The Power of Love – John C. Taylor, 94, Atlanta, Georgia
It’s not just anyone who can say they have done a triathlon in the National Senior Games at the age of 90 or older. In fact, no one but John C. Taylor can make that claim, which was accomplished in 2011 in Houston. Even more remarkable is that John didn’t begin running until he was 60 years old as part of an ongoing process of reinventing himself in midlife.
Born to parents who were teachers (and a father who was also a basketball coach and preacher), John pursued education and the ministry and is credited with 19 years of teaching and 45 years of pastoring at 11 churches in four states. He also worked as a newspaper editor, public information officer and journalism professor. He can call four colleges his alma mater, including the University of Alabama, where he earned a masters degree, and Southern Illinois University, where he held his final teaching position and, after his retirement, earned his PhD in health education. That was at age 75.
The 2011 triathlon would turn out to be his last so far, owing to spine problems that have prevented him from further competitive running. However, John has not given up riding his bike or taking laps in the pool, and at the 2013 National Senior Games presented by Humana in Cleveland he cycled and swam his way to four medals. Last year, he qualified for The Games in 2015 at both the Georgia Golden Olympics and the Florida State Senior Games. Despite a recent heart valve repair procedure, he expects to be cleared to train again and then make the drive to Minnesota in July with his constant companion Sally, who was recommended to John by his first wife before her passing in 1998. (If that doesn’t get you to read the following interview, nothing will!)
Possessing an inquiring, caring and competitive nature, John has refined a well rounded lifestyle based on what he has learned, and devotes time to preaching what he practices at senior centers and churches in the Atlanta area. He emphasizes having a positive, loving attitude and being physically, socially, spiritually and mentally active to reduce stress, maintain balance and enjoy longevity. It’s a Personal Best attitude that works for John C. Taylor, and he believes it can work for you, too.
You have a life of achievements as a teacher, a preacher and a journalist. And it seems like you have done just as much after 50 as before.
I’m busier now than when I retired 27 years ago. I try to have an active life.
Completing a triathlon at age 90 is mind boggling. Have you been a lifelong athlete?
No. When I was young I didn’t make any of my school teams, but my dad was a basketball coach for some time. I sat on the bench with him often, so competition got in my blood. In college I played some intramural basketball, soccer and track. In my 30s I slowly jogged three days a week. That was about it.
I started doing 5Ks and 10Ks at the age of 60. In 1981, I did my first triathlon, and then every year I would usually do two or three of them. I did nine triathlons in one year in my 80s, but I whittled that down.
We missed seeing you in the triathlon in 2013.
I can’t do them anymore, the running is too hard on me. My back is in bad shape, the cartilage is all gone on the bottom five vertebrae and they haven’t found any remedy for it. Advil does just enough to keep it from being overbearing. I still hold out hope I will do more.
You haven’t given up though. You qualified for swimming and cycling, so will you be doing both at The Games in Minnesota?
I’m hoping to make it. I recently had a non-invasive surgery to repair a blocked heart valve where they run a little wire in the vein from the thigh up into the heart and install an expansion in the valve. I really do feel a lot better. They told me I have the arteries of a 20 year old, all clean and not much cholesterol. The specialist at Emory Hospital told me that I can probably start getting on my bike and swimming again soon. He’s fascinated with my aging and asked how is it that I got to be this old. I told him “I guess it’s because I was born so long ago.” (Laughs)
Even if it turns out I’m not in shape to compete we may just drive up there to see people and have a vacation. We have this motor home Sprinter van that Sally and I love to travel in. It’s got everything but a washer and dryer.
Do you have a history of heart or other major health problems?
No, I did have a melanoma removed from the side of my nose but no other physical problems. I’ve been over the handlebar of my bicycle three times though. One time a dog got his tail caught in the front wheel. I skidded 12 feet with my face on a gravel road and tore my face up.
Did you ever expect you would be doing these things in your 90s?
No, but I always expected to live to be 105. My dad lived to be 102 and two of his uncles crossed 100 and his mother lived to be 95. But you know, genes are only about 17 or 18 percent of the influence on your longevity. Your lifestyle after 50 accounts for over 80 percent. There’s been a lot of research on that.
A positive attitude goes a long way, and you seem to have that going for you too.
You know, I was on Dr. Oz before the 2011 games in Houston. They wanted somebody who would talk a lot so I guess I’m known for that. They flew Sally and me up to New York for the show. While we were up there we got to see Ringo Starr who was performing across the road.
Well, Dr. Oz asked what my secret was. I pointed out at Sally and told him, “The secret is love. I love God, I love this country, I love people, and I love myself. And I love that woman sitting in the front row there.” The cameras zoomed in on Sally and Dr. Oz laughed and said “Hey guys, the show’s up here!” They actually cut that part out of the show.
I’ve learned loving is a positive attitude towards life. In my 50s, I found myself becoming more critical and negative when I was practicing journalism. You’re supposed to stand in surveillance of society, to watch and report society. Doing that tends to generally make you a little critical. Then, I came across Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking and signed up to get his mailings. After that, I turned my negativism into positivism.
Weren’t you also pastoring during that period of your life too?
You know, I went through three periods in the ministry. The first was preaching the Gospel, “We have the truth and we want to get it out to you.” Then it was denominationalism. Then I began to realize there’s a lot of independent truth in the Baptist doctrines, that you yourself have your own choice, decision and will. That’s when I turned away from denominationalism to just focusing on people and helping them with their problems. That’s when I became a people pastor.
One of my favorite sayings is “Relationships are more important than conduct.” You think about that. Conduct is keeping the rules of the church and the Bible as you see them, but I came to realize relationships are more important than anything else.
So you found a truly positive outlook in your 50s, and then got a fitness plan in your 60s?
That was the next big crossroads, when I started running and then doing triathlons.
Speaking of relationships, people say your first wife actually helped you find your current mate. That’s rather unusual!
My first wife Nancy died in 1998. In the months before that happened, she recommended several women we knew, but I didn’t think any of them would work out for various reasons. Then she said, “What about Sally who jogs by here all the time? She’s probably the only one in Atlanta who can keep up with you.” Well, about eleven months after Nancy passed I met Sally and we’ve been together, doing everything together, ever since. (Laughs)
Sally’s 78 and keeps fit. She’s a former trapeze artist for the Florida State Circus. She doesn’t compete but she cycles on the spinner five days a week.
It turned out to be the right match. You’re a fortunate man.
Oh yeah, we’re madly in love. At meets people admire us. In fact, I lined up at one cycling race in Florida and the starter said “Taylor! You’re disqualified. You use performance enhancing drugs.” I screamed out “I do not!” and he said “Oh yes you do. Everyone saw Sally hug and kiss you just now!”
Then there was this quarter Iron Man race in St. Petersburg. Sally came out and hugged and kissed me before I crossed the archway. Somebody said I better get over that finish line and record my time. I picked up Sally and carried her over the line and the crowd went bonkers. Well, this 20 year old from Brazil that won the race and a $20,000 prize came up to me laughing and said, “You got a bigger hand than I did!”
We get so many comments everywhere, things like “It’s so good to see two older people so much in love.” She is terrific encouragement and helps me fight aging depression.
So having a balanced lifestyle is the secret to longevity?
It’s lifestyle. Nutrition, exercise, stress management, spiritual and social relationships and being mentally active. I got a PhD at 75 so I wouldn’t go downhill as rapidly as my peers. Since I retired I’ve been reading three to four hours per day. It’s helped me greatly. Physical activity is so important too. You know, raising your heartbeat pushes oxygen into every part of your body. That’s why exercise with aerobics in it is so valuable.
After I got my doctorate in health education I started lecturing at senior centers and churches around Atlanta about lifestyle. I always tell people I didn’t start this until I was 60 years old. I didn’t even jog until then. Everyone can do something.
How do you approach the fitness part of your lifestyle balance?
I used to get this quarterly magazine from the Penn State College of Sports Medicine. They were far ahead of the medical profession in my view on studying the health of athletes 30 and up. I learned things about how not to dehydrate, and also how to get my heartbeat up. They insist not to do the same aerobics exercise every day. When you’re younger let your heart rest one day per week; when you are in your 60s and 70s, rest two days; and then rest three days when you’re in your 80s and 90s.
But this college said the basic cue is getting your heartbeat up to three-fourths of maximum at least three days a week for 45 minutes to an hour. And don’t just get going fast, and keep going for the whole time and then stop suddenly. Build up gradually for five minutes, and then intermittently rest for one to two minutes to let the heartbeat go back to normal, then go back up again. They have learned this helps build your heart for old age.
I’ve found very few doctors who know that. Of all the doctors and nurses I’ve been to they never mention aerobics. That is so healthy for the heart, and so healthy for the brain too. When you get your heartbeat up you are pumping oxygen into your head, your heart, every organ, into the bones, into the muscles, into the skin and your cells. Oxygen is life giving.
Your example is an inspiration to others. Do people tell you that?
Yes. I do think I can be an inspiration to Baby Boomers because I didn’t start running and on to doing triathlons until I was 60.
I like to tell the story about a woman who was 50 years old when I met her. She was out watching a triathlon in Claremont, Florida, and was amazed to see me doing it at my age. She was really concerned about her weight and health. She talked with me and Sally and got inspired. She told me, “I’m going to be able to do this when you come back next year.” And she did a triathlon with me the next year. She now even does at least two of those Ironman events per year, which is a nearly 3 mile-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon run. That’s really something.
Incidentally, in 1932 my family moved to Claremont and we lived on the shore of Lake Minneola for a few years. The USA Triathlon organization has their headquarters in Claremont now, and they use that lake for competitions and training. It was interesting to go back and complete a triathlon there many years later.