To face his fear of heights, Capt. Joel S. Fogel flies planes. To conquer his claustrophobia, he dives in underwater caves. And to defeat dyslexia, he writes books.
For this 69-year-old New Jersey native, challenging himself is what keeps him going.
“The trademark of my lifestyle is to find things that are difficult and try to pursue them,” said Fogel, chairman of the Philadelphia chapter of The Explorers Club, founded in New York City in 1904 and whose members pride themselves on exploring land, sea, air and space. (Explorers Club members were the first to trek to the North Pole, the South Pole and reach the summit of Mount Everest. )
Fogel’s resume includes kayaking from New York to Miami and living with an Ethiopian tribe he discovered in the 1970s.
Last month, he competed in the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue physical endurance test to become a seasonal lifeguard. Fogel, a member of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, showed up alongside 42 others at Haulover Beach to race for 17 part-time positions.
He led them all in age by decades.
“I have a lot of things that could hold me back,’’ said Fogel, who replaced both of his hips in 2011 and suffers from a 65 percent blockage in his carotid arteries. “The saddest thing in a man’s life is to watch himself grow old and know that young men don’t fear him anymore.”
So he trains for the challenge.
“It’s like running three football fields and swimming five,” said Capt. Luiz Morizot, 43, of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Ocean Rescue Department.
The test required applicants to complete a 180-yard run on the beach, followed by a 590-yard swim, then run another 180 yards. They had to finish in less than 11.5 minutes.
Fogel’s time: 16 minutes and 27 seconds.
He bested about five others.
“I suffered in the run,” said Fogel, gripping his hips. “The doctor told me, ‘Don’t run hard’ because I could loosen the titanium rods the bone grabs hold of.”
For Fogel, however, it wasn’t so much about the competition; he wanted to prove to himself that he could finish the race.
“It’s been less than five minutes, and I’m already recovered from the race,” he said. “I’m not breathing heavy, and I don’t feel dizzy.”
Fogel credits his health to constant conditioning and eating healthy throughout his life.
His first job was lifeguarding at the Jersey Shore when he was 16, a job where he learned how to keep in shape.
Dr. Ralph Sacco, chairman of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and past president of the American Heart Association, said Fogel’s life of physical activity is a model for all to follow.
“It sounds like he has the body of a 55-year-old or younger,” said Dr. Sacco, adding it’s important to start a healthy lifestyle when you’re young because it’s hard for people to change longtime behaviors.
Regular, aerobic exercise also helps reduce the risk of memory loss because it minimizes blockages and improves blood flow in the brain, Sacco said.
Fogel said he practices tai chi and Tae Kwon Do and eats chia and hemp seeds for energy.
In Somers Point, N.J., where he lives most of the year with his wife, he voluntarily trains young lifeguards on the Jersey Shore. He’d like to do the same in South Florida, where he has been coming since he was a child. He and his wife come for the winter to visit one of their five children in Hollywood.
“He likes to be younger,” said Clotilde Alicia Meillon de Fogel, 69, Fogel’s wife. “All of his friends are younger than he is.”
Before the test began, he greeted the other contenders and gave them advice.
“The enemy is the lifeguard stand,” Fogel told them. “Before your shift, swim, run, do whatever to stay conditioned.”
Jonathan Gil, 21, a student at Broward College, took in the counsel.
“He [Fogel] seems like a very positive person with a lot of experience,” said Gil, who passed the test.
Fogel is buying a second home in Lighthouse Point and would have extended his stay if he had passed the lifeguard test.
Now, he is returning to New Jersey to begin sailing a pirate ship in Ocean City, N.J., for the entertainment of families and children.
“Knowing that you’ve accomplished what you could, the best that you could, that’s knowing that you’re alive,” said Fogel.