SAINT AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Swimmer Jack Ratkovic is about to compete at his second National Senior Games in Birmingham, but it couldn’t have happened if he hadn’t won an unexpected race against time. The 76-year-old says he’s kept active and athletic all his life. But in August 2015, Ratkovic suffered a stroke.
“I was in a fog,” he said. “I walked up to [my wife] and I said, ‘Hon, I don’t feel good.'"
Jack’s wife Alison recounts the moment similarly.
“I said ‘Good morning,’ and he mumbled something, and I thought, ‘What’s wrong with your speech?’” she said.
Fortunately for both of them, Alison was familiar with suddenly-slurred speech – along with a droop she noticed on one side of Jack’s face – being hallmarks of a stroke.
“My Dad had a stroke years ago,” Alison told First Coast News on Wednesday. “And, it was just... my Mom didn’t figure it out. And it paralyzed his entire left side.”
She said Jack at first dismissed any concern, let alone calling for help, but, driven by the memory of the permanent struggle caused by her father’s stroke, she persisted, knowing that with strokes, minutes and even seconds of delayed response can alter fate dramatically. The Baptist Health neurosurgeon who performed emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from Jack’s brain agrees.
“His wife’s recognition that this is a stro , dialed 9-1-1, get him quickly seen and taken care of – that was definitely critical. And he owes a lot to her, and he knows that,” Dr. Ricardo Hanel acknowledged to First Coast News.
All involved credit the quick response for not only saving Jack’s life, but allowing the quality of it to be only temporarily and slightly compromised.
“It took me about nine months to get my head and my body ready to compete again,” Jack said.
Alison says it was all she and doctors could do, to keep Jack from creating undue risk by jumping back in – literally and figuratively – too soon.
“Right after we got home from the emergency room, he was ready to get back in the gym, and I said, ‘I don’t think the doctors are going to approve it this quickly’,” she said.
That competitive nature is conspicuous.
“I felt as though I had to take my lifestyle back,” Jack said. And, pointing to next week’s competition, he insists, it’s not enough just to show up: “I plan being faster than I was in 2013 [at the National Senior Games in Cleveland]. My goal is to win, always.”
“If anything, it’s pushed him to be more competitive,” Alison echoed. “He doesn’t like to be told ‘You can’t do this’.”
But, equally obvious is the camaraderie and respect he shares with his counterpart on the starting blocks.
“When I line up next to somebody, I want to beat them, absolutely. And I think they want to beat me. And I’ll shake hands. Good sportsmanship plays a very big part.”
During our conversation, Jack explains – and unintentionally demonstrates – how his stroke has changed him.
“Maybe my vocabulary is somewhat dismission – dismission? There’s one, there you go! … Diminished!,” he laughs.
But not his gratitude, for his wife and Dr. Hanel, especially and it’s mutual.
“Going back to do what he loves doing – that is swimming – and doing this at the high level that he’s doing, competing – so, that’s really inspiring,” Dr. Hanel said.
Jack concludes that anyone at any age can do what’s been second nature to him all along.
“It’s just a mindset, that’s all it is, is mindset.”
He plans to keep all future strokes to the swimming variety – the breaststroke, in particular. And, Jack acknowledges that whatever results he achieves in Birmingham, he’s already won his most important battle.
“I’m not going to be perfect, but I’m going to be damn good, best I can be.”
Jack will be competing June 5, 6, and 7. To learn more about the Senior Games and see Jack's results, click here.