“Wait to Worry” – Ryan Beighley, 90, The Villages, Florida
Most of us can (or one day will) point to a moment or experience that brings about a profound change. When you ask 90-year-old Ryan Beighley what has motivated him to keep running and swimming through his life, the decorated World War II veteran has one of the more interesting answers- he literally had to run and swim for his life.
Ryan, who was raised by a single mother who resorted to bootlegging to feed her family during the Great Depression, was sent by a judge to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps at age 14. When that program was disbanded after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the underage youth managed to enlist into the Marines after two tries. Shortly after joining, an officer asked if he could swim a mile. The patriotic lad replied “Sure!” even though he had never done it before. Ryan found himself assigned to the newly-formed Amphibious Reconnaissance Company, a forerunner of the Navy Seals. For the next three years his team would paddle from ships in rubber boats and then swim ashore onto enemy-held islands in the Pacific to identify and map best landing sites in advance of assaults. It was perilous work, and he witnessed the reality of war at close range.
The Korean War called him back into service. His excellent fitness level earned him a position serving as a member of President Harry Truman’s presidential guard and drill unit in Washington, DC.
Like many others, the war experience changed his life, and he credits the intense training and discipline instilled in him for his success and continued commitment to health and fitness. Ryan regularly entered various distance running events and enjoyed open water swimming competitions, and then discovered Senior Games when he moved to The Villages, Florida in 2004. He changed his focus to sprint running and pool competition, and has been to four National Senior Games and earned numerous medals at every level. Ryan was also motivated to help grow the track club in his senior living community.
The former insurance executive and father of six hit a bumpy patch while caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife of 65 years until her death in 2009, and he had to overcome an atrial fibrillation with the help of a pacemaker. Through an unusual turn of events, his second wife Marty-herself an accomplished senior track and field athlete-entered his life four years ago and instilled new energy. The pair is inseparable, and together they actively recruit and advise new members in the track club.
With his omnipresent smile and Irish wit, he preaches the health benefits and camaraderie to be found in athletic participation. His greatest advice to others is encapsulated in his favorite expression: “Wait to worry.” What does that mean? You owe it to yourself to read on to learn more about the life and philosophy of this Personal Best athlete.
Let’s start by asking how you became a Senior Games athlete.
I started Senior Games when I moved to The Villages and they started having local games in 2004. Before that, I mostly ran 5Ks and 10Ks. I also enjoyed distance swimming in open water. Now I do the sprint events. Senior Games are fun. You meet nice people, you have good times, and you get your ego fixed up with sports, no matter what age you are. It’s satisfying. When they stop being fun I won’t do them anymore. People say they never see me without a smile on my face. I smile when I run, I really do. I like the tell people if I can’t make you smile, I’ll irritate you. I guess that’s my Irish heritage. (Laughs)
You’ve done well in national competition. This year you entered the 90-94 division and took two gold and a silver in swimming, and a silver in javelin. Did you know you are also now ranked Number Two all-time in the National Senior Game’s 50 yard breaststroke for your age?
No, but the breast is my favorite stroke. That’s all I did in the Marines. I do a little butterfly, but I’ve done the breast all my life and I’m more durable in that. I like all of the strokes, and I’ll try to do all of them in practice and at many meets, just for the heck of it.
How did you start your athletic pursuits?
It goes back to my service in the Marines, and how I got in is interesting. My mother came from Ireland. I was born 1925 in Detroit Michigan-so I’m told. My mother had several husbands, and I had a lot of brothers and sisters. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the Depression and my mother was a bootlegger. Her name was Hannah, and they called her Hard Hearted Hannah. Nobody had jobs and she had no other means of income, so she made moonshine and my older brother and I helped her.
When I was 14 she got arrested and we all went to court. She told the judge she didn’t have the means to do anything else. So, he sent my brother into the Army, my sister to a hospital to be a nurse intern (and she did go on to be a nurse) and I was sent to CC camp – that’s the Civilian Conservation Corps that President Roosevelt set up under the New Deal.
The next year, Pearl Harbor was bombed and the CC camps were disbanded. I went home where my mother was running a rooming house. I tried to get into the Marines and they told me, “You’re just a kid-get out of here.” So I got a job at a steel mill and was running an overhead crane at 15 years old. Now, you usually had to be 17 to be in the CC camps and my discharge papers that said I was 17. So when I turned 16, I went back in to the recruiting office and showed them, and first thing you know I was on a train headed for Paris Island.
After basic training came placement. This officer asked me, “Son, can you swim a mile?” I said sure, even though I wasn’t quite sure if I could. “How would you like to be in a recon outfit?” I said that sounded good, not knowing what that even was. That’s how I got assigned to the Marines’ Amphibious Reconnaissance Company.
We were the forerunner of the Navy Seals. Our main job was to go into these Pacific Islands right before the assaults and do hydrographic work, mapping the beaches and water depths to make sure the boats could get in. We also had to make contact with the Japanese, which meant getting close enough to see or hear them to know where they were, what kind of implementation they had, and how far off the beach they were. We didn’t carry a weapon when we did it either.
Dangerous work! And you must have been exhausted swimming that far in open water under that stress.
It wasn’t as far to go as when we trained. They put a little platform a half mile out in the ocean that we had to swim to. You could sit on the platform and rest, but you always had to swim back! In operations, the ships would drop us off in rubber boats about three miles out, and then we would paddle close in and swim from outside of the breakers. We never knew what we were getting into in each mission. But our work saved a lot of lives.
Is your war experience and Marine training and discipline what has shaped your outlook about fitness and kept you going as a competitive senior athlete?
You are dead right about the Marine discipline. My athletics started in the Corps. In my training we had to run in the sand carrying these big rubber boats with six men on each side. Then they made us swim a mile. And we did it a lot.
See, when I started, you ran because somebody was chasing you so you had to run. (Laughs) But I loved to run, as goofy as that sounds. We didn’t have running shoes, just these Sears and Roebuck high toppers. After the war, I just kept running and swimming.
I found out there were running groups, 5Ks, 10Ks and marathons, so I did all of those (mostly the 5Ks and 10Ks) right up until 2004, when I moved to the Villages at 79 and got into the track club and the Senior Games. I started running with John Topliss, this guy from England who wanted to start a track club. He is the real brains in this, and he asked me to help out. There was only about six in it when it started, but we now have around 60 people involved.
We use the facilities at the local high school, and we reciprocate by volunteering to help at the kid’s meets. The swim club does that too. That’s one the good things about being in The Villages. They really push all of these activities and sports, and we have a lot of people compete in The Villages Senior Games. That’s why you’ve got so many from here that qualify at state finals and go to the National Senior Games. We call this place Disneyland for adults. (Laughs)
Our routines are really very basic, but it does prepare people to compete. The club gives them tutelage and works them up so they don’t get hurt. You don’t just show up and start going lickety-split. But you will if you work up slowly. We make sure they do their warmups and stretches.
We also have some who are just walkers. We encourage everyone to come out because they become associated with everything going on and some do try new things. Maybe you do exercise walking, well, I will suggest you can also do intervals to raise your activity. Try walking from light pole to light pole, and then jog to the next light pole. You can do the same thing with swimming. You’ll find you enjoy it more because you get more things going in your brain than you can imagine. You get a kind of a high out of it, you know the endorphins and all that business. And it also gives you low attainment levels- if I can do this, I can also do that, you know? But I now know a whole lot of people who can’t believe they are doing what they are now. And I’m one of them! (Laughs)
So you enjoy helping others to achieve better fitness.
Well, I won’t lie, I’m a little egotistical. When people come up and tell me I’m wonderful that’s always good. (Laugh s) But it does feel good to help others. There’s this guy here who’s 71 and plays softball. I told him if he ran track he could get around the bases a lot faster. We did a 5K together and boy did he catch on. That kind of thing makes you feel good.
People around here say they don’t see you without your wife Marty. She’s a Senior Games athlete too, right?
Oh yes, she’s quite the athlete. Marty’s done a lot of running. She once did an event that was a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro followed by a half marathon. She won seven medals-two gold-in Minnesota doing sprints and field events. We’re very active in Senior Games. We go to most of the ones around Florida, and we’ve been to the Huntsman Games in Utah. We enjoy going up to the Georgia Golden Olympics, too. They run good games, and they serve the best fried chicken! (Laughs)
Quite a few of the runners in our club were recruited by Marty and me.
There’s a sports expo held here every March, and we set up a booth where we display pictures and our medals. We talk to people about getting involved and staying fit, and we’ve really been pulling them in. We tell people about the enjoyment of running and the sport, and the camaraderie you find doing this.
We both work out and train every day. Monday, Wednesday, Friday is track club, I throw javelin and discus with her twice a week and I swim on the weekends. It’s a beautiful thing to have her to do this with me.
How I met her is another interesting story. I was married to my first wife Kit for 65 years. After she died, I got a call from this gal that I had done a Ragnar relay race with. Ragnar relays involve teams who pile into a couple of vans and do a 191-mile relay run that goes all day and night. Everyone takes turns running while the others ride behind. It’s a lot of fun. So I was asked to coach a team for the Ragnar relay from Miami to Key West. I invited Jan Melberg from our track club to be on the team, and she recommended her sister in law could fly in from California to join us. Well, that was Marty. At first, she didn’t want to have anything to do with me, she thought I was too bossy. (Laughs) But we became friends.
In 2011, I was invited to come to Camp Pendleton in California to give a speech on the Marine Corps’ birthday. So we arranged for me to come up to visit her in Redondo Beach. After that, she would fly here and I would fly there, and after a few months we decided to get married.
I’m just lucky as the devil to have met Marty and to stay interested in what I’m doing. My first wife developed Alzheimer’s and one of my sons and I had to care for her for several years before she died. It was a lot of pressure. I’ve also had a pacemaker put in. I’m certain I wouldn’t be alive today if not for my running and swimming activity that keeps up my strength.
You look at least 20 years younger. You obviously keep active, how else are you taking care of yourself?
I just do things in moderation. I’ve never really been on any kind of diet, but I don’t believe in indulging. I never got into smoking or drinking, so I think that helps too.
I’ve never had any joint problems. The doctor tells me it’s my genes. I’ll tell you though, when I was doing a marathon many years ago I met this retired doctor who told me to take coenzyme Q10 for my breathing and my heart, and to take glucosamine for my muscles and bones. I’ve been taking both every day since then, and I think that glucosamine has given my joints some buffer.
Exercise, training and competing is not just a physical task. What do you tell people to get the mental part moving?
The mental part is important. The big thing I tell people is “Wait to worry.” I preach that to everyone, and they ask me what I mean by that. I’ll give you an example. An athlete heard that someone who had beaten her before was going to be at a race and told me she can’t win. I said, “Wait to worry! She might not show up. She may have a bad day, and you’ll have a good day. She might go on a cruise. So why worry about that now?”
You can’t waste your time with worry. It preys on your body and your capabilities. Worry will kill you. Think about this: most of the things you worry about in your life never come to fruition. Isn’t that true? I learned that in the insurance business and I’ve carried it over to sports.
Just go out and do it. Your body will tell you how you are doing. Always listen to your body-that no pain, no gain stuff is nonsense. There was this guy Larry Lewis, who ran six miles every day past the age of 100. He used to say that if you don’t feel better after your workout than when you started, then don’t do the same thing the next day. If it’s not feeling right, rest it.
So pay attention, but wait to worry!