Growing up, my father, Pedro, was a farm boy in rural Spain. Later he became a merchant marine, and for 30 years after that, worked as a New York City MTA mechanic. My Papi, as I call him, is no stranger to physically demanding challenges. By nature (and by trade), the 5-foot-8 man has always been lean and toned. And though he was never tall, standing next to his 5-foot wife Violeta and two little girls, he carried himself like a giant who could do anything. He turned a dank basement in our Queens, NY, home into a fully-functioning family room and even built a concrete shed behind the garage—his escape from a house full of women.
But for my father, physical activity was a means to an end—work that provided for a family he loved. Still, he understood the importance of it. Though he had never learned himself, he taught us how to ride bikes. And though he could barely tread water, he signed us up for swim lessons at the local YMCA. He even took us to 6 a.m. tennis sessions on Saturdays after arriving home from working a double-shift past midnight the night before. My parents also signed us up for gymnastics, karate, and dance.
Really, we were the most active girls I knew. But by the time we reached high school, Maria and I dropped our activities in favor of being full-time angsty teens. Neither of us returned to fitness until more than a decade later when we were in our early 20s and I began working as an assistant editor on the launch of a new national women's magazine called Women's Health. In September 2005, we both signed up for our first sprint triathlon.
Coming back to my active roots, thanks to the seeds my parents had wisely planted early, felt right. After my first triathlon, I went on to do nine more (both sprint and Olympic distances). When I became a freelance journalist in the fall of 2008, I found more time to bike and have accomplished major cycling feats, including pedaling from San Francisco to LA last June (watch a clip of my 545-mile, seven-day journey). Most recently, I completed the Nike Women's Half Marathon in Washington, D.C.—which some day, may lead to a full one.
Along the way, my parents have stood on sidelines and finish lines of my races. Afterward, my father returned to business as usual, which for him was a slothful retirement. But soon—and especially since he had almost never sat still for so long—my Papi grew bored, a little sullen, and achy from the lack of movement. The house started to smell of Bengay and he looked much older than his 67 years.
In December of ’08, I told my parents that for Christmas, all I wanted was for them to join a gym. I knew sweating and socializing would make them happier. But the thought of paying money to walk on a treadmill seemed ludicrous to them. They could just walk around the neighborhood, which they often did. In fact, it was during one of these morning strolls that my Papi stumbled across free tai chi in a nearby park. He recognized his next-door neighbor, Sanda, and his neighbor from across-the-street, Lily, and walked over. When they were done, he asked them about it. And feeling a little self-conscious about his post-retirement belly, he decided to join.
Soon enough, my Papi started meeting up with his silver-haired neighbors almost daily to practice the ancient Chinese exercise. Before we knew it, he was going five to six days a week. He started saying the phrase, “If you don't use it, you lose it,” with his thick Spanish accent. He began to feel and look better. Friends and family noticed the change and started joining him—though none could keep up with his discipline and trademark work ethic. When he went to visit his sister in Spain that summer, he practiced tai chi in the backyard where he grew up.
Reaping the benefits turned my Papi on to more fitness possibilities. When a local pool opened up, he and my mom signed up for senior aerobics even though he had never been comfortable in water. They started going three times a week and found themselves sticking around after class, working on their techniques. They also began occasionally frequenting the local gym affiliated with the pool, so he did pay (albeit very little thanks to a senior discount) to walk on a treadmill. Soon, between tai chi, learning to swim, and hitting up the gym, every day of his week—much like my childhood—was packed with fun activities. For the first time in his life, he had hobbies and he loved them.
With his new-found love of all things fitness and an undeniable pride in learning how to swim in his late 60s, my Papi decided it was time to learn to ride a bike at age 72. Giant Bicycles had just sent me a beach cruiser with a low step-through frame and cushy saddle that was perfect for the endeavor. My sister and I ordered adult training wheels and had the former mechanic (my Papi!) install them. On his birthday, we took him to a quiet, tree-lined street and walked alongside him as he pedaled cautiously and slowly, riding for the first time in his life. He was nervous about falling, but we never left his side. He was able to ride up and down the street for a full hour.
His brave physical forays didn't end there. My Papi continues to challenge his body in wonderful ways. Last week on his 73rd birthday, he ran (pretty fast, actually!) with a flying kite in the park. He also recently carried the “torch” at his pool's Senior Olympics event, where his team won a series of group challenges. Whenever I FaceTime with my Papi, he likes to get up, stand back a bit so I can see his full stature, and flex for me. It makes my heart swell and my smile widen.
The former farm boy, marine, and mechanic is in the best shape of his life in his mid-70s—his doctor swear he's going to live to 100 (which means 27 more years of fitness adventures!). As a writer, I’m always drawn to quotes from other writers, like C.S. Lewis, who famously said, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” (Lewis wrote his best-selling work, The Chronicles of Narnia, in his 50s!) And to me, that sums up—more than anything else—one of the many, many wonderful life lessons my Papi has taught me.