As the recently deceased world heavyweight boxing legend, American Olympian and social activist Muhammad Ali once said, “I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others.”
This statement resonates profoundly for one Marine here who decided early on to pursue a life of physical fitness, not only for his benefit, but for others as well.
Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Eckert is a Winter Park, Florida, native who began his athletic career as a child competing against his older brother, who challenged him in every possible way.
“When I was growing up I had one older brother, so automatically I had competition against someone,” Eckert said. “We had those natural tendencies as brothers to be better than each other, and I owe a lot of credit to him for why I became so competitive.”
Eckert laughed, embarrassed, as he recalled the nickname his older brother Frank had for him when they were children.
“My dad nicknamed Mike ‘Peanut’ when he was very young,” Frank Eckert said. “I was always a big kid, and Mike was always much smaller than me. But no matter how angry Mike made me at times, I could never catch him. He was too agile and far better than me at physical activities. We’ve always had a deep-running competitive edge with one another, but nowadays there’s no way I can keep up. He was consistently successful at everything he did … and I think more than anything else, his personal drive to succeed has led him to where he is at.”
This feisty bond was the making of a successful competitor. Growing up, Eckert participated in a variety of sports, including water polo, tennis, basketball, soccer, baseball, football, cross country, rock climbing and track.
In 2009, Eckert decided to go indoor rock climbing with a childhood friend and discovered a unique strength that combined the abilities he’d previously developed with new ones learned while tackling big walls.
“My favorite sports are soccer and rock climbing. I enjoy the agility of soccer and technical strength you get from climbing, and it’s huge in what I do today for physical fitness,” Eckert said.
“Climbing allowed us to push ourselves to the limits like never before,” said Taylor Dodge Brown, Eckert’s long-time rock climbing friend. “This is where Mike really excelled. He was always pushing the envelope and inspiring not only me, but everyone around him at the gym to try harder. Through all the sports and activities we do in life, none other compares to climbing, and I look forward to growing old and teaching Mike ‘the ways of the wall,’ for that is one competition that will never get old.”
Taking part in these competitive sports not only highlighted Eckert’s natural athleticism, but also drove him to compete against another challenger, himself.
“No matter who you beat, your biggest competitor is always going to be yourself, whether it be mentally or physically because you can never reach a limit where you’re too good,” Eckert said.
With this mindset, Eckert’s aspirations grew as he watched professional athletes on television battle daunting events, such as ‘Sasuke,’ or Ninja Warrior.
“I always wanted to try out for that, and one day I said ‘I’m going to be on that show,’” Eckert said. “Shortly after, the American version came out, and in 2012 I submitted a video for the trials and I was selected.”
That year, Eckert finished fifth in the Miami regional trials, but ran into trouble at the next stage of the competition.
“I qualified with a fast time, but I ended up failing the jumping spider at the finals,” Eckert said. “At this part, you have to jump from a trampoline and catch yourself between two walls while hovering over water . . . It’s really hard . . . but I believe I did well for my first try and being around other high-caliber peers was great.”
From Ninja Warrior to Marine
After realizing a mechanical engineering degree wasn’t the professional route he wanted to follow Eckert decided in March 2013 to enlist in the Marine Corps.
“I’ve been naturally good at a lot of things in life such as math, which is why I went for that degree, but I lost the fun in it,” Eckert said. “I was at a standstill where I really want to be physical, but I started this degree. My life was scatter plotted and since I had family who served in the Army, I thought pursuing a military career was a good idea.”
Eckert’s father served in the Army for six years as an enlisted helicopter mechanic before becoming a commissioned Army Reserve officer. Eckert’s brother Frank followed his father into the Army as an infantryman, serving for four years.
“I had to one-up them,” Eckert said. “I wanted to take a step back and have a break while also taking a step forward, so I think the military was a very good decision for that. Everyone knows the Marine Corps for its intensity. We are all motivated motivators. I could have taken the easy route and chosen another branch, but I’m not looking back regretting my decision because of the stature that we have as Marines.”
A year later, he found himself back with other American ninja warriors qualifying in Miami and competing for the second time in Las Vegas.
This time Eckert not only had the support of his family and friends, but also members of his unit, who were standing by at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
“I went to represent myself and ultimately the Marine Corps,” he said. “They said, ‘Hell yeah, we support your decision, you’re doing something outside the box, go compete,’ and my unit was there hyping me for everything I did.”
Although Eckert was again knocked out of competition by the spider wall, his competitive drive did not fade, and the old fitness challenges he had before soon became the fuel that led him to attempt a world record.
“I was rock climbing years ago and used to do pull-ups as a warm up. My buddy randomly asked how many I could do and was impressed. He wanted to research the statistics and I found out there was a record for most pull ups performed in a minute,” Eckert said. “I later enlisted and the Marine Corps prides itself on doing pull ups for the physical fitness test, so I started doing pull ups again. I loved these things and I checked the recent record, and thought, ‘Well I’m going for this damn record,’ so I started training for it.”
Eckert’s first attempt at breaking the Guinness world record for most pull-ups in a minute was uncounted when he failed to fulfill some of the recording requirements. Determined, his second attempt was attended by an entire team of supporters.
“Ultimately, it motivated me because I knew I was going to finally crush this thing,” Eckert said. “On October 11, 2015, I broke the original record of 44 pull ups in one minute, with my record of 50 pull ups while at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.”
He came across another record waiting to be broken in April 2016, while attending the sergeants’ course at Camp Hansen in Okinawa, Japan.
The obstacle course there includes 14 events, such as low hurdles, pull-overs, a wall jump and 20 foot rope climb. The record stood at one minute 17 seconds, and Eckert felt he could easily do better.
Installation personnel showed up to the course at 5 a.m. to verify and time his attempt, and without warming up or doing a run-through of the course, he read the rules and the timer began.
“It was cold, and I was a little timid and hesitant toward committing to any moves,” Eckert said. “I ended up tripping over once, but I managed to complete the course in 58 seconds.”
Coming back to Marine Wing Support Squadron 171 at MCAS Iwakuni with another record added to Eckert’s credibility as an athlete and a Marine.
“I think the Marine Corps has made me take my athletic career way more seriously,” he said. “Everyone supports you here underneath the brotherly nagging you get, but it’s driven me to the next level.”
Eckert recently tackled the preliminary 2016 High Intensity Tactical Training Competition. He placed first and will travel in August to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California for a chance to compete in the 2016 HITT Championship against regional Marine champions from installations around the world.
“It feels great to do this well and the biggest thing about it is on a daily basis I have at least two or three people come up to me and say I’m an inspiration to them,” Eckert said. “People message me here in Japan and back in the states about how I’m an inspiration, which truly fuels my fire and I’m so grateful for their support.”
Eckert has begun helping other Marines build their fitness levels after becoming a certified physical trainer last year.
“I started training with Mike to enhance my athleticism and improve my physical fitness all around,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Tyree Green, automotive mechanic with MWSS 171. “It’s challenging and very stressful, and he showed me how to work out from a different perspective even though I was already strong before.”
Eckert helps his clients to improve their capabilities in the gym, but his coaching philosophy stems from advice he received from his father.
“My first year in American Ninja Warrior I remember getting ready to compete, and I was nervous as heck, and I remember what my dad told me,” Eckert said. “He couldn’t come down to Miami with me, so I spoke to him before I left and the last thing he said was ‘Hey Mike, why not you?’ And I didn’t respond. I laughed and it didn’t hit me until I was about to run on that Miami course and I thought, ‘Why not me? What excuse do I have right now to not do what I’m about to do?’ … I took all the limitations I had been putting on myself as a person new to the scene, event and situation and put them aside. I just did what I knew I could do.”
He added, “My dad asked ‘Why not you?’ and I was so confused at first, but it made me try my best because ultimately I didn’t have an answer for that. There was no reason it couldn’t be me.”
Those three words became the source of his drive to help others pursue their goals.
“The fact is I’ve been given the privilege and capability of doing things that some people can’t do,” Eckert said. “I have the ability to push my limits that people would give anything for. You have the Wounded Warrior Regiment with Marines who don’t have the same opportunity as uninjured Marines do, whether they may be missing limbs or may not be in a healthy state of mind because of their experiences. …”
“I had a slight knee injury once, and I could barely run three miles … and I was devastated after that. I was saying in my head, ‘This is it, my body hurts so bad and I can’t do this.’ I couldn’t do what I enjoy so I knuckled down and went to physical therapy and got to where I needed to be,” he said. “After I was better I ran nine miles, and I was literally laughing on the treadmill because I was so happy and it was amazing after having that terrible experience. If it’s not for competition, do it for the people who can’t do it.”
Planning for Life After the Corps
Eckert said he plans to become a physical therapist after he leaves the Marines.
“It’s something I could do for the rest of my life. I love the way the body works, kinesiology and finding new ways to help people recuperate through their injuries,” he said. “I don’t want to just be a doctor; I want to be a doctor for what I love. I’m not looking to do heart transplants. I’m looking to get someone who had the same knee injury that I had and help them.”
Eckert added, “The Marine Corps has taught me to positively affect as many people as you can and inspire them.”
By Sgt. Jessica Quezada