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 schoolteacher, 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.
With nothing to do all day, Stancil's world revolved around five girlfriends who called themselves the Eating Club. "Our favorite place was Arnold's, an all-you-can-eat," she said. "I'd bring a Ziploc baggie, fill it with fried chicken and eat three or four pieces before bedtime." Over time, alarmed as her weight soared beyond 300 pounds, Stancil tried various diets and even had her jaw wired shut for a month.
"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.'"
There was one problem: "I was so completely afraid of the water that I had never been in a pool before," she says.
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.
But Stancil's first forays away from the edge of the pool were nerve-racking. "I was trembling. 'Lord, I don't want to die like this,' I thought." She thought she came close one day when her back went out while learning the butterfly stroke, and she was rushed to the hospital.
"After that, a friend of mine who was a director at a funeral home would always tell me, 'Now, don't let me have to go there to pick up your body.'"
Fortunately, that body was shrinking. Stancil, sticking to a five-day-a-week diet of produce, legumes, some fish and chicken (with two cheat days), eventually got under 200 pounds as she refined the crawl, backstroke and butterfly, dropping from a size 24 dress to a size 12.
Stancil grew confident enough to compete at her first local Senior Games qualifier in Long Beach — and was shocked to pick up a third place in her age group in the 50-meter freestyle. That was the first of 176 medals at the local and state levels, with a national medal still on her to-do list. Starting in 2002, she has finished in the top three at the state level seven times, qualifying her for the National Senior Games, including the 2015 event in Minneapolis.
As Stancil began to show her medals to friends and family, they suggested her achievements could inspire kids at schools. Three times a year, she tells her story during her YEMP talks — Youth Empowerment Motivation Program. Two years ago, she created the Vivian Stancil Olympian Foundation to help at-risk youth and seniors participate in athletics.
As Stancil's swimming has improved over the years, the lanes lines disappeared altogether. She learned to navigate by sound. At every meet, she gets to a pool early to scope out lane width and length. Then she does an exact stroke count.
"Being blind helps keep your brain sharp, because everything is done by memory," she says. "I typically do 35 freestyle strokes in a 25-meter pool, and you can bet I count every one. Because nothing will ruin your day like bumping your head on the wall."