From swimming in Senior Olympics to running with reindeer

by marlys good

John Kunkel doesn’t waste time. The retired teacher competed in the Wyoming Senior Olympics in Cody Feb. 19-20, where he captured the gold in the 1650-meter freestyle swimming with a time of 29.01.6. Three weeks later, on March 11, he was in Anchorage, Alaska, running with the reindeer in the Fur Rendezvous, know to locals as “Fur Rondy.” This event is simply a run for fun – no times recorded, no tape to cross, no medals awarded. “It’s kind of like the running of the bulls in Pamploma,” Kunkel said.

The popular “running of the bulls” occurs in July. Kunkle said if you watch the TV news spots, you’ll see that most of the runners wear white shirts/trousers, with red sashes, ties, etc.

When you “run with reindeer” you can wear whatever you want. “You see people wearing every costume imaginable. It’s very colorful.” Kunkel chose to run the four blocks in his “swim jammers,” his life guard shirt and pac boots and carrying the Worland Aquatic Center banner. The pacs and banner “slowed me down a bit,” he laughed.

The run, which drew about 500 participants, started on Fourth Avenue and extended four blocks. Runners were broken down into groups. Minutes after the start of the run, the reindeer were released. The route was lined with people, two to three deep, the entire four blocks. At the conclusion of the four-block route, corrals with chutes “captured” the reindeer, and they were returned to the starting line to be released with the next group.

Kunkel said the temperature was in the mid 30s, but very blustery. “It helped that I had a tailwind,” he smiled. The blustery winds lowered the temperatures, and as he neared the end of the course, “I was hoping Cathy was there with my sweatshirt.” (She opted to take pictures and carry his sweatshirt in lieu of running with the reindeer.)

On a more serious note, the event raised $40,000 to aid the “Toys for Tots” program.

In side notes, Kunkel said March 11 was the “ceremonial” opening for the annual Iditarod, and “mushers” were “staging along the side streets. The ceremonial opening started with people bidding for an opportunity to ride one of the sleds on an 11-mile route though Anchorage. Bids ranged from $2,000 to $7,000; all proceeds went to the Iditarod. (The actual Iditarod started in Fairbanks due to the lack of snow in Anchorage).

After the bidding, the 11-mile ride took place, there was a fur auction and in early afternoon it was time to run with the reindeer. The event this year coincided with the Native Alaska Craft Fair so the Kunkels had dozens of new things to do and see.

Although swimming in the Senior Olympics and running with the reindeer seem to be unlikely partners, Kunkel said, “I couldn’t have run it if I hadn’t been in shape from swimming.”

When he accepted the job in Greybull to teach elementary school 30 years ago, one of the drawing cards was that Greybull had a year-round swimming pool. Didn’t take him long to “dive in.” He coached swimming for years (his son, J.D., is a two-time state champion) and when the Greybull pool closed, Kunkel admitted, “I was like a fish out of water, and went right down and hired on as a lifeguard at the Worland Aquatic Center.”

He quit his job of lifeguarding so he could get in more lap time. “The week after I quit I swam more yards than I had the whole month before. It was the turning point of really getting myself in competitive shape. I always admired Doc Rogers and Shirley Rannells (Senior Olympic fans) because they continued to swim at their respective ages. I know that keeping in shape added to their life on earth here.”

He decided to enter the Senior Olympics “as a way of thanking God for giving me this help.” The 1650 freestyle was his first competition in 30 years, and he clocked in at a gold medal time of 29.01.

“My goal was to get under 30 minutes,” Kunkle said. “But what pleased me the most was that of the 33 laps in the race, there was just one second difference in my times in 27 of the laps.”

Kunkel said, “I absolutely loved teaching, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, but when the emphasis went toward testing, it got to the point where I wasn’t having fun anymore. (Testing) was a terrible idea.”

He had things he wanted to do, places he wanted to see, and he has “never looked back.”

While this was just his first time of dipping into the Senior Olympics waters, and his second time to run with the reindeer, he intends to do both next year. (He has worked with the Iditarod trail committee for seven years.)

He used to be a runner, but “my knees are telling me things today they didn’t long ago. Swimming is so forgiving to the ailments you get as you get older.”

So that is another reason he intends to keep up with his swimming regime, traveling to Worland every morning where he dives into the pool about 7 a.m.

Kunkel is example to anyone thinking of retirement. His advice? “Be active in some way, regularly. I think that is the key, do it regularly, but, always leave time for the fun stuff.”

And Kunkel has.