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“Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.”
That’s a favorite expression of Frank Lea. While some may debate whether his 70 years qualify him as “old,” Lea (rhymes with “bee”) certainly takes on life with the zest of a youngster.
That approach has paid off handsomely for the man who lives on Stone Mountain, in Bedford County.
Lea has made his mark at national swimming championships: a direct result of enthusiastic effort. These wins have come in national distance events through U.S. Master Swimmers.
By “distance,” we’re talking about a two-mile event. Lea has won the event on three separate occasions. Last year, he finished third and this year he took second.
Lea has chlorine in his blood. In fact, he was the 1963 ACC champion in the mile event, when he swam for the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
But he found his true love when he lived in the mountains of North Carolina.
“I started skiing in 1977,” he recalled. “I loved it. Taught it. Coached it.”
Lea got a belly full of the wintery sport when he moved to Lake Placid, NY, where he lived for 15 years. There, he could ski to his heart’s content on famed Whiteface Mountain, site of the 1980 Winter Olympic skiing events.
His idyllic existence was to come to a screeching halt, however. “They replaced my knees,” said Lea. “That meant no skiing, and that broke my heart.”
Lea found a bright spot when his doctor prescribed swimming as part of his rehabilitation program following surgery.
Three months later, he entered his first swim meet. Since then, he’s been swimming the long distances: two miles, three miles, six miles.
Consider this: It takes about three and a half hours to swim a six-mile event.
The fact that Lea was such a dedicated swimmer has helped him deal with recent physical ailments. A series of operations on his foot has left him in need of a wheelchair. “I already had a routine established when the need for rehab (on his foot) came up,” he noted.
“The foot doesn’t kick very well,” said Lea. “The swimming helps (with that).”
Indeed, four mornings a week, you can find Lea in the pool at the Moneta or Bedford YMCA. His workout lasts one and a half hours, during which he swims at least 100 lengths of the 25 meter pool (which is over 1.5 miles).
A typical workout consists of a 10 length warm up, three 20 length swims (with increasing speed), 10 four length sprints (increasing speed) and a 10 length cool down.
Lea also works out in the gym four or five days a week.
He keeps up his Spartan routine in spite of (or, perhaps because of) his list of surgeries: both knees replaced (one replacement has been replaced), both shoulders operated on, five foot operations and a list of other ailments.
None of it seems to faze the man who, between working out and traveling around the country to U.S. Master Swimmers meets (and winning some of those), finds time to volunteer for Bedford Ride and at Lake Christian Ministries. Lea even works as a minister, having served as an unpaid chaplain at a nursing home and with an on-line congregation.
For those who find themselves unable to do the things they once loved, Lea has some advice. “You lose one thing, go find another. Even if it’s just walking around Walmart.”
Or, they can work with Lea, who offers his free assistance in helping build up Bedford’s Master Swimmer population from its current count of one.
If Frank Lea puts his mind to it, though, there’s little doubt that he’ll hit whatever goal he sets there.
As he has with everything else.