As the recently deceased world heavyweight boxing legend, American Olympian and social activist 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.”
~ Muhammad Ali
This statement resonates profoundly to one U.S. Marine who made the decision at a young age to pursue a life of physical fitness not only for the benefit of himself but for others as well.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Michael Eckert is a Winter Park, Florida, native who began his athletic career as a child competing against his older, nitpicking brother who instinctively challenged him in every possible way.
“When I was growing up I had one older brother, so automatically I had competition against someone,” said Eckert. “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 as he embarrassingly revealed the nickname his brother used when they were children. This feisty bond eventually marked the beginning of a successful competitor and turned their friendship around.
“My dad nicknamed Mike ‘Peanut’ when he was very young,” said Frank, Eckert’s older brother. “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.”
From then on, Eckert participated in a plethora of sports, to include water polo, tennis, basketball, soccer, baseball, football, cross country, rock climbing and track, never truly sticking to one activity in particular.
“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,” said Eckert.
In 2009, Eckert had a spontaneous idea with a childhood friend to go indoor rock climbing. This is when Eckert began to establish his unique strength that combined previous abilities with new ones.
“In all of the sports I played there was a friend of mine by the name of Michael Eckert who I never took seriously . . . and that’s because these sports were never his true passion, then he started rock climbing.” said Taylor Dodge Brown, Eckert’s long-time rock climbing friend. “Climbing allowed us to push ourselves to the limits like never before. 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.”
Partaking 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,” said Eckert.
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,’” said Eckert. “Shortly after, the American version came out, and in 2012 I submitted a video for the trials and I was selected.”
That year, Eckert traveled to Miami for the American Ninja Warrior regional matches and surprisingly took the fifth fastest time in the nation.
“I qualified with a fast time, but I ended up failing the jumping spider at the finals,” said Eckert. “At this part, you have to jump from a trampoline and catch yourself between two walls while hovering 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 American Ninja Warrior to U.S. Marine, Eckert decided to enlist in March 2013 after realizing a mechanical engineering degree wasn’t the professional route he wanted to follow. Unexpectedly, joining the Marine Corps led to establishing more ground as an athlete and individual in society.
“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,” said Eckert. “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 as an enlisted helicopter mechanic in the U.S. Army for six years before commissioning as a reservist. Frank eventually followed in his footsteps and joined as an infantryman and served for four years.
As part of the long-standing brotherly conflict, Eckert’s decision to enlist in the Corps furthermore flaunted the rivalry and pushed him to challenge himself in the world’s greatest fighting forces.
“I had to one up them,” said Eckert. “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, Eckert 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 his unit as well who were standing by at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
“I went to represent myself and ultimately the Marine Corps,” said Eckert. “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’s attempt at the unforgiving spider wall was futile, his goals did not fade, and the old fitness challenges he had before soon became the fuel that led him to breaking 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,” said Eckert .“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.”
The first attempt at breaking the Guinness world record for most pull ups in a minute was unaccounted for due to limited credibility and proof of the event. Eckert was forced to redo the endeavor and an entire team of support attended to assist him in his mission of becoming a world record holder.
“Ultimately, it motivated me because I knew I was going to finally crush this thing,” said Eckert. “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.”
After this noteworthy accomplishment, Eckert continued to push his mettle of competition and while attending sergeants’ course at Camp Hansen in Okinawa, Japan, he came upon another record waiting to be broken.
In April 2016, Eckert and his fellow sergeants were faced with the well-known military obstacle course, which includes 14 events such as low hurdles, pull overs, a wall jump and 20 foot rope climb to conclude the sequence.
Previously, a Marine completed the course with a time of one minute 17 seconds. Eckert heard this time and knew this was an easy challenge.
Installation personnel showed up to the course at 5 a.m. to verify and time Eckert’s 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,” said Eckert. “I ended up tripping over once, but I managed to complete the course in 58 seconds.”
With a new record broken, Eckert received a certificate of achievement, the ultimate record title and many firm congratulatory handshakes.
Coming back to Marine Wing Support Squadron 171 at MCAS Iwakuni with another prideful claim added to Eckert’s credibility as an athlete and more so as a Marine.
“I think the Marine Corps has made me take my athletic career way more seriously,” said Eckert. “Athleticism and physical prow is taken seriously in this organization, and that was my snap to the head that maybe I should actually get some credibility for what I’m doing. It was the turning point of where my athletic career started getting significance. Everyone supports you here underneath the brotherly nagging you get, but its driven me to the next level.”
Recently, this Marine Corps athlete underwent an organization-wide challenge – the preliminary 2016 High Intensity Tactical Training Competition. Unbeknownst to Eckert, this local HITT match had underlying surprises for the winners of the event, a funded trip to MCAS Miramar in California for a chance to compete in the 2016 HITT Championship where U.S. Marines from across the globe will showcase their strengths.
Eckert again proved his capabilities as the first place winner and will be traveling to the U.S. in August where he is determined to claim the championship title and inspire service members world-wide through his performance.
“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,” said Eckert. “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.”
Following his many successes, Eckert’s used these achievements to ground his stance in the fitness realm. This has allowed him to impart his experience and knowledge onto other Marines with reliable information and continue spreading the inspiration that others give to him.
“I started training with Mike to enhance my athleticism and improve my physical fitness all around,” said U.S. 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.”
Green is one of several service members who Eckert has trained after obtaining his physical trainer certification in late 2015. The advice he gives supports his clients to improve their capabilities in the gym, but some of the coaching stems from the motivation Eckert originally received from his father years before.
“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,” said Eckert. “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 couldn’t come up with an answer, so I ran the course and ended up getting the fifth fastest time in the nation. 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. 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 impacted Eckert for the rest of his life and became the quintessence for his passion 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,” said Eckert. “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 thoroughly believe that my drive and compassion comes from them. 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. 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.”
Driven by a physical fitness lifestyle and inclination to help the incapable become capable, Eckert’s taking these aspects and transforming them into a career as a physical therapist.
“The Marine Corps has taught me to positively affect as many people as you can and inspire them,” said Eckert. “My goals include becoming a physical therapist because 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. 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. The pain and hopelessness an athlete feels from not doing what they love is hard. The physical therapist helped me and got me back to normality. I think it’s awesome to guide someone, see them progress and see the results. You physically and mentally bring them back into the game.”
The triumphs of Eckert’s career highlights the impetus of commitment he has toward physical fitness, but in order to attain more, the athlete has decided to leave active duty service.
“Honestly, with how things are in my life I do see myself hanging up my uniform next March,” said Eckert. “I have some pretty big aspirations that I can’t complete while I’m serving simply because of the limitations. It’s not that I was trying to use the military and get what I could, it’s just a way to set myself up for success while giving back. Taking one step back while taking a step forward to realize what I needed to do and the Marine Corps has definitely helped me get there.”
After serving four years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a motor transport mechanic with 2nd Maintenance Battalion, Combat Logistics Regiment 25, 2nd Marine Logistics Group at Camp Lejeune and MWSS-171, Marine Aircraft Group 12 at MCAS Iwakuni, Eckert is planning to receive an honorable discharge and resume his aspirations as a civilian, an athlete and one day a physical therapist.
“I want to bring people out of their shell, as many people as I can and give them the same realization I had at American Ninja Warrior to make them think ‘why not you,’” said Eckert. “I will get to the top and push that buzzer at American Ninja Warrior, I will succeed and I’ll use my abilities to create workout regimens and programs to help the masses. Those are my ultimate goals.”
Story by Sgt. Jessica Quezada