Manny Vela works out at D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Manny Vela works out at D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I showed up at the Tripoint YMCA to meet a familiar figure hitting the weights. Mr. Universe? Manny Vela, it turns out, doesn’t overwhelm you with an imposing frame. He’s not tall or heavily muscled.

The most impressive aspect of Vela’s mental and physical fitness is not his physique. It’s his age. Vela, who works out five days a week at the D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint, is 94 years old. In six years, Vela will be 100 years old and no one at Tripoint would be surprised to see him still coming in every day. Even at age 94, Vela lives independently and still drives.

Vela just finishing his early morning workout when I arrived at 8:30 a.m. Over the next hour he happily demonstrated an abbreviated version of his multi-stage  strength and aerobic routine not once, but twice. Once for me, and once again for photographer Iris Dimmick.

Manny Vela works out at D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Manny Vela works out at D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Vela was born in the South Texas town of Kenedy in 1920, close to the King Ranch. His small town manners still show as he addressed 28-year-old Iris with “yes, ma’am”  “no, ma’am.”

As a high school student, Vela played on the Kenedy Lions in the year “nineteen-hundred and throw-it-away,” he laughs. It was 1937-1938.

Moving to San Antonio in 1940, Vela enrolled in San Antonio Community College, where he earned an associate’s degree in Fire Studies. He still proudly wears a bulky, silver SACC class ring.

Manny Vela works out at D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Manny Vela works out at D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

He served in the U.S. Navy Armed Guard as a gunner aboard merchant ships in WWII. This small, historically overlooked branch of the Navy oversaw the transport of vital supplies to and from allied vessels. The job often was more dangerous than the service on military vessels due to the relatively poor equipment on the merchant ships. Vela served two-and-a-half years before being discharged at the end of the war.

Returning to San Antonio, Vela began his 40-year career with the San Antonio Fire Department. He retired as a captain in 1983 at the age of 63.

He has attended various San Antonio YMCAs for nearly 40 years since, starting with the Westside YMCA. He credits regular exercise for his good health and impressive longevity.

“That’s what’s keeping me alive,” Vela said.

Vela does feel the effects of old age. It takes fingers on two hands to count the number of doctors he regularly sees, and he claims the onset of senility, though it isn’t evident.

“I’m getting senile. I forget names, dates…” He stopped to laugh. Not taking himself too seriously is clearly another of Vela’s virtues. “But the exercises help me. Thank God.”

A minute later, Vela caught sight of an acquaintance leaving the gym. After sharing goodbyes, Vela told me the man’s name and that he is a muralist. He then proceeded to list off the names of several restaurants featuring the muralist’s work.

Vela socialized with a number of fellow Y members while we were together. What struck me was the level of mental acuity he displayed. He is clearly embraced by other Y members. Vela is polite and outgoing. Age is no barrier.

When I mentioned that he seemed to know everyone at the gym, he replied with a laugh: “I know everyone—even the cockroaches.”

D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

I asked him how else he stays active these days. Dancing tops his list. He enjoys eating out regularly with friends, getting plenty of rest, and meeting women. His prospect, he admits, have diminished with time.

“I chase women, can’t catch them; if I catch them, I can’t do anything with them,” he said.

So what is his secret to staying so sharp mentally and physically?

First of all, Vela works out at the Y five times a week in the mornings for 30-60 minutes. His routine consists of muscle toning and aerobic exercises. He uses the stationary bicycle, the rowing machine, some light free weights, leg presses, and a few other strange-looking machines that, being someone who usually works out from home, I didn’t recognize. Some days he swims a couple of miles for aerobic exercise.

His diet is simple.

“I try to eat healthy foods: vegetables, fruits, chicken, and occasionally beef,” adding that he refrains from alcohol, coffee (caffeine is bad for his prostate), and smoking.

Manny Vela works out at D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Manny Vela works out at D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Those interested in trying out Vela’s exercise routine (or an opportunity to dance and socialize) may want to look into membership at one of San Antonio’s YMCAs. The D.R. Semmes Family YMCA at Tripoint offers members a full schedule of free classes specifically for active seniors.

Besides the Tripoint location, there are two other YMCAs with senior programs located near downtown: the Davis-Scott Family YMCA and the Westside Family YMCA. Jewish seniors can find the same type of activities at the Barshop Jewish Community Center on NW Military Highway. Seniors interested in alternative ways to exercise body and mind outside of a gym setting should check out the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department’s list of four adult and senior centers.

Vela’s is one of many inspirational health and wellness stories the Rivard Report has received in the last month since Rivard revealed his personal struggle with weight gain and began his quest to regain a more balanced lifestyle. Click here to read more in this series.

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Hunter Bates

Hunter Bates is a native San Antonian. He teaches developmental English at Palo Alto College, where he also directs the student literary journal. Make a fast friend: talk to him about the Spurs, '60s music,...