Jack LaLanne would fit right in with today’s society of fitness influencers and personalities. However, it emerged several generations before the internet and even at the birth of television. This turned out to be a good thing because he became the creator and inventor of many common aspects of fitness that we know today.
LaLanne was also a daredevil and wanted to challenge himself as many times as he could. For him, risking it all was a way to show why fitness was so important and could inspire the masses to start exercising and eating properly. The bigger and more dangerous the challenge, the better, because LaLanne could show off her skills and entertain her fans.
Jack LaLannes’ widow, Elaine, has been by his side through all of his crazy stunts, and she knows firsthand why he was able to pull them off without a hitch.
He was able to do them because he KNEW he could! Why? Because he visualized them and believed it was possible. His famous saying: Everything is possible. If you believe, you can make it happen! He did. Anything negative was not in his vocabulary!
Swimming at Alcatraz may be considered his most famous feats, but he did much more than that. He also made huge contributions to the fitness industry we know today, beyond his juicer. Elaine gave us the inside scoop on ten of these feats. What you will find is that although he made them look simple, they were far from easy.
Life-threatening swim in San Francisco
Jack Lalanne turned 40 in 1954. To celebrate this milestone, he swam underwater the entire length of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with 140 pounds of equipment, including two air tanks. At the time, it was considered an undisputed world record and no one has done it since. Elaine spoke about the dangers that accompanied such swimming, and the outcome of her effort could have been life-changing or even life-ending.
He barely made it to the other side because he was gasping for air from the two tanks on his back, she said. At the end of the swim, the strong waves caused him to be thrown onto the rocks below the coastal retaining wall.
Elaine revealed she didn’t know what he went through until the end and credited a good luck charm for his safety.
The hat I wore that day, I wore on every dive afterwards. I called it my lucky hat!
Towing a cabin cruiser
Three years later, after her first swim, LaLanne returned to the water. This time, she went in the treacherous Golden Gate Canal, towing a 2,500-pound cabin cruiser. That kind of weight makes a beginner think strength is important, but Elaine shared that Jack focused on endurance.
When Jack would go swimming in the ocean in Santa Monica, I wouldn’t see him for about an hour. I was often worried, but he appeared fresh as a daisy.
As intimidating as the challenge looks or reads, Elaine said Jack didn’t consider this feat difficult. She also participated in his effort, more or less.
I was on this boat along with local San Francisco celebrities and a lot of local press.
Service and fitness contributions
Jack LaLanne served in the United States Navy, and even after being discharged, he felt he could do more to serve those who served his country. He created training programs and routines for soldiers and offered his services to various branches of the military when needed to help maximize the potential of the Americas’ military.
Additionally, he has even helped the Los Angeles Police Department with their fitness testing and programming needs. The LAPD recognized LaLanne for his efforts by presenting him with the Jack Webb Award in 2005, when Jack was 91 years old. That same year, then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger presented LaLanne with the Arnold Classic Lifetime Achievement Award.
Paddleboarding all day
Jack LaLanne decided to change everything on his 44th birthday. Instead of swimming, he maneuvered a paddleboard 30 miles and 9 hours nonstop from the Farallon Islands to the coast of San Francisco. Elaine knew he thought this would be more difficult, but he was clearly up to the task because he was determined to show that age is a number. She saw him do a lot of things, but she is still amazed by his success that day.
They arrived around 11pm. Jack jumped into the water and began rowing after the pilot boat. More than nine hours later, on the morning of the next day, he arrived off the coast of San Francisco. I didn’t sleep much that night and found him on the beach with a sigh of relief! I’m still amazed at how resilient he was!
Celebrating the birthday of the Americas
In 1976, 62-year-old Jack wanted to celebrate America’s second centennial. He decided to swim a mile in Long Beach Harbor. To add a special touch to the swim, he did so shackled, handcuffed and towing 13 boats (representing the original 13 colonies) containing 76 people. Elaine said it took months to prepare. She may have wondered how he came up with this idea, but she knew he could do it and a lot of people wanted to see it. So, she went ahead and brought a trusted ally with her.
Hundreds of people lined up along the coast. People on their own boats, as well as the press on their boats, were shouting Go Jack Go, she recalled. I was on the press boat again wearing my lucky hat!
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve used a Smith Machine at least once. Turns out it could have been called the LaLanne Machine. Elaine discussed how a device Jack used in his backyard turned into his own studio and evolved into the version we know today.
Jack’s squat machine was developed around the same time in his backyard for knee rehabilitation.
One of his students, a pattern maker named Jack Palmer, made patterns from Jack’s rough drawings of leg extensions, squat bars, and wall pulleys. Jack brought these patterns to Paull Martin, a metalworker who welded parts.
Jack LaLanne created several other concepts such as wall pulleys, calf machine and more. Ultimately, the squat machine would reach Rudy Smith, who made his own innovations on it, and the Smith Machine was born. Although countless machines were sold in the following decades, Elaine said this did not prove to be a financial benefit to her innovators.
Jack nor Rudy never received royalties for it.
Built for speed and strength
As the 1980s arrived, Jack found a new body of water to swim in and a new challenge to conquer. At age 6, he towed 10 boats in North Miami, Florida, packed with 77 people, more than a mile in less than an hour. Instead of distance alone, the speed factor was what motivated him to try. This was a rare occasion that Elaine was unable to be present, but she had faith that he would make it. She and America would see this thanks to a local TV show.
Jack told me it was invented by the local spa owners, their publicist and singer Julius LaRosa, who had a national TV show in Miami. LaRosa showed parts of this later on her TV show. Then it got national coverage.
A unique way to celebrate seven decades
Jack LaLanne had no criminal record, but he found himself handcuffed on several occasions. One such occasion occurred after he turned 70. Shackled, handcuffed and battling strong winds and currents, he towed 70 boats with 70 people from the Queens Way Bridge in Long Beach Harbor to the Queen Mary, a total distance of 1.5 miles. Elaine reported that this required a lot of preparation
and the cooperation of the water as well as the volunteers manning the boats, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he executed the challenge.
When the swim ended, Jack came out of the water as if nothing had happened, she said. When she got to shore, he walked into the press conference and party on the Queen Mary as if he had just stepped out of a TV show.
Creation of the Leg Extension Machine
Jack was a football player in high school and suffered a knee injury that derailed his season. The doctors who performed the surgery said he might never walk straight again. Elaine recalled how a book and her already developed determination changed her future and impacted future generations thanks to the creation of a new training machine that you will see in almost every commercial gym in the world.
Jack purchased and devoured Grays Anatomy several years before that injury, Elaine said. It took many months of rehabilitation to do a leg extension exercise that Jack designed for himself, using a rudimentary prototype machine that was yet to be born.
Maca Glamor (now resistance band)
In the 1950s, a friend of Jack’s was able to bring him random objects to see how he could use them for physical exercise and training. Paul Bragg, one of Jack’s friends, brought him a two-foot-long piece of rubber to see what he could do with it. Elaine described this moment as if Jack had just gotten a new toy.
Jack, excited, began stretching it in all directions. The next day we went to a rubber company in Oakland, California to make an exercise stretcher. It wanted to be about 60 inches long, with handles at each end and flexible enough that anyone could climb on it and stretch it over their head, she said. The design of the loop was so that it could pass through the feet and hands and could also be attached to a doorknob.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because today we know them as resistance bands, and they have been used for stretching, training, and even as attachments to dumbbells. He called it Maca Glamor because he marketed it to women, who made up a large part of his audience.
Shortly after, we launched another stretcher that had more tension called The Easy Way Conditioner for Men, explained Elaine. Other products would come in the following years, and the innovation became a gym accessory in the following decades.
This list is a snapshot of a long list of feats and innovations that Jack LaLanne has come up with. If you want to see more and read about swimming at Alcatraz, you can order Elaine’s book, Pride and Discipline, which she co-wrote with Greg Justice. The book is now available on Amazon.
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