself once before with a different company, but following a financial scandal the clinic withdrew their offer. This would have sucked less if Cory hadn’t already bought his ticket as well as $300 worth of Mandarin classes on Rosetta Stone.)
He was ready to put all the negative aspects of his past behind and embrace every new detail of life as they would present themselves, and thus accepted the offer. In March 2017, Cory landed in China with a blank slate.
After a few encounters that included “a stern and calm woman with a crazy Australian accent looking for Yoga space, a community-builder at WeWork who liked to talk and get excited about things more than [he] did, and a super energetic Russian girl”, Cory was introduced to FitFam as “a cult of volunteers who like to get up in the dark and do bootcamp-style workouts at 6am for free.” He was asked to give it a try on several occasions. His initial reaction: "Fuck. That."
That Russian girl (let’s call her Katrina because, well, that is her real name) first met Cory while visiting his clinic for a physical check-up where she shared stories of the workouts she helped lead with no vested interest other than to make conversation. This turned out to be a pivoting point not just for Cory's health (which had taken a heavy toll before leaving the U.S.) but for his entire social life in Shanghai.
“She was super engaging” he recalled. She was, in some aspects, his initial motivation to wake up at the break of dawn for burpees and lunges. Little did he know that within half a year he would find himself leading his own training sessions at 5:30 am in preparation for a full marathon he, along with a bunch of other crazy early-rising FitFammers (as we like to call ourselves) had signed up for. A fuc-king marathon.
Off the field, Cory has selflessly dedicated countless hours to helping many of our FitFam members recover from various pains and injuries. He has organized community-wide meetings to share the vast practical knowledge he has accumulated from his past experiences working in the U.S., China, Qatar and Brazil to empower all leaders and improve the quality and safety of our workouts. His enthusiastic, charismatic and loving personality never ceases to amaze us all.
Despite being thousands of miles away from his snowy Truckee, Cory finally found a home away from home.
This isn’t the end.
Well, it is. Sort of.
While this story may be over, 2018 is already set to be another year full of wild adventures. And all the forthcoming experiences, I must admit, would have never been on my radar had it not been for my friendship with Cory. Every journey he was lucky to embark on, he has spoken of with admiration and ardor. Through his beautiful vision of life I was able to put my own values and priorities under brand new perspective, and consequently focus on the positive aspects of things rather than drowning myself in sorrow.
We owe a lot of our most recent accomplishments to him. I know I do. My surprisingly decent performance at the Shanghai marathon - my first ever - would have never been possible had it not been for Cory, whom I trained with for weeks and who provided insightful advice and support to help me push through my own limits. Our 35km practice run a week before the race was particularly rough, to the point where he (almost) had to carry me to the end. The unbearable thought of letting him down kept my legs moving.
But like I said, this isn’t just about me. It really is about all of us - your closest and most distant friends, your family, coworkers and everyone else whose lives you, Cory, have impacted. We can’t thank you enough for all the support you’ve provided and the smiles you’ve put on our faces, yet we do hope that this story, somehow, touches you as much as your commitment to making us better human beings has touched us.
From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for being you.
You're truly appreciated, brother.
Expressing our appreciation.
Below are some of the many heart-warming comments I have received from friends within the FitFam community on their appreciation and love for Cory. There are, of course, a lot more where those came from. Thank you for your continuous support and efforts to make our Baby Elephant feel like home.