Bales gets better with age

Jon "The Bullet" Bales doesn't even bother guessing how many medals he's won over the years — there are too many of them. He has boxes filled with them and the walls of his Glendale home proudly display plenty more.

Bales, at the age of 67, has earned quite a few different kinds of medals, from the several he was given during his one-year tour he took during the Vietnam War as a first sergeant in the National Guard to countless more he's won from competing in races.

There is a small space on a wall in his living room where he's hung the most cherished prize he's ever won in a race.

"I've got a lot of medals and I figured, you know what, what is the most important medal?" Bales, who goes by the first name "Bullet" in competitions, asked himself.

The answer is the silver medal he won in the 2011 International Triathlon Union World Aquathlon Championships, which were hosted in Beijing, China on Sept. 7. Bales took second in the 65-69 age group's aquathlon, a two-part race combining running and swimming, with a time of 1 hour, 1 minute and 16 seconds. Bales was the race's top finisher from America. George Vargha of Great Britain won the race in 56:23.

Bales' second-place finish was an improvement on his fifth-place mark last year when the International Triathlon Union World Aquathlon Championships were held in Budapest. He is currently ranked 10th in the nation in his age group for the aquathlon.

The Glendale resident has a background in triathlons. His first triathlon was the 1980 Iron Man competition. It was that same year, at a surfing competition, when Bales earned his nickname, "The Bullet," when his friend compared his bald head moving through the water to a bullet.

Bales still competes in triathlons today, but decided to switch his focus to aquathlons two years ago when his friend, Gary Burnett, suggested it after Bales had always struggled with cycling.

"I knew he could do really well [in aquathlons]," Burnett said. "He is a good swimmer and a good runner, so it was just automatic for him. He just hadn't heard of it before."

Aquathlons are pretty much tailored to Bales' strengths. He has deep roots in swimming after competing in the pool at Hoover High, Glendale Community College and Cal State Northridge. After years of training, Bales says he's also developed into a strong runner.

Although he's approaching 70, Bales has only gotten better with age. Athletically, a turning point for him came when he retired from teaching in the Glendale Unified School District. He taught for 34 years before retiring in 2007.

"As soon as I started training in the morning, my time started dropping because I could train three or four hours a day," Bales said. "I just didn't have time for that when I was teaching."

Just about every day, Bales can still be found training at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center from about 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. He also tries to run a 5,000-meter race every weekend.

"He's dedicated to being fit," Burnett said. "He has been doing 5Ks for a long, long time, and he swims lots of long-distance races in the ocean."

Currently, Bales is in a two-week "dead period" — the only time off from training he gives himself a year.

"I train 11 months and three weeks out of the year for one race," Bales said.

It's clear just by looking at Bales that he doesn't live the average retired life. He's in better shape than most people will ever be.

"I lead a different life than most people," said Bales, who also keeps a close eye on his diet, cutting out fast food and soft drinks and filling it with vegetables, meat and dairy.

Bales said the one year he spent serving in the National Guard during the Vietnam War is another edge he has on his opponents, because he refuses to quit or listen to his body when he begins to wear down during a race.

"I know what it's like to go beyond what you think you can do," said Bales, who was awarded the Bronze Star, along with several other medals, from his year touring Vietnam. "Your body says, 'Oh, let's quit,' during a triathlon. Believe it or not, there's a level beyond that you can go."

It isn't difficult for Bales to push himself to that next level. He feels he is out there competing for more than just himself.

"I am competing for 55,000 individuals on [the Vietnam Wall]," Bales said. "I keep that in my mind and I always give 100%, no matter what it is."

Burnett said that gives Bales a distinct advantage not only in competition, but in life.

"He is a Vietnam veteran and they are exposed to things that create impressions and attitudes in them," Burnett said. "For him to make that transition and use it for something good is quite impressive. It's an advantage in life because it gets you through things."

Bales applies that mind set to his everyday life.

"I live everyday for my brothers on the wall that never had a chance to grow up," Bales said. "That's in the back of my mind every day so I try to live every day to the fullest."

If he had the chance, Bales knows just how he'd like to go.

"My ideal way to leave the planet would be to die in a race, doing something that I totally enjoy," Bales said.

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