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. 

The “Silver Snipers” – Superstars

In the field of counterterrorism, 68-year-old Inger “Trigger Finger” Grotteblad and 73-year-old Rick “Crazy BOOmer” LaRoche are considered among the best in the world. Two-fifths of an elite, highly trained unit, Inger and Rick spend their days doing what most “seniors” wouldn’t dream of doing: diffusing bombs and defending hostages using rifles, sub-machine guns, and pistols; high-explosive, decoy, and smoke grenades; tasers and teamwork. 

Sure, their logo-emblazoned opponents are generally sitting right next to them in an esports arena, and their thousands of spectators are eagerly cheering for the next kill, but that’s all part of the fun when you’re a “Counter Strike: Global Offensive” senior world champion.

While most players in the $1 billion esports industry retire by the age of 29, companies like Lenovo are out to change the demographic expectations of the industry. To that end, in 2017, the company ran an ad in Stockholm, Sweden looking for men and women with no digital gaming experience, ages 60+, to form the “Silver Snipers,” a Counter Strike esports team to compete in the upcoming Dreamhack digital competition in Sweden. (Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) is a multiplayer first-person shooter video game developed by Valve and Hidden Path Entertainment.)

I caught up with Inger and Rick to find out more about what motivated them to become part of the Silver Snipers and what message they want the rest of us to know about bridging generational gaps.

“I saw the ad that Lenovo was looking for three women and two men to become a five-person team,” Inger told me. “They didn’t require any experience, only that you knew a little about computers, could speak English, and that you were interested in learning something new – the game Counter Strike.”

“I asked my kids and grandkids; do you think I should try?” Inger told me. Their response was immediate: “Oh yes grandmother – you’re going to be the greatest grandmother in the world.”

“I was in New York when I received a message asking me to send a video in English (the common language among esports gamers). So I took one of my grandchildren down to 6th Avenue and taped from New York.” 

Inger was one of more than 130 women who made the first cut and was invited to “audition” for the team by exhibiting her use of the computer and completing an interview in English. The field was narrowed to five women, and ultimately Inger was one of the two chosen to join the Silver Snipers. 

A retired US diplomat living in Stockholm, Rick La Roche is a more recent addition to the Silver Snipers team – although a highly qualified one. “The Silver Snipers had already been quite successful, having competed all over the world and generating global media attention (WSJ, CNN, BBC. They even inspired plans to make a movie about the senior gaming community).   So when the idea of creating a world championship came up, another team was formed. This time they were looking for Americans over 60, living in Stockholm. I went ahead and applied and was one of the people selected for the USA team – the “United Senior Assassins.”

Circled in red top row: Inger Grotteblad and bottom row: Rick La Roche

A few months after the Swedish win at Dreamhack 2019 (the “United Senior Assassins, Finland’s Gray Gunners, and Germany’s Germinators made up the final four), Rick was asked to “defect” to the Silver Snipers who were then down a team member. (The three other members of the team are Oivind “Windy” Toverud, age 78; Monica “TeenSlayer” Idenfors, age 65; and Anders “BigBang” Nystrom, age 71).

Neither Inger nor Rick identifies with the typical expectations of people in the “senior” age demographic. “There are a lot of assumptions about people our age,” Rick said, “and the goal of our team is to break those assumptions.”

“I’m always curious about new things and not afraid of trying new things.” Inger said. “When you’re an old person you think this isn’t something I can do because I’m too old. I don’t care about that. I do whatever I like.”

Both feel that playing CS:GO has had a very positive effect on them physically and mentally. “Your attention is better,” Inger told me. “You are thinking more quickly, using your brain in another way … you can’t be slow. You have to be rapid in your reflexes. You have to think four steps ahead to play the game and you have to make rapid decisions. You’re keeping your brain alive. And of course, you’re using your hands, and you have to coordinate everything.”

“Prior to diplomatic work, I was in the military,” Rick said, “so I have some real-world experience in this stuff (not that it helps me in the egames!). I’ve found it’s almost like playing a very animated game of chess. Where the avatars are like chess pieces. You’re thinking ahead to create a diversion … there’s a lot of strategy that goes into it.”

For a team that was constantly travelling and competing (including Moscow, Ukraine, Helsinki., and France), and participating in in-person training every other week at Inferno Online (the largest gaming center), COVID-19 has had a profound effect. But to combat the isolation and keep playing, Inger has started a Facebook group for gaming seniors. “More and more people are joining,” she said, “and the media are very interested in us. Many are seniors who had never realized there were other old people gaming. And we’re making friends around the world.”

But it’s not just their fellow seniors that Rick and Inger have reached through their “Silver Snipers” activity. It’s the connection with the Millennial and Gen Z crowd that also excites them and for whom they advocate. “We are passing on a positive image about the younger generations and they are getting a very different image of the elderly.”

“When we talk to young people, they treat us like rockstars,” Inger said. “They think we are so great. We’re old people coming into their community – a community that has been very closed. ‘You are legends,’ they tell us. ‘Can I take a picture with you? can I have your autograph?’’

“People should try this and find out how lovely it is,” she said. “Come see how great the community is and having young friends.”

Rick La Roche concurs: “This is an excellent way of bridging generational fences and promoting greater understanding between these two large demographic groups. The younger generation writes us off, and no one takes advantage of all the expertise and experience we have.” On the other hand, baby boomers tend to write off the game-playing younger generation as time- wasting and disconnected.

“In fact,” Rick continued, “the military is looking seriously at Gen Z kids when they become of military age and at making a concerted effort to recruit them because they believe by that time so much of the war will be cyber-based – and these young kids are ambidextrous, doing many different things at once and assimilating a tsunami of information and making instantaneous decisions.”

“Be nice to young people,” Inger continued, “Don’t be so hard on them for playing. They will be prepared for very interesting jobs and know languages better than we do, and they are meeting people all over the world. They learn how many different people think. It’s good for them and it’s good for you too to stay young at heart. Gamers live about five years longer.” 

And Rick added with a laugh, “which doesn’t sound like much until you’re in those last five years!” 

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If you want to learn more about the Silver Snipers, visit their team website here and follow them on Facebook

Inger also invites senior gamers (and those interested in learning more) to join her Facebook group, Gaming Senior.

And stay tuned for an upcoming “Superstars” article about Rick La Roche (let’s just say there’s a lot of real-world experience in his gameplay!). In the meantime, follow Rick’s blog here.