One afternoon in July 2021, Tommy Blake, an 81-year-old Vietnam War veteran, walked up to Trisha Stavinoha, a Life Time Masters Swim coach in San Antonio, Texas, with a lofty request: “Can you teach me how to dive off those high swimming blocks? Apparently that’s what I have to do in order to start in my upcoming race.”
Blake, who has been a member at Life Time for more than 10 years, had been swimming since he was a kid. When a friend suggested he compete in the Texas Senior Games, he thought, Sure, why not? He had never swum in a meet before, and he had never done a dive.
Go-getter is just one of the many admirable terms you could use to describe Blake — he’s also a loving husband, father, and grandfather. So nothing was going to stand in his way of training for the games: Not his age, not the fact that he has a pacemaker, and not the reality that he had to learn and master new skills in just two months.
Stavinoha, also an Army veteran, said her first thought upon hearing Blake’s request was, I cannot injure this American hero. She was fairly new to swim coaching and had not taught anyone of his age or how to dive off blocks yet. Now that she reflects on it, she says, “I should’ve had more faith in Tommy. Diving off blocks is really child’s play compared to his time in the Army.”
A Movement History
Blake started his 30-year Army career in 1963 as an infantry officer before going to flight school and planning, coordinating, and flying assault missions in the Vietnam War.
On his last mission, he was shot in his foot. The injury ended his tour in Vietnam, but he remained in the military as the reserve commander of a medical evacuation unit.
After years of healing, Blake, who had previously enjoyed running as a primary form of exercise, was able to run again. He kept at it for most of his life.
Recently, however, the pain became too much, so he decided to move his exercise regimen from the road to the pool. Swimming had always intrigued Blake: He recalls a day in college when he was strolling past the pool on campus and saw the swim team practicing. Blake walked up to the head coach and asked if he could join the team.
The coach was thrilled, but after learning Blake was already committed to the track and field team, knew the track coach would not be happy about sharing Blake with another athletic team. So, Blake stuck to his running endeavors.
Getting to Work
After Blake initially approached Stavinoha, she proceeded to watch Blake swim and had him complete a swim assessment to ensure it would be safe for him to learn the somewhat advanced skill of diving. She wanted to help Blake, and he was up for the challenge.
They started their diving practice the edge of the pool, with towels underfoot to protect his sensitive feet. Blake is naturally coordinated and has good body awareness, and Stavinoha knew he wasn’t starting from scratch.
She coached him to stretch his arms as far as possible while diving off the edge of the pool. Once she was comfortable with his reach, she moved him to some elevation. When it comes to diving, the higher you are, the harder you fall, so ensuring you have a good diving technique at a lower level helps eliminate potential injuries that come with elevation.
It didn’t take long for Blake to progress to the high block — he was ready on the first day. Although his foot hurt him when he dove, he still wanted to practice so he could compete to the best of his abilities.
Ready, Set, Dive!
The Texas Senior Games were held on September 11, 2021. Blake won the 50-meter freestyle event for his age group with a time of 00:44.430 seconds. “I was so surprised,” says Blake. “I expected to finish close to last and low and behold, I had won this thing. It was amazing.”
Blake’s performance qualified him for the National Senior Games, which will be held in Florida in May 2022. He’s planning to work on his flip turns and back stroke to prepare for the event. “He thinks he can place sixth or seventh,” says Stavinoha. “I think he can win.”
The majority of swimmers Stavinoha coaches are over the age of 50, and she loves working with them. “You have to keep an open mind with our Life Time members,” says Stavinoha. “Some of our older members are in way better shape than the younger members. Tommy is the epitome of someone who is experiencing life.”
Blake makes his health a priority. “I take some classes, like SHRED and yoga classes, and I also joined Trisha’s Masters Swim class,” he notes. “You’ve just got to stay active. All the men in my ancestry have died of a heart attack at about 60 years old. I had a heart attack about 10 years ago, had a triple bypass, and I have a pacemaker, but I’ve been fine ever since. If I hadn’t exercised consistently, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I have post-traumatic stress from my time in the war and being active helps with that,” he continues. “You’ve got to find something that you like to do, or you can tolerate doing, even if it’s just walking. If you’re at Life Time, they have all these incredible classes and things you can do, so the chances of finding something you like are good. Also, you’ll meet a lot of people, and as you get older, you need new friends. So, keep moving — that encompasses the whole thing.”