By Brad Botkin | March 19, 2015, 3:31 p.m. (ET)
Jimmy Butler competes at the 2014 U.S. National Team Trials on March 9, 2014.


Jimmy Butler is extremely normal.

The normal part is he likes to play table tennis — or ping pong, as it’s recreationally known. And he has tight muscles.

The extreme part is that he is the best table tennis player in the country and at one time was one of the best in the world, and the tight muscles — well, that’s a situation that goes well beyond any reasonable level of comprehension.

“To say my muscles were tight,” Butler laughed, “that’s such an understatement. That sounds so harmless.”

It wasn’t harmless. It wasn’t anything even remotely close to harmless. At its worst, every muscle in Butler’s body was so tight, so constricted with relentless pressure, that his spine and organs were being literally crushed.

“It felt like a snake was wrapped around me,” Butler said.

Forget table tennis, the man couldn’t digest food. Couldn’t go to the bathroom. After competing in both the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, and nearly making the round of 16 in Barcelona in ‘92, his career was abruptly halted in 1998. Not too long after, he was entirely bedridden, unable to even sit up for any extended period of time.“My muscles were as hard as concrete,” he said. “And there was no human being that could fix me.”

***

Butler first picked up a paddle when he was 5 years old, and he knew right away that he wanted to be a professional table tennis player. “There was no doubt in my mind,” he said. “That’s what I was going to do.”

This, again, is not normal. At least not in the United States, where table tennis isn’t exactly the national pastime. Imagine a fifth grader being asked by his teacher, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and the kid responding with, “I’m going to be a professional table tennis player.”

That was Butler.


Jimmy Butler hits the ball during a match against Yinghua Cheng during the USA Table Tennis National Championships at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas on Dec. 20, 1997.
“My dad just loves ping pong, and he always thought he was good because he beat his friends and everyone in the neighborhood,” Butler said. “But then he went to a USA Table Tennis tournament — where there were a few real players, not world class or anything but better than guys off the street — and he just got destroyed. He couldn’t even score a point. There was such a jump in skill level, and he just became fascinated with the sport. He started studying the game, reading every book out there, and I followed right in his footsteps.”

From the start, the kid from Iowa City, Iowa, was something of a wunderkind. He won his age group’s national championship when he was 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17. From there he moved to Sweden to train under Stellan Bengsstan, a legendary table tennis figure who remains the youngest player in history to win the world singles championship, having done so at 18.

In Asia and Europe, top table tennis players play full time and, in some cases, make millions. Butler wasn’t one of those guys, but he was moving up quickly, his ranking rising into the top 130 players in the world. The Barcelona Games was his coming-out party, but the real validation came three years later when Butler’s three-man team won a bronze medal at the 1995 World Cup, finishing ahead of powerhouses China and Sweden for the first time in history. 

It was also the first time an American team had ever earned a World Cup medal. The performance vaulted Butler to the 70th-ranked player in the world, the third-highest ranking ever for an American. But then, the tightness started.

“At first I just thought I was stiff and not very flexible,” Butler said. “I thought, ‘this is how everyone feels.’ I didn’t understand the severity of it until I completely broke down.”

Looking back, it’s amazing Butler was able to qualify for, and compete in, the ‘96 Games. His body was failing him in a way almost impossible to imagine. He was 25 years old going on 90, his muscles constricting like a vise grip, his organs in danger of failing under the weight of suffocating pressure. In 1998, hardly able to walk, he had to give up the game he loved.

“I was going to the best doctors in the country, and nobody could tell me what was wrong with me,” Butler said. “Finally, I found a muscular specialist: Kenny Owens. He was the father of one of my teammates, Eric Owens, and he could tell how messed up I was.”

Owens had been a muscular specialist for 20 years, and he said he’d never seen muscles anywhere near as tight as Butler’s. But all hope was not lost. There were no magic tricks, no intricate medical recourse to reverse his malady, but there was, in theory, a cure. What Butler needed, in a manner of speaking, was a massage.

In the past he’d felt minor, temporary relief after two or three hours of intense work on a single muscle, so as the logic went, he just needed to do more of that. A lot more. He needed two or three hours of work on every muscle in his body, upwards of 12 hours total, and he needed that every day.

Of course, no human being is capable of pushing that violently on your muscles for that long for even one day, let alone every day. So Butler, along with the help of his engineer father and Owens, concocted a homemade, motorized device with a steel arm that did the pushing for him. Then he laid in bed, moving from muscle to muscle, for up to 16 hours a day.

He did that for more than eight years.

“It sounds crazy,” Butler admits. “It is crazy. But it was so inspiring to feel even a little bit of relief that I would want to just keep going. I got a big screen TV and a wireless mouse for my computer, and I just laid there all day long violently pushing into my muscles. It was like jack-hammering concrete.”

Butler laughs the whole time he’s telling his story. He knows how ridiculous it sounds that he effectively got a 16-hour-a-day massage for eight years, but it worked. The concrete started to break up. At a glacial pace, the muscles loosened.

“I’ve gone from not being able to walk, with my whole body roasting in pain, to feeling like a teenager,” Butler said. “As bad as I was, if I was 80 years old, I would’ve just given up. But I was 25 years old. I couldn’t live the rest of my life like that. Every morning I wake up and just laugh. I can’t believe how good I feel.”

Now, it’s a matter of maintenance, something Butler, who has become a massage therapist, says everyone should be doing.

“So many conditions we just chalk up to aging are really just muscle tightness, and they can be prevented,” he said.

Butler has since developed a tool (non-motorized) that pushes into his muscles. He may go to market with it, and it goes everywhere with him. He puts it against his back, under his hamstrings, on top his quads. He does it on airplanes, when he’s driving, when he’s sitting on the couch at home. He believes, through his own unspeakable misfortune, he’s found a true anti-aging regimen.

“I reversed something that’s never been reversed, and it’s not some magic pill or snake oil,” he says. “I’m telling you, you get some smart doctors, but most people in the medical field have this all backwards. When you see old people all hunched forward, that’s not osteoporosis. Arthritis, scoliosis… muscle tightness is the root of so many things, and if you push on your muscle enough, I’m talking for hours every day — which no human being can do so you need a machine — but if you can do that, that muscle will stretch back out and you’ll feel like a kid again. When our athletes realize this, when it becomes mainstream, you won’t see guys breaking down at 30 or 35. The rest of the world will be chasing us.”

Butler is living proof of this. At 44 years old, after 15 years away from the game, he has again become the best table tennis player in the United States, having recently won the U.S. men’s singles championship. He has also qualified for the 2015 Pan American Games and world championships, claiming one of just three available spots. And he has his eyes on a third trip to the Olympics in 2016.

“But it’s not like I’m waking up in the morning saying ‘I have to make the Olympics,’” Butler said. “I’m just so excited to even be playing again and feeling as good as I do. I was in such a bad place. I just laugh to myself because I can’t believe I got out of such a mess.”