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Kids learn to win from coach who beat death

By Sabrina Fine | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | Oct. 10, 2019

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —

He jolted upright suddenly out of sleep with an excruciating headache, waking and startling his wife.

“The first thing she said was ‘do you want to go to the hospital?’ not ‘can I get you some aspirin?’ and me being a guy that don’t like hospitals, the first thing I said was yes,” said Tony Lightner of the 502nd Air Base Wing Safety office.

That July 2008 decision saved his life. Doctors rushed him into brain surgery for treatment of an aneurysm.

“I get chills every day because I hear so many people pass away because of brain aneurysms,” Lightner said.

A bout of meningitis followed his surgery. Yet more than a year later, Lightner recovered and returned to one of his passions, coaching track.

“I think he truly and honestly wants what is best for the kids; I think what it does for the community is empowering the children,” said retired Army Capt. Tamekia Carter, whose son JaCorey trains with Lightner. “It shows them that there are people out here that really believe in them, believe in their talents and are willing to take their own time to train them.”

Lightner, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, has been teaching track and field to young people since 2006. When asked what he charges, he said, “not a dime.”

“I am a Christian person and I feel like I am really blessed and I believe if you are being blessed, then you must bless someone else,” said Lightner, with a smile across his face. “I couldn’t think of a better way than to bless children and I couldn’t think of a better way than giving them my time.”

In 2013, another diagnosis halted Lightner in his tracks: stage four throat cancer.

But even throughout chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he never stopped coaching.

“I wouldn’t allow people to whisper that I had cancer; I wanted to be very open about that,” he said. “I thought that I could set the example and influence someone else who may have suffered the same thing and encourage them to live life as you normally would.”

He recalls a time his students visited him in the hospital

“I wouldn’t let my athletes be sad or cry – It’s important to remain positive. I made them joke and laugh and have fun with it,” Lightner said. “You never know who’s watching you and you don’t know how your actions can influence someone else who could be going through a similar situation.”

Lightner’s coaching is not just about teaching track. He imparts life lessons on the field. His former students have graduated to become professional runners, play in the NFL, and earn college athletic scholarships.

“His birthday was about two or three weeks ago and he was on the track at 9 a.m. on a weekend,” Carter said. “Some of his older athletes that are running for the pros, they came back and surprised him on his birthday and had dinner with him.”

Lightner coaches using principles of physiology and biomechanics and breaks down techniques of track to a scientific level.

Garrett Kaluund’s goal is the Olympics; he is a high school sophomore. He has been training with Lightner since seventh grade.

“Coach T? His drive is amazing, he knows the science and he tells us to become students of the sport,” Kaluund said. “He says that sprinting is not all about running. He says there is block clearance, acceleration, transition, top-end speed or max velocity and deceleration and each of these is actually broken into small parts on which we train a lot.”

Lightner says that trained neurons is the reason people do not forget how to ride a bike once it becomes habit.

“I always tell parents I don’t train an athlete, I train an athlete’s cells,” Lightner said. “Neurons fire during training and once they perfect that skill the neuron is going to fire every time you do a task correctly. So you deep practice and myelin wraps around the neuron as you practice and get it right, then the skill is locked in.”

In defeating a brain aneurysm and cancer, Lightner has won the race.

“I’m blessed and I don’t get it twisted,” he said. “I know why I am still here.”

The coach paused and repeated, in a softer voice, “I know why I am still here.”