Kids Learn To Win From Coach That Beat Death
by U.S. Air Force Sabrina Fine
He jolted upright suddenly out of sleep with an excruciating
headache, waking and startling his wife.
“The first thing she
said was ‘do you want to go to the hospital?’ not ‘can I get you
some aspirin?’ and me being a guy that don’t like hospitals, the
first thing I said was yes,” said Tony Lightner of the 502nd Air
Base Wing Safety office.
That July 2008 decision saved his life. Doctors rushed him into
brain surgery for treatment of an aneurysm.
“I get chills
every day because I hear so many people pass away because of brain
aneurysms,” said Lightner.
A bout with meningitis followed his
surgery. Yet, more than a year later Lightner recovered and returned
to one of his passions, coaching track.
“I think he truly and
honestly wants what is best for the kids; I think what it does for
the community is empowering the children,” said retired Army Capt.
Tamekia Carter, whose son JaCorey trains with Lightner. “It shows
them that there are people out here that really believe in them,
believe in their talents and are willing to take their own time to
Lightner, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, has been
teaching track and field to young people since 2006. When asked what
he charges, he said, “not a dime.”
October 2, 2019 - Tony Lightner watches his trainees during track and field practice at JBSA Randolph. Lightner, despite health hurdles, has trained kids in track and field for free since 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sabrina Fine)
“I am a Christian person and I feel like I am really blessed
and I believe if you are being blessed, then you must bless someone
else,” said Lightner with a smile across his face. “I couldn’t think
of a better way than to bless children and I couldn’t think of a
better way than giving them my time.”
In 2013, another
diagnosis halted Lightner in his tracks: stage four throat cancer.
Throughout chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he never
“I wouldn’t allow people to whisper that I
had cancer; I wanted to be very open about that,” he said. “I
thought that I could set the example and influence someone else who
may have suffered the same thing and encourage them to live life as
you normally would.”
He recalls a time his students visited
him in the hospital.
“I wouldn’t let my athletes be sad or
cry – It’s important to remain positive. I made them joke and laugh
and have fun with it,” said Lightner. “You never know who’s watching
you and you don’t know how your actions can influence someone else
who could be going through a similar situation.”
coaching is not just about teaching track. He imparts life lessons
on the field. His former students have graduated to become
professional runners, play in the NFL, and earn college athletic
“His birthday was about two or three weeks ago
and he was on the track at 9 a.m. on a weekend,” said Carter. “Some
of his older athletes that are running for the pros, they came back
and surprised him on his birthday and had dinner with him.”
Lightner coaches using principles of physiology and biomechanics.
Lightner breaks down techniques of track to a scientific level.
Garrett Kaluund’s goal is the Olympics; he is a high school
sophomore. He has been training with Lightner since seventh grade.
“Coach T? His drive is amazing, he knows the science and he
tells us to become students of the sport,” said Kaluund. “He says
that sprinting is not all about running. He says there is block
clearance, acceleration, transition, top-end speed or max velocity
and deceleration and each of these is actually broken into small
parts on which we train a lot.”
Lightner says that trained
neurons is the reason people do not forget how to ride a bike once
it becomes habit.
“I always tell parents I don’t train an
athlete, I train an athlete’s cells,” said Lightner. “Neurons fire
during training and once they perfect that skill the neuron is going
to fire every time you do a task correctly. So you deep practice and
myelin wraps around the neuron as you practice and get it right,
then the skill is locked in.”
In defeating a brain aneurysm
and cancer, Lightner has won the race.
“I’m blessed and I
don’t get it twisted,” he said. “I know why I am still here.”
The coach paused and repeated, in a softer voice, “I know why I
am still here.”
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