A Personal Best Life
Tom Lough is, by his own estimation, a man who does not possess special skills or talents, athletic or otherwise. How, then, does he explain a life of accomplishments that includes competing in Modern Pentathlon at age 26 in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City?
Add to this graduating from West Point with a degree in engineering, then ascending to the rank of Major and a distinguished 10-year Army career. As you will read in our conversation, Tom would never have had the Olympic opportunity without his military service. (You will also discover how his growling stomach played a motivating role.)
Military was followed with master’s degrees in geodetic science, physics, and finance, capped with a Ph.D. in educational psychology. Tom applied his learning to pursue an education career that began as a high school science and math teacher and ended with a 17-year tenure as a science education professor at Murray State University in Kentucky. Along the way, Tom has had diverse consulting assignments, including Lego Robotics and conducting science teaching workshops for high school and middle school teachers in developing countries. Approaching his 74th birthday, he has no plans to stop pursuing challenging and rewarding work. ` While he and his team narrowly missed earning a medal in Mexico City, Tom was recognized in the Olympic Movement for serving as national director for the Bicentennial Olympic Project in 1976. He was later inspired to reassemble his 1968 team and has organized alumni reunion events. He was also instrumental in establishing the 1968 U.S. Olympic Team Oral History Project and Legacy Archive at the University of Texas that now houses scores of fascinating teammate interviews.
Tom is most proud to have a successful marriage and family life, and has kept active through midlife, notably with running and race walk events. When he learned of National Senior Games, Tom found a pathway to fitness, fun and fellowship in a competitive atmosphere. He has run 800 and 1500 meter track events in The Games since 2007.
Sounds like a storybook life, right?
Truth is, it did not all come easy to Tom. His Olympic dream was almost shattered by a severe injury during training that hospitalized him for weeks prior to the 1968 trials. Shortly after competing, he was shipped off to Vietnam as a company commander in a combat engineer battalion with the 101st Airborne Division, where he was shot down in a Huey helicopter over Hamburger Hill in 1969. He miraculously survived and led a team of combat engineers to clear a critical landing zone, earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. In typical fashion, Tom shrugs off the recognition and says he has Olympic teammates with more heroic stories.
The bottom line is that Tom possesses a spirit of determination, bolstered by a deep faith base, that drives him to get the most out of everything he does. "He has a standard,” says Dr. Robert Beck, a 1968 teammate. “Tom is going to give you his max. There's gonna be nothing less. Whatever he does is going to be the best that he can possibly do."
Tom Lough (pronounced “low”) perseveres through physical, emotional and mental challenges to obtain goals he continuously sets for himself. He is proof that anyone can achieve more than imagined and enjoy healthy aging, regardless of the talent or ability one might have. He is the quintessential example of our definition of Personal Best.
Tom, your resume of military service, athletics, education and professional pursuits clearly demonstrates you have always strived for excellence in everything you have done. I don’t look at myself as gifted in any particular thing. I guess I discovered some talents where maybe I’m above average, so the combination of them has kept life interesting for me. That’s probably why I enjoyed Modern Pentathlon competition so much. I didn’t have to be a champion swimmer or runner in order to succeed in the combined events.
Yours is not the usual story of a young athlete being discovered and devoting many years to training. In high school I was pretty good in the half mile run. I broke the school record in my junior year, but that was the only athletic thing I did of any interest.
When I got to West Point, I tried out for a lot of different teams. The motivation was really to get onto the sports tables in the dining hall. The plebes on the regular company tables had a rough time and didn’t get to eat much. The rationale was that if you were on a sports squad you need to eat well to be a good competitor and representative of West Point.
So in a real way, your road to the Olympics literally went through your stomach! [Laughs] Yeah, well the plebes were all desperate to get on the athletic tables, that’s for sure! [Laughs again] So I ended up on the triathlon club, and that got me on a team training table in the dining hall. I had no competitive swimming background, and had to learn pistol shooting. The triathlon at that time was running, swimming and shooting.
In my junior year they restarted a fencing program that had not been held in 20 years. I was lucky to be able to join the club and represented West Point in NCAA events. I didn’t get any horse riding in until later.
Olympic Modern Pentathlon includes horseback riding, fencing, pistol shooting, swimming, and cross country running. Had you dreamed of competing in the sport? I didn’t know anything about the Modern Pentathlon until I joined the triathlon club and saw a pamphlet. If you go back to the heritage of the event, in the early 1900's, Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement, decided that there should be an event that would appeal to the military athlete. So, I was already doing three of the sports, and the pamphlet said if you learned the other two and showed potential you might make it to the Olympic trials.
By the time I finished at West Point I had won a couple of triathlons and had done pretty well in a couple of pentathlon competitions that I managed to find, including one at an Olympic development clinic, which I won. I was named the 1962 national novice champion. That was encouraging, and seemed to indicate I might have some potential.
Leading up to graduation and military assignments, somebody decided to send me to the national training center in San Antonio for a few months for the coaches to look me over, and then they would set up the course for my Army career in the Corps of Engineers.
I was told I needed to accelerate my troop experience if I wanted to train for two years for the Olympic trials. So I had an assignment to Korea and went to airborne and ranger schools beforehand, which was real fun. I got back and made the Olympic team. I competed in Mexico City in October of 1968, and on November 16th I was on an airplane to Vietnam.
Wow. Just that fast. That was the other half of the bargain, to get troop duty in a combat situation. I was a professional soldier, and they were willing to move things around so I could get my training time and to compete, but I had to fulfill my Army duties and complete two hardship tours, as they were called.
Well, thank you for your service, Tom. That must have made your Olympic experience even more special. It almost didn’t happen. I had a rather serious injury with a severely pulled leg muscle in training. I was in traction for three weeks in the hospital. I was pretty discouraged because the Olympic trials were coming up. But then I was rejuvenated by what I guess I could call a spiritual awakening. I told myself to get up off my butt and stop feeling sorry for myself, and to try to figure out how I could stay in shape during my hospital stay.
My teammates brought me a golf ball on a string and my fencing sword so I could hang the golf ball from my traction frame and practice picking at it. I used a weight out of my traction bag to practice raising and lowering my pistol. The nurse rigged up a pulley system over my head so I could practice swimming. I took my crutch apart and wrapped it in some elastic bandages and squeezed it between my knees and ankles and sort of did imaginary rides over the jumps. I did sit-ups, everything I could. By doing all that I didn't deteriorate all that much. In the same ward with me were wounded men from Viet Nam who cheered me on, you know, “Go get 'em guy!” I really got inspired from them.
It was really a very emotional time for me. I can still remember the feeling that I was being led by an invisible hand, because everything I did was really solid. No one was more surprised than I was to come in at a second place finish in the trials.
I had been selected for a team that went down to Mexico City in 1967 for a run-through of the venues and to give officials and judges practice in the competition setting. They called it “The Little Olympics” and we actually did win a team bronze medal that year. In the Olympics, we just missed third place by nine points out of 13,000 I think. That’s close. But it was a great experience, and I appreciated the opportunity to represent the United States and to be in the company of all those unbelievably talented teammates.
As someone who was not a career athlete, you must have been awestruck by this experience. I remember flying down to Mexico City on the plane with people I read about in Sports Illustrated magazine. There's Jim Ryun. My gosh, that's Dick Fosbury. And here I am with them, this little guy from Shenandoah Valley. It was just unbelievable.
But you are the guy responsible for keeping the 1968 team connected, right? That didn’t happen until a few years ago. In 2007, I had an opportunity to go to Mexico City on a business trip. There was some free time on the weekend, so I went out to the university and sat for a few minutes in the same stadium where we had the Opening Ceremony. In my head, I followed where we walked through the tunnel and where we stood. It was in those moments I realized how much I missed my teammates. [Emotional chuckle] When I came back home I called around, and others said, “Yeah, let’s see who we can find!”
We got volunteers from all the sports and eventually found everybody. It was good timing, because everyone was at the age of retiring and wanted to look back and reflect on what we had done. So we’ve had a couple of reunions, and are now aiming for our 50th anniversary reunion in 2018. That will probably be our last big event and then we’ll be gone. [Laughs]
Well, you’re not gone yet, not by a long stretch. We’re proud to have you participating in the National Senior Games. I’ve tried to stay reasonably active. After the Olympics and Viet Nam I had some schooling and went to Germany with the Army and continued fencing. I also did some orienteering. I came back and took a job as a high school science teacher and volunteered to help the track team after school. I started experimenting with race walking and ended up getting my second national title in an AAU competition where people could walk wherever they trained and were witnessed by a certified track coach. I walked almost eight miles in one hour. I thought that was pretty surprising. Then I qualified for the national championships in the 20K race walk in 1978 and finished ninth.
That was when I was starting on a physics graduate program and had academic issues to deal with, so I had to drop out of race walking. After that, it was a series of different jobs so I just enjoyed jogging and staying in shape. I competed in local runs.
Then, in 2007 I noticed that the National Senior Games were coming to Louisville, Kentucky when I was living in Murray on the west side of the state. There was a 1500 meter race, so I started training again to do that. It was just astounding to me to be in the presence of so many older but highly motivated and enthusiastic people. It was wonderful to be surrounded by “good vibrations” from positive thinkers.
I realized continuing with this was going to help me stay in good physical shape, to control my weight and keep my doctors happy. Also, it would give me a reason to travel around a bit. From that point forward I have enjoyed participating in Senior Games at the state and national level. It’s giving me an edge on my health and wellness over the long haul.
How do you compare the difference in your mindset between the Olympics and your Senior Games participation? There’s a tremendous emphasis on winning in the Olympics, even though the creed says it isn’t the most important thing. It says it’s not the triumph but the struggle, and to have fought well. I subscribe to that. But now, at my age, I don’t go out thinking about my competitors. I don’t dream at night about edging somebody out at the finish line. I look to challenge myself and improve on my personal best every time I run and compete.
I hope people don’t have the false impression like, “Ohmygosh, there’s an Olympian on the track” and go home. No, it’s not that at all. [Laughs] We all have our problems and pains. Whether they come in first or last in the race they are all heroes. They’ve all stuck with it, worked hard to get there and go the distance. They are all doing their personal best. That’s the name of the game at this stage. I actually look to the others for motivation and inspiration.
The other senior athletes might be surprised that an Olympian is inspired by them. Oh yes. I meet a lot of people in my day-to-day work and other activities. I encounter all kinds of attitudes and mindsets. It’s just a joy and a privilege to be in the midst of so many wonderful people with such optimistic and enthusiastic attitudes. When you get out on the track, it’s everyone for himself. But no one is trying to play psyche out games or cut corners. Everyone helps each other to get there. Athletes are just helping each other all over the place. It’s a fabulous experience.
What do you tell people in situations where you can give advice to other aging folks about how to get going? You need medium range and long term goals. All anybody needs is some sort of goal or motivation to work towards and to measure incremental progress. When I look back to the time of my Olympic training, I would tell myself every morning if I don’t go to my workouts I won’t make progress towards being ready for the trials. Any of my coaches back in 1966 would have described me as an unremarkable athlete and an average person. But I was faithful to the practice schedule and made little improvements in one way or another. I’m a big believer in the power of incremental progress.
For people our age, you can expect a tailing off of ability and endurance. I know my times in the 800 and 1500 have gone downhill as I grow older. [Chuckles] But I can still push against that and try to do my best each time and measure my personal best over a span of time.
The Senior Games has enough to offer in so many sport activities that it can give someone the motivation to get up and do something two or three times a week over a two-year period, to make progress and maybe qualify at the state level. Of course, I understand not everybody is going to want to do Senior Games, but everyone can do something to be more active and improve their health.
It’s also helps to put a team of support people together. It starts with family, of course, and it’s very important to consult your healthcare professionals–your primary care doctor and any specialists such as orthopedics for example. For those who are spiritually active like me, it’s important to enlist the prayer support of people you worship with. Map it out, and don’t think you need to burn it up the first day, or even the first year. Just make that consistent, regular effort and aim for that incremental progress. With every day you improve, you’ll be pushing out your personal best.
Many think it’s too late to take on a sport or fitness challenge. What would you say to them to believe they can? Be always curious and don't abandon your childish nature from earlier years. Just look around, ask questions, and be willing and eager to learn. I believe that just moving more since I became active in the Senior Games has improved and maintained the quality of life for me.