The Facebook message came out of the blue. It was from Kevin O’Connell, a local policeman, inviting me to barefoot water ski with him and his friend, Tom Hart. My husband wasn’t too happy about the idea of me jumping into a boat with two guys I had never met. I checked out Kevin’s background with a friend who worked at the police station. “He’s a great guy–you’ll be fine,” my friend said.
Kevin and Tom turned out to be more than great. We have barefoot skied together over the last several years and laughed more times than I can count. To help me get over my fear of alligators, Tom gave me two alligators– a plastic one named Ally Gator for the boat and a stuffed one named Croc A. Dile for home. Sarcasm, wisecracks, and trash talk punctuate every run and there’s a little competitive streak in each of us.
That competitive streak had us barefooting backwards around two 90-degree turns for a mile and half one day. We still argue about who won that one. During the last run of the season in 2012, we each took turns crossing the wake behind the boat. Tom took a tumble during one of his runs. He decided to take another run, which ended in another fall–highly unusual for Tom. After the third fall, we called it a day and headed back to the dock. As we unloaded the gear, Kevin and I noticed Tom repeating his thoughts and questions. When he started rambling about a kneeboard, Kevin and I looked at each other. “He’s got a concussion,” we said at once. We started asking him questions to see how jumbled his memory was.
“Tom, don’t you know that we’re married and we have four kids together,” I teased.
“No, I know that’s not true!” He laughed.
Kevin drove Tom to the emergency room. An MRI revealed excess fluid around his brain. The formal diagnosis was Adult Onset Hydrocephalus, a condition that could have been genetic or possibly building up over a long period of time. In a way, the barefoot fall had saved his life. Left untreated, the condition can be fatal. Tom was scheduled for surgery to drain the fluid and relieve the pressure.
Tom had just one question for his doctor. “Will I be able to barefoot water ski again?”
Dr. Douglas Anderson, a neurosurgeon at Loyola in Chicago, didn’t have an answer. Tom would have to wait and see.
On the day of the surgery, Kevin and I were on pins and needles as we waited for news. Deep down, we couldn’t imagine barefoot water skiing without our buddy with us. Tom was head over heels passionate about the sport ever since he discovered it at age 38. At 62, he was aiming for Banana George’s record at 93. The possibility of never skiing again was a painful one to face.
Fortunately, the surgery went smoothly and several months later, Tom was cleared to ski again. As soon as the ice melted, Tom put on a dry suit and went barefooting.
At first, Tom took it easy and skied cautiously that summer. He hired a trainer to help him get back on track and worked out hard in his off time. (This is a guy who does 300 sit ups at once and warms up with 50 pound wrist curls.) One thing didn’t change–Tom was his usual funny self in the boat and on the water. Water guns, false teeth, funny hats, and plastic critters–anything and everything was a prop for laughter. We often joke that we have a 12-year-old in the boat. Tom keeps us laughing with every run.
Today, 62-year-old Tom embodies every aspect of Growing Bolder, where age is not a number–it’s an attitude.Tom’s secret is a simple one–exercise, combined with laughter, will keep you going every day. Do something you’re passionate about and have lots of fun while you’re at it. Tom taught me this: if you keep the spirit of a 12-year-old child inside of you and frequently let it out to play–you’ll never grow old.
Check out the video of Tom’s story and watch him walk on water. (And just so you know, Tom doesn’t usually speak this slow. He made it easier for me to lipread him as I filmed. Video compiled by Ryan Marrs.)
Karen Putz is an author, speaker, and Passion Mentor who helps others unwrap their passions at any age. For fun, she walks on water with the assistance of a rope, boat, and driver. Connect with Karen via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and her website: Ageless Passions.