Seventeen years ago, her doctor’s words shook her like an earthquake: “If you don’t lose weight, you won’t get to your 60th birthday.”
Vivian Stancil, a retired Long Beach school teacher, was 50. She stood 5 feet tall and weighed 319 pounds.
“A bowling ball wouldn’t even describe what I was,” Stancil says. “I could barely walk. But I wanted to live, so I instantly knew what I had to do: change my diet and start exercising.”
That would not be easy. Stancil’s social life revolved around going out to eat every day with her friends. As for exercise, Stancil hadn’t done it in 40 years — ever, really. She not only didn’t know how to swim but was so afraid of water that she couldn’t dunk her head in past her eyes.
On top of that, she was legally blind.
Nearly two decades later, at 67, Stancil not only lived but became one of the country’s most honored age-group Senior Olympics swimmers, with 176 medals. In June, 1976 Olympic gold-medal swimmer John Naber presented her with the prestigious Personal Best Award, given once a year to the senior athlete who best helps to spread the word about health and wellness.
Circumstances made Stancil an unlikely role model. Stancil and her three siblings were separated and placed in foster homes when both parents had died by the time she was 7. At 16, pressured into a marriage by her cash-strapped foster parents, Stancil had two children and began slowly losing her sight because of an inherited condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Divorced at 20 and raising the kids alone on welfare, she survived a self-described “two-year pity party,” got married and divorced again, and started working as a Head Start preschool teacher in her late 20s. That would prove to be her salvation.
She earned a two-year degree in early education, married for the third and final time, to an usher at her church named Turner Stancil, and went on to get a bachelor’s degree from La Verne College. For the next decade, as her eyesight deteriorated, she was the first and only blind teacher in the Riverside and Long Beach school districts. She retired early in her late 40s.
“I did not lose weight with that,” she says with a laugh. “I’d carry pliers to loosen the wires or just drink protein shakes — lots of them.”
Stancil did not laugh, however, several days after she turned 50, when her doctor told her the party was over. “The next day, I broke the news to the Eating Club: ‘I love you all, but you’re killing me. ‘So this is goodbye. But before I go, I need your help: What sport should I do?'”
The Eating Club pondered. “‘You’re too fat to run or ride a bike,’ they said,” recalls Stancil. “‘What about swimming? After all, fat floats.'”
But, determined to live, she eventually found her way to Bob Hirschhorn, an instructor at Silverado Park Pool who was well-versed in training middle-aged adults petrified of the water.
Her sight wasn’t a problem, save for her inability to see lane lines painted on the pool bottom, Hirschhorn says.