January 26, 2022 5 min read 1 Comment
By Ray Glier
It’s hard to know if Jerry LeVasseur would have achieved superstar status in life and Masters track without the circus fire.
His daughter, Karen, feels his over-achievement has something to do with his core identity, which is a positive disposition and good genes, not just his catapult from disaster when he was six years old. Perhaps, Jerry was already destined to helm this extraordinary life of doing, succeeding, and giving before his ordeal, a real life trial by fire, which could have imprisoned him mentally and physically.
I have had Major League Baseball players say to me about elite athletes who are their teammates, “Look at my guy there, he was touched on the way out”, meaning he was given extraordinary ability on the way out of the womb.
On the other hand, LeVasseur knows the fire gave him layers of resolve and gratitude because he had to overcome severe injuries to his hands and the trauma of the death of his mother, who shielded him from the inferno that took her life. Jerry received—big time—on July 6, 1944, and now he gives…and gives…and gives.
But does it matter if Jerry’s core identity (spirit, robust genes), or his experience with catastrophe put him on a trajectory for a remarkable life?
What matters is that LeVasseur, who lives in Brunswick, Maine, is one squared-away guy. He is still competing at 84 years old and has plans to run in the National Senior Games in May in Ft. Lauderdale.
Goals at 84? You bet.
Jerry said he hopes to at least compete in the 4X100 relay with Jerry White, Roger Vergin, and Elmo Shropshire and set a national record in May. LeVasseur, Vergin, White, and Robert Lida set a 4x100 national record in the 2017 National Senior Games (1:12.37).
In the USA Track & Field Masters national meet in Ames, Iowa, Jerry was on record-setting relay teams in the 4x400 and 4x800 with the New England 65 Plus Running Club.
LeVasseur said his goal at the Senior Games is to enter the Triple Jump, 800, 1500, and the race walks. The man is 84 years old and has fought off three cancers. I half expect him to rip an old Boston phone book in half.
When he puts his feet on the ground in the morning, Jerry is thinking, “Having a good day, staying fit, which is a little harder with Covid, and staying positive.”
When he was 70, Jerry was part of a world record 4x800 relay team, a mark that stood for five years.
He was part of a 4x800 relay team in the Men’s 80-year old division in 2018 that set a national record that still stands.
These days, Jerry has more modest goals. Instead of winning everything, he wants to win at least half of the events he enters. He has had to remap his competitive brain because age has pushed the Finish Line further away, but only in time, not ultimate result of getting there. LeVasseur was so slow one race, they turned the timing clocks off forgetting he was out there. He chuckles about it.
“I never used to finish in the back,” Jerry said, “but it’s all about what you are trying to do, which for me, is fun, fitness, and friends.”
His experience on the Bosu Ball illustrates this willpower. The half ball is a challenge to your balance.
“You fall off, but don’t give up on it,” Jerry said. “So many people give up because it is so hard.”
I’ll get to the fire in a moment, but what is more relevant to Geezer Jocks is what Jerry says about avoiding injury.
“I’ve seen so many runners that all they do is run, so they are not going to get to 80 years old in their sport because they are going to get injured,” LeVasseur said. “They are not doing the other non-running exercises, like cross-fit, biking in the summer, or skiing. They will put in a lot of miles running, get hurt, and quit.”
He used as an example a young runner at Bowdoin College in Brunswick where he has been a volunteer coach for 18 years.
“We had a runner who would stay after practice and continue running so he could get his minutes in,” Jerry said. You could almost see Jerry through the phone shaking his head side to side, feeling for the kid.
“He was injured most of his career here. You can’t try and do too much.”
This is a phenomenon the NBA’s medical director told me about two years ago when I was working on a story about the spike of injuries to some of the best athletes in the world. The dedication to one sport as youngsters was leading to repetitive-use injuries. These young basketball players were devoted to basketball year-round, instead of exercising different muscle groups in baseball, football, soccer, wrestling, golf, lacrosse, you name it.
So Jerry’s regimen is much more than running. When he is able he uses the Bowdoin workout facilities nearly every day. Jerry uses the Elliptical machine or Zero Runner to avoid the impact of the cement or track. He does that cardio for an hour and then 30 minutes on the array of weight machines.
Covid has hurt his workout schedule, but Jerry adapts at home with a mat and core exercises. LeVasseur lives just off a golf course in Brunswick, Maine, but he does not play golf. He uses the golf course for snow-shoe walking or cross-country skiing.
Leave it to a guy in Maine to have no chill when it comes to stomping on the anachronistic theories on aging.
Jerry went to Lehigh University and became an accountant. He has four daughters and one, Linda, wrote a book about him. https://www.amazon.com/Fitness-Fun-Friends-Stories-remarkable/dp/0985695137
Arden, his wife, is 83 this year and she competes, too, winning medals in the World Masters Games. She wants you to know that the competition is scarce at her age, or non-existent, but we all know the medals are earned because she is out there when most others are not. Arden won the Triple Jump at the last three World Masters Games she attended and is in the Maine Senior Games Hall of Fame.
For Jerry, one of his give-back moves is to press meet directors to have events for the older athletes.
“Even as competition for us has died away, we are still competing with ourselves to be able to stay healthy and stay fit,” Jerry said.
So, about the fire.
Jerry was six years old and lived in Bristol, Conn., when his mother, Marion, took him to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford. The one thing that sticks with me in this story is how the tents were coated in oil to waterproof them.
Something caught fire. The tents became a death trap as hundreds of people tried to escape a raging inferno. Jerry and his mother were caught in the stampede. He was in a pile of people, his mother on top of him. Just two people stacked at that exit survived. Jerry’s mother did not. She laid on top of him shielding him.
168 people died. 100 animals died.
In an emergency area, Jerry heard a nurse say, “He’s not going to make it.”
Instead of soul-crushing despair, Jerry, all of six years old, found his spine and said to himself, “Yes, I am.”
He has a bald spot where the top of his head was burned. His fingers were badly burned. Jerry played baseball one-handed as a kid. Yes, he did. There were surgeries and rehabilitation and ridicule.
And now you see the miracle of Jerry. The man competes on the Masters circuit, as if his life depends on it, which it does.
He is an established Geezer Jock, through and through. Nature or nurture?
It’s both, of course. LeVasseur has it and it is how you make your way through life’s ordeals, instead of curling up, or turning back.
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