He turned 68 years old in February, but this is no time for a Farewell Tour for Dr. Herman Kelly. He is just getting warmed up and aims to bring back the adrenaline that soaked him and stoked him in college when he was a member of the famed Morehouse College Tiger Sharks. That was 50 years ago.
“I still have about six more years of work, then I’ll retire, and start training in the pool twice a week, and then I’ll really be fast,” said Kelly, a professor at LSU and a church pastor in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“My goal is to be a national champion within 10 years.”
Many people at 68 years old hesitate to buy green bananas. Some will declare, “This is the last car I’ll ever buy.”
Not Herman Osby Kelly, who is living a paradox of a life. He’s older, but time isn’t running out, not by his estimation. He’s on the 10-year plan.
Kelly won seven gold medals in two Louisiana State Senior Games (2018, 2019) swimming the butterfly, Individual medley, and breaststroke. The health of his wife Linda, who he was married to for 37 years, and the scourge of Covid, contained his ambition in the pool the last two years. Linda died August 7, 2021, and Herman leads charity events for his beloved, as well as others with cancer.
He swims for her…and now he swims for himself.
The 2022 National Senior Games in Ft. Lauderdale are squarely on the radar.
“The top 12,” Kelly said of his goals. “I have to at least get the top 12 in Ft. Lauderdale. You get a ribbon for top eight, a medal for top 3.”
The pastor wants the hard stuff. The metal of the medal. But he is playing a long game, which is preposterous patience for a guy who is 68. 12th is good enough….for now.
“I have to knock six seconds off and I can do that,” Kelly said. “As soon as I see another competitor in the pool again, my adrenaline will shoot up, and I’ll knock that six seconds off.”
Kelly finished 18th nationally in the butterfly and Individual Medley at the National Senior Games in Albuquerque in 2019. His son, a police officer in Washington, D.C., commanded him to “up his game” so Kelly wakes at 4:30 a.m. four days a week to swim. His workouts those mornings can cover 4,400 yards, he said.
Herman was 64 in Albuquerque, the top end of the cohort 60-64, so he raced against 60-year olds. He will be near the top end of the 65-69 cohort in Ft. Lauderdale, but he doesn’t lean on the alibi the others are younger.
“I motivate myself to get up at 4:30 in the morning because I want to be a national champion, just like I’m a state champion,” Kelly said. “I set goals for myself and sometimes they can be unrealistic, but that’s just who I am. I like people to tell me I can’t do something.”
Kelly’s grudge against people who doubted him carried him right to Atlanta for college. He was a good high school student and could have gone to a number of schools, but Herman wanted to swim in college and decided on Morehouse in Atlanta.
His friends in Jacksonville scoffed. Morehouse was the top Black college swim program in the country and Herman didn’t have a scholarship offer. The Tiger Sharks were a powerhouse and could beat the likes of Georgia Tech. Herman was determined to be a Tiger Shark.
He made the team. All four years. Two of those four years, Morehouse was a national champion among HBCUs. The Tiger Sharks were SIAC champions three years.
It wasn’t easy for a Black kid to develop into a terrific swimmer in the 1960s. It wasn’t as if he could stroll down to the public pool as a child in Jacksonville, Florida, hop in the pool, and practice his strokes. Black kids had to swim in the creeks and ocean, or not at all, and some drowned because they had not been taught to swim and currents can be tricky below the surface.
Herman O Kelly, Sr., and his mother, Marquerite, finally arranged for swim lessons for Herman and his sister, Carmen, at a pool for Blacks near their home in Washington Heights. Herman was 7 and he did as he was told by his father, a railroad man, and his mother, who was a nurse.
Swimming was rigorous, but so was the mere act of going to school. Segregated walls were coming down and Kelly found himself in a mostly white high school. He remembers walking into the white environment one of the first days and having pennies thrown at him.
“There was a popular arcade game back then where people would hand pennies to the mechanical monkey as it moved,” Herman said.
He didn’t have to explain.
The meanness could have been a cage for a kid less resourceful, but Herman escaped into academics and the pool. He could swim away from the sharks. Just look at the picture at the bottom of this story and notice that right hand he is holding up. That’s a big mitt. You don’t think Herman can throw back some water in the pool?
His success in college is why Kelly recoiled at the 2014 picture of him and his wife with their son when he graduated from the police academy. “I had a gut,” he said.
That was eight years ago and Kelly has been swimming ever since and has slimmed up.
It has been seven months since Linda died. LSU varsity swimmers rallied around him and help him train. Herman’s friends and church family have gathered him up, too. He ministers to a flock of 150-160 at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. He is still teaching at LSU in African studies and does a course on helping kids get traction at a major university.
Where does he get this drive?
Kelly told me he spent seven days in an incubator as a newborn fighting for his life. That name “Herman” came from his father passing it on to him, but Herman has also tried to live up to the spirit of the name. “Herman” in German means soldier, or warrior, and Kelly considers himself a warrior.
The incubator, the racial barbs, being cut from school teams outside the pool, doubts from friends he could succeed in a top college swimming program, the death of his wife. Kelly the warrior soldiers on.
Ray Glier has written for various media for over 40 years, as a contributor to national publications including The New York Times, Vice Sports, USA TODAY, The Miami Herald, The Boston Globe, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post. The author of five books, Glier has a passion for master sports and seniors athletes, and shares their stories of triumph and joy in his unique, inspiring, and always moving weekly newsletter, Geezer Jock. For more great masters sports content, subscribe to Ray’s FREE weekly email at geezerjocknewsletter.com.