A Pirate Looks at 73

Rick La Roche, Navy SEAL, diplomat, pilot, college professor, champion gamer, motivational speaker on geopolitical, leadership and team-building issues, blogger, and reality TV star – at 73 – wakes up every day with curiosity, excitement and vigor.

Part of the reason for his attitude are the three rules about aging he adheres to:

  • You are what you believe you are
  • The goal is to die “young” as late as possible
  • Make sure you’re still alive when you die

Another reason for his attitude? It’s just the way he lives his life, and oh, what an exciting life he has led.

A proud Baby Boomer, Rick’s childhood in Tampa, Florida wasn’t unlike most boys of the time, but Florida-style. “We swam a lot. So, we learned about alligators, and we learned which snakes were dangerous and which weren’t.”

Rick was predestined for a life of adventure. “I broke my arm twice by the time I was 6,” he recently revealed in an interview. “The first time was when I fell out of a tree that was slippery during a storm. The second time was when I tested my mother’s theory that ‘you shouldn’t climb trees when it’s raining.’

“It was a time when you were told that anything was possible. There were jobs galore, and you didn’t have any boundaries if you were willing to do the hard work to get there.” 

With a love of all things water and a mastery of swimming, Rick became a competitive swimmer in high school, and one of his favorite movies was “The Frogmen.” Turns out, that movie would have significance later in life. 

 “I didn’t know much about goal setting in those days,” Rick said, and after a couple of months of college, he dropped out with plans to start a lawn care business. “The day after I asked my father for $50 to start my business, he took me to the recruiting offices for all branches of the military.” The choice was: “join one of these four.”

Navy boot camp in Great Lakes, IL led to Gunner’s Mate Guided Missile School, during which Rick tested to become a member of the US Navy’s Sea, Land, Air Teams (SEALs). When those orders didn’t come, Rick was stationed on a guided missile destroyer. It wasn’t until he was thousands of miles away in the Mediterranean that orders came for Rick to return to the US to begin Class 39 of BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) school).

Let’s pause here for a little perspective about the SEALs: Only about 1,000 recruits make it to SEAL training. Of those, only about 250 complete their training and join approximately 2,500 more active SEALs, who work among nine active-duty teams. 

“I was scared shitless, to be honest with you,” Rick said. “I’m not particularly large and there were some massive guys there. I started thinking, ‘I can’t worry about these people. I need to worry about myself and live in the moment. If you look too far ahead, it can be overwhelming.

“This was the beginning of learning how to set goals and break them down into micro goals,” Rick explained. “Whatever the evolution (exercise) was, you only thought through that exercise. Never what was coming next.

“I told myself, they can’t make me quit, and they can’t throw me out. All they can do is try to make me quit.” When he made it through Hell Week (week four of the 24-week program), Rick knew he’d complete the program.

“Hell Week is five days and five nights solid with a maximum total of four hours of sleep. It starts at sundown on Sunday and ends at the end of Friday.” Although he doesn’t remember all the details from Hell Week, he does remember going into the barracks Friday night and hearing his chief instructor yell, “you’re the worst people who’ve ever tried to become frogs – and there’s nothing that says we have to end Hell Week today – so we’re doing it all over again.” 

“That’s when a guy got up and quit,” Rick said. “He just walked out. But as soon as he did, the instructor told us he was just kidding, and that he could usually get one more person to quit that way.”

Hell Week, indeed.

After his military service, Rick attended commercial flying school and earned his private pilot’s license. He returned to university, but the wanderer in him sent him to Pamplona for the “Running of the Bulls,” which turned into a trip around the world. He eventually began teaching in Stockholm, Sweden, where he met his first wife.

Rick returned to the US and ultimately obtained his undergraduate degree in Geography and Political Geography. He returned to Sweden and continued to lecture at the Stockholm School of Economics. Eventually, he returned to the US and worked as a diver for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Key West and lectured at Florida Keys Community Collage and was struck again with wanderlust that led him to California.

“I was teaching at the Army and Navy Academy near San Diego when my wife heard that people were invited to take to foreign service exam. I never thought I would be a diplomat,” Rick said, “but I took the test anyway.”

After “taking (and passing) the test,” an all-day written exam and personal profile, Rick was invited to DC for an all-day oral exam. “They don’t expect the ‘right answers’ – they just want to see how you react to hypothetical situations.” While 50% pass the written exam, most are eliminated at the oral exam. Rick passed.

After the security interview, Rick learned he was one of three from the original 19 who had been selected. Two were attorneys, Rick was the third. 

As a Foreign Service Officer with the US Department of State, Rick served in Indonesia, Iraq (where he was embedded with the military in Najaf), New Zealand, Samoa, Sweden, Egypt, and Israel. (After his retirement from the United States Foreign Service, Rick now lives with his family in Sweden.)

It was while working with Multinational Force and Observers in Egypt, monitoring the area as part of the Camp David Accord Peace Treaty, that Rick happened to read in an online Swedish newspaper that auditions were being held for “Robinson,” the Swedish equivalent of the US television show “Survivor.” With age 70 and compulsory retirement approaching rapidly, Rick was looking for his next big challenge. He sent in a tape. 

Two months later, during his rotation as mission control officer at his base in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, Rick was called to participate in further auditions. These included more interviews, full medical exams, and a psychological exam to determine “why he’d want to do this at age 70.” 

Rick “survived” on Robinson almost to the end. During a competition where the remaining 12 participants had to balance on one foot on a pillar for as long as possible, Rick lost his balance and was ultimately sent home for emergency knee replacement. “I’d had 13 operations on my left knee and five on my right knee by that point. This was going to be knee surgery #19.”

However, once replaced, that knee served Rick well for three years. Then he tore the ACL in his other knee when he became a contestant on the Swedish version of “Alone” called, “Ensam I Vildmarken” (Alone in the Wilderness) at age 73.

Rick was once again the oldest contestant along with seven other participants. “We were dropped off in the northern Norway wilderness and left on our own. No film crews or anything. We used GoPro cameras to film ourselves making our own shelter, finding water, wood, food and making fires. It was a real adventure.”

Unfortunately, the adventure ended when a middle-of-the-rainy-night bio break caused him to fall and severely twist his right knee. He twisted it again the following morning. “I knew immediately I had ruptured my ACL. I had to call for the doctor to evaluate me. He came, checked me out and said, ‘If you can’t walk, you can’t gather wood, make a fire, find food and stay warm. You are already entering hypothermia, so I’m pulling you from the competition.’

“I had been lying on my sleeping bag for hours and was shivering and shaking uncontrollably. He told me I would die if I tried to stay. Advanced age and low body fat are highly dangerous in the cold. Not the way I wanted it to end, but at least I gave it a shot. Part of mental toughness is being able to make and accept the ‘hard’ right decisions. You have to challenge yourself and learn how to deal with failure.”

Rick is the first to tell you (and proudly) that he’s made many mistakes and suffered many failures in life, but quickly adds that the best lessons he’s learned have come from those experiences. “That’s part of the fun and the challenge. To expand your comfort zone and learn new things. Most of the time, I screw up and fail, but every once in a while, I succeed. And then it’s all worth it.”

In Lesson 35 – “Stay Young At Heart”-  in his book, “Forty Tools for Life,” a legacy of lessons he wrote for his two sons and grandson, Rick advises, “It’s people with old attitudes who’re the worst enemies of the young at heart. Some people are born old. You can see it in their eyes. It’s best to keep away from such people because they’ll tell you to ‘grow up’ or ‘act your age.’ And that’s terrible advice!”

Although Rick La Roche is currently finishing two books, “Catching Life” and “A Boomer Looks Back,” he is in the market for new challenges! So, if you need a pal to go buildering with, join you on a swim across the ocean, or just share a simple Mount Everest climb, give Rick a call. He’s almost finished with rehab on his other knee and is ready for an adventure. 

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