Forty-three years ago, Sue Gard decided to take her extensive knowledge in aerobics, gymnastics and therapeutic exercise and use it to construct a class at the Owensboro Family YMCA for women who didn’t want to get their hair wet in the pool. The class, known as Aquacise, continues today and is tailored to those who want to be active but struggle with limitations like poor balance, arthritis or, in a more specific instance, pneumonia.
After years of living in California, Jack Thayer retired in Kentucky and attempted to continue his traditional exercise routine of a daily run. However, the first harsh Kentucky winter he faced left him with double pneumonia and in search of a new form of exercise. So, Thayer joined the Aquacise class in 1989. A few years later, he married Sue, which he said was the best decision of his life.
Today, Thayer himself teaches the YMCA Aquacise classes that his late wife started, and has since she died in 2015, with the motivation of continuing his wife’s legacy.
“She was such a loving person,” Thayer said. “She just wanted to help and she wanted spread the knowledge to as many people as she could. She had no business sense as far as saying, ‘I really have this thing going here, I’m gonna’ not let anybody get a hold of it.’ She just shared it with anyone without any thought.”
Though the class did begin as an alternative aquatic exercise for women protecting their hairstyles, it has evolved into a sophisticated program serving both men and women, and has expanded the world of exercise for groups with limited options.
“In the water, they can contort their body, they can stretch and twist and do things that you can’t do when you’ve got gravity on your body,” Thayer said. “You can get in positions in the water that you’d never be able to do up with things like balance problems and gravity.”
The Aquacise program is a full-body workout that exercises everything from the upper body to the lower body. Swimmers use the resistance of the water while doing exercises such as leg kicks and knee raises.
It was his wife’s mission of keeping people healthy that compelled him to take over the class, and Thayer himself can serve as a testament to the success of her mission as an 85-year-old.
“I see people that are not exercising, and I’d like to see more and more people, no matter what their age is, get involved,” he said. “And the fact that age is just a number and you’re only as old as you feel. Exercise is the key. The key is to lower your heart rate while you’re resting. We just want to keep people involved and staying healthy.”
Thayer even teaches the class to students that knew his wife longer than he did — students who were active from the class’ beginning. They’ve stuck around so long, Thayer said, because of their adoration for Sue.
“We have one 90-year-old who’s been coming here for 33 years, since the class first started,” he said.
In addition to his part-time work at the YMCA, Thayer also serves as a deputy coroner for Daviess County, which sometimes pulls him away from Aquacise. In which case, his two stepdaughters, Kim Simmons and Renee King, step in to help keep their mother’s work alive.
“We hope that we can continue this one,” Thayer said. “It really benefits the people and they appreciate the fact that we continue this on because they loved Sue so much. She was the most Christlike person I’ve ever met in my life.”
Thayer said when he finally hangs up his trunks, he hopes that Simmons will carry on the family legacy.
“We’d like to carry on mom’s legacy,” Simmons said. “It has really meant a lot to her. This is what she wanted. She asked me a long time ago if I would carry this on. It was important to her that this carried on to help people.”
Simmons said her mother has been influential on the Owensboro community and that she’s never heard a negative thing about her.
Simmons’ daughter worked at the Family YMCA as a lifeguard when she was younger, and though she now works as a speech pathologist, that doesn’t necessarily mean their Aquacise dynasty has to end with Simmons.
“I do have five grandchildren already and one niece and four nephews, so you never know what might transpire in the future,” she said.
Aquacise is a “slow-to-medium paced water aerobics class designed to enhance mobility and flexibility,” according to the YMCA website. The program is offered year-round and is priced at $5 per month for YMCA members, or $45 per month for non-members. The full Aquacise class schedule can be found on the YMCA website at owensboroymca.org/aquatics.
Collin Morris, 270-691-7360, email@example.com