Wednesday 27th May 9.00pm
The documentary strand exploring extraordinary tales of human experience continues. Liam Hoekstra is just like any other happy toddler, with one remarkable difference – he has 40 per cent more muscle than the average child his age. Keen to learn more about his incredible abilities, his parents submit him for a series of tests. Could Liam’s condition hold the key to a cure for muscular dystrophy?
At first glance, three-year-old Liam Hoekstra seems just like any other child his age. However, on closer inspection, his abdominal muscles, biceps and the trapezius muscles on his back are extraordinarily well developed. In fact, Liam has an astounding 40 per cent more muscle than the average three-year- old boy. Liam’s parents, Dana and Neil, adopted him when he was just a day old. But it quickly became clear that Liam was no ordinary baby. Although most children do not walk until they are around 15 months old, by the time he was six months Liam could walk up and down the stairs. “I figured we had a strong kid,” says Neil, proudly.
Liam’s parents are often worn out by the demands of their son, who seems to have the energy of ten children. A typical day begins with a gym class before nursery. Coach Phil Bishop believes Liam is unique. “He is able to muscle himself up much more quickly than others,” he says, watching Liam climb easily up a rope. “Liam has the potential to do anything he wants in sports.” After a day of physically demanding activities, Neil and Dana still struggle to get their energetic toddler to sleep.
Although they were aware Liam was unusually strong, Neil and Dana only discovered that he could have a genetic condition when local doctor Erlund Larson became interested in the boy. “His grandfather told me he could lift himself up with his arms,” he says. “Very few athletes could do that.” Dr Larson diagnosed Liam with myostatin- related muscle hypertrophy, a condition first found in the Belgian Blue breed of cattle in the late 1990s. In 2000 a German boy was also diagnosed with the condition, which promotes above-average growth of skeletal muscles. Although Liam eats constantly, he has a very fast metabolism and no body fat.
Liam’s parents hope his unusual physique will prove to be an advantage, and have already introduced him to a number of different sports, including American football. Dana is grateful the American Government recently passed the GINA (Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act), which prevents anyone who has genetic testing from being forced to share the results. “I have had people come up to me on the street and ask me if I think it’s fair for him to play sports,” admits Gina. She hopes that in the future Liam will be able to compete on an even playing field, whatever his advantages.
Geneticist Dr Eric Hoffman thinks it is possible that conditions such as Liam’s could hold the key to a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which kills most sufferers by the age of 20. However, Professor of Exercise Science Dr Stephen Roth is concerned by the effect the research could have. “If Liam’s condition is understood, it will be immediately abused by athletes,” he states.
Keen to learn more about Liam’s abilities, Neil and Dana submit him for a battery of tests, including sit- ups, hand grips and a bar test. Another child of Liam’s age is able to complete only one sit-up – Liam easily finishes 17 in the same time frame. He also has the hand grip of a seven-year-old, and is able to hold onto the bar for a full 13 seconds, while another child his age manages only seven seconds. Strength and conditioning experts Michelle Ward and Ted Quick are astounded by his abilities.
“At some point in time we will understand what is different about Liam,” says Dr Larson. Dana’s perspective is matter-of-fact, however. “At three years old I haven’t looked that far into the future,” she says. “For now, Liam is just happy being Liam.”