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Leading by Example PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 17 January 2006 18:00
Guinness World Records clearly did not get the memo on John Morrow. The man will not be denied. In the past two years, Morrow made three attempts to break the record for the number of push-ups in a minute. Each time, the arbiter of world records has rejected his claim – twice on technicalities.

In May 2004, when the Quad Cities martial-arts instructor did 139 push-ups in 60 seconds, it was because his karate-uniform sleeves obscured his technique. In October 2004, when Morrow broke the previous record of 133 with 137 certified push-ups, he didn’t know that someone else had already done 138.

In April 2005, on his 35th day of fasting, Morrow did 141 push-ups in a minute. Five minutes later, he did 142. “I’m hoping it’ll hold up,” he said in June. “I don’t expect any more than three deductions.”

But in July, Guinness wrote him a letter disqualifying that attempt – because one of the submitted camera angles didn’t show his whole body – and notifying him that by its standards the record could no longer be broken; the category was being closed.

“Experts say it can’t be done,” Morrow said recently of the record. “Here. I’ve done it in front of 100 people.” In a manner of speaking, John Morrow has done the impossible.

Even though Morrow said he “more than disagree[s]” with the Guinness ruling, he also said he hasn’t dwelled on it. “It was a little disappointing, maybe for a few minutes,” he said.

What the Guinness people haven’t realized is that Morrow doesn’t believe things can’t be done. There are merely obstacles to be overcome. “Focus on what you want to do and what you need to do, and do it,” he said. “What we can do is way beyond what we think we can do.”

Getting in the Guinness book is a means for Morrow, not the end. His true quest is creating lifestyle change in his students, in the Quad Cities community, and perhaps beyond. He hopes a world record would help further that aim, and he has the same goal for a book he’s currently writing.

Morrow recalled a conversation he had with a person in his early 60s, using a cane to help with walking. “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself,” the man said. Morrow hopes to make sure there are fewer people in the world with that regret.

No Dead Ends, Only Obstacles

Morrow compares real-life problems to a challenging set of letters in Scrabble. A player doesn’t give up with a draw that includes X, K, and V but looks even harder for a way to get rid of the tiles. And the reward for successfully dealing with the obstacle is much greater than with an easier set of letters.

Morrow tells his students at the Morrow Academy of Martial Arts in Moline that they shouldn’t let their failures affect them for more than a few seconds. He tells them that they should turn obstacles into opportunities. He tells them that “can’t” shouldn’t be part of their vocabulary.

And he practices what he preaches.

This spring, on the 40th day of his annual fast, he will attempt to break a different record: push-ups on the back of the hand in 60 seconds. (It looks as uncomfortable as it sounds.) The record is 100. If Guinness won’t recognize him for a record he thinks he already broke, he’ll go after another one.

The accomplishment itself probably wouldn’t mean much more to Morrow than the dozens of trophies he has on display at his academy. The fact that they’re publicly displayed means they’re significant to Morrow, but probably not in the way one might expect. “They represent memories of competition,” he said. “It really wasn’t about winning.”

The push-ups are way to get attention, Morrow freely admits. “That’s my catch,” he said, “but that’s not my message.”

A world record would be a validation of hard work, but it would also be a platform from which Morrow could talk about what he truly wants to convey: that people need to live healthier, and to work toward long-term goals rather than instant gratification.

One problem with his approach is that people might look at his accomplishments and immediately think, “I could never do that.” But Morrow said he’s not looking for people to put him on a pedestal. “Quit admiring and get to work,” he said.

They key thing to understand about the push-ups – something Morrow himself doesn’t articulate often enough – is that the record itself is instant gratification of a sort. The attention the record attempts have gotten obscures that the feat is the endpoint, the culmination of more than a month of discipline and work.

“It’s kind of a process I go through,” Morrow said, one that includes fasting and training. After 20 days of fasting, he said, he reaches a state of nirvana. “You don’t want anything,” he said. “Time does stop.”

He added that the fasting – which he does starting at the outset of spring – improves his mental clarity while having the physical benefits of less mass, more muscle, and less fat. “I think the fast actually enhances my strength,” he said. In other words, the push-ups are easier because of the fasting.

By the third or fourth week of fasting – water only on Sundays, watered-down juices the other six days of the week, and protein drinks on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays – Morrow has typically shed 20 pounds from a frame that normally carries between 185 and 190 pounds.

The instructor does not argue that food is bad; he said he loves ice cream, for instance. But over-consumption is a pervasive cultural problem, and denying his body solid food has a liberating effect. “Fasting frees me from all this stuff,” he said.

When asked why he doesn’t fast more frequently, Morrow is modest, maybe more than he should be: “Probably because I’m weak-minded and can only psyche myself up once a year.”

“A Personal String Theory”

In 1977, at age 50, his father killed himself. Morrow was 25 years old then. He is 54 now.

Certainly, passing the age at which his father died has been an important milestone to Morrow. His father, he said, gave up on life. “When you think your life is over,” he said, you start dying. “My dad would say, ‘I’m getting old.’”

Morrow doesn’t feel like he’s old. “Every decade [in one’s life] has a role,” Morrow said.

The world-record attempts are certainly evidence that life doesn’t end at 50. And so is the book he’s working on that he hopes to finish by the end of the year. He has an editor but no publisher at this point. “It has a message,” he said recently. “It’s hope. ... It was kind of inspired by my own father. ... There’s so much to live for.”

Morrow is basing the book on his fasting journals, incorporating life experiences and “trying to put it into a cohesive philosophy, ... a personal string theory.”

What’s unusual is that although Morrow obviously has a focus on physical fitness, his philosophy is all-encompassing, one that stresses long-term goals, discipline, responsibility, and being “intrigued with the here and now.”

Fasting is an appropriate symbol for this larger quest, because it’s in direct opposition to the relationship most people in the United States have with food. In Morrow’s view, widespread social problems such as obesity, addiction, and road rage are all related to a shortsighted, damaging lifestyles that emphasize over-indulgence instead of discipline and long-term perspective. People don’t need martial arts or fasting to combat those cultural ills, but they need to find something to counteract social forces that can often seem so overwhelming and tempting. We indulge because “we can,” Morrow said.

Morrow began learning the martial arts 40 years ago. He got his black belt in 1972 and started teaching at age 20. In 1978 he opened his martial-arts academy in Bettendorf. (He said that his father’s suicide didn’t prompt him to open the school; he had been planning to do that anyway.)

Morrow estimated that he has 120 active students – he teaches about 20 classes a week – and has instructed at least 2,500 people over the past three decades. He said one of the most gratifying elements of being a martial-arts instructor is “seeing kids grow up to be black belts.” It’s yet another long-term reward.

This past May, Morrow was inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame. He’s been invited to compete for the United States in the 50-plus division of the World Organization of Martial Arts Athletes’ World Martial Games VII in Costa Rica this summer. He plans on going.

He’s also a success as a businessman and serves as chairperson of the economic-restructuring committee of the Moline Centre Partners.

Morrow still competes in a tournament or two each year. At a recent competition in Milwaukee, Morrow faced off against somebody who looked familiar. “We figured we’d met before in Chicago in the 1970s,” Morrow said. “We about killed each other in the ’70s.”

That level of intensity has given way to something else. “There’s a different type of camaraderie when you’re in your 50s than when you’re in your 20s,” he said.

“We Kill in Cold Blood”

One doesn’t get a sense that lives will be changed by walking into Morrow’s academy, on the second floor of a building in downtown Moline. Many of the decorations are clichés. The walls feature posters from martial-arts movies, with stars ranging from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan. On one wall is a large, dramatic painting of Morrow himself, looking menacing with a sword. The space even features the video game Karate Champ along with slogans such as “Train hard. Train often. Expect more.” Fluorescent lights don’t add much in terms of ambiance.

The positive atmosphere is created more by the man than the surroundings.

Toward the end of a class of young children last summer, Morrow congratulated some newer students upon completing their first class and praised them for what they had accomplished. Yet he did not forget his more experienced students, passing on encouraging words to them as well. The instructor even spoke to parents on their children’s success in the class and knew them all on a first-name basis.

Another class was a talkative and energetic group of adults ranging from the 20s to the mid-40s, with one young teenager. Morrow started his class with breathing techniques,warm-ups, and stretches. The din in the room disappeared.

As the class went on, Morrow began to not just teach the class, but to converse with the students as well. He told them of an early-morning martial-arts session he attended by the Mississippi River. He said that while he enjoys teaching, he also likes to step back and observe the teaching methods of other instructors. Morrow went on to push his students to go to the riverfront class. “It’s at 6 a.m.,” he said, “but the first class is free. And I’m always looking for free stuff.”

His sense of humor is surprisingly dry. When he’s asked about his son and martial arts, Morrow noted that he got his black belt. Is he still active? “Unfortunately, he’s active in banking,” he said.

Wielding a sword for a photographer, he’s asked about how his passion for life meshes with his ability to kill somebody. “We kill in cold blood,” Morrow said. “We don’t get all excited about it.”

Odd Man Out?

In spite of all his success, it’s evident that Morrow is still searching for that elusive thing that will help him spread his message to an even larger number of people. The world-record attempts brought attention to him and the individual accomplishment, and his philosophy seemed to get lost. The book, he hopes, might put the focus where it belongs.

When asked about his impact, Morrow is direct: “I’m having some, but I’d like to have more.”

It could also be that Morrow is something of a voice in the wilderness, too isolated. “I’m so concerned I look like the odd person,” he said. “You’re interviewing me because I seem different.”

Yet Morrow is convinced that many people don’t need to make drastic changes in their lives; they simply need subtle attitude adjustments, a gentle nudge. “People are ... maybe a thought away” from a healthier lifestyle, he said. “They feel they’re a mile away.”

Former River Cities’ Reader intern Farrah Welsh contributed to this article.
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