The tradition, pretty much passé these days, is to receive a gold watch when you retire.
As a triathlete, Dave Rakita is blowing this tradition right out of the water – and immediately changing from swim attire into cycling gear.
About the last thing Rakita wanted when he retired a month ago – after 42 years as a physical therapist in Southwest Colorado – was a timepiece to help him watch the second hand slowly tick away his remaining years. But make that watch waterproof, with a digital readout in hundredths of seconds – well, now maybe we’re talking.
Rakita, 65, won his age group in October at the premier off-road triathlon, the Xterra World Championships in Kapalua, Hawaii. And now he’ll have even more time on his hands, to train or catch up on years’ worth of home projects.
He’s a shining example of an active lifestyle that demonstrates that although you may be forced by age to slow down a bit, you certainly don’t have to spend your middle-age-and-beyond years lying in a recliner and watching your grandkids.
“He really is an inspiration, and a darn good physical therapist, too,” says Ron Dent, a fellow trathlete. “He’s intense, but he’s cheerful. He’s just an incredible guy.”
And, at this point, he’s blushing.
Deep down, he’s a modest, hard-working man, dedicated to family. In those four-plus decades as physical therapist, he had only a couple of two-week vacations. Heck, he barely stopped when he had heart surgery. And until recently, most of those vacations included some sort of race. He and his wife, Bobbi, met in 1973, married in 1976 and raised two kids in Durango: Brittany, who works at the DoubleTree Hotel; and Branden, a professional triathlete who lives in Colorado Springs.
“I’m not retiring because I don’t like therapy,” Rakita said in a recent interview. “I still enjoy treating patients. But there’s other things you can do.”
You can spend more time training for triathlons, for example. But Rakita’s list includes “deferred” home projects, training a guide dog for the blind and perhaps a hike of the Colorado Trail.
The Philadelphia native moved to Cortez for a job in 1972, literally flipping a coin between Massachusetts and Colorado. He and Randy Haratyk served on a contract basis for Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez and the now-defunct Community Hospital in Durango.
In a shifting occupational landscape, Haratyk started a private practice in 1977. Rakita worked at Mercy Regional Medical Center for several years until 1982, when he, too, shifted to private practice.
He joined forces with physical therapist Ellen Tomsic in August 2004 and the two moved the practice from downtown to the Rivergate Medical Campus in December 2004. That’s where Rakita/Tomsic Physical Therapy is today.
“He’s been world-class as long as I’ve known him,” Tomsic said last week. She was referring to his athletic achievements, but one gets the feeling that could be an overall statement.
“He’s been a great business partner, a great friend,” she said. “One of the most honest and fair people I know.”
Rakita was among a group that formed the local running club. It was after a race at Fort Lewis College one spring in the late 1970s, he recalled. Other running aficionados such as Mike Elliott and Larry Malick were brainstorming. Someone shouted out “Durango Motorless Transit,” and the name stuck. (A year ago, it was changed to Durango Running Club; Rakita’s not bitter.)
After running several marathons, Rakita began to devote himself to triathlons. With a devotion to an early-morning masters swimming program and his kids grown up, he began to excel. In 2000, at age 50, he was eighth among 48 in his age group at the world championships in Australia.
When the Xterra series of off-road triathlons became popular, Rakita dialed in on those, using his Durango-bred mountain biking and off-trail running skills to good advantage. He became a world champ by 2002.
He has continued to excel, dedicating himself with conviction when there’s a race looming.
“When he’s in training mode, it’s daily” or more, said his wife, Bobbi Rakita, who has also dabbled in triathlons. “He’ll take it back a notch when he’s not in training mode. ... He feels better when he’s doing something.”
A notch back for Dave Rakita is still fairly intense for the normal person.
“I just like exercise,” he said. “It’s been a way to keep sane in the work week.”
And he hasn’t slowed down. Well, there was the heart surgery that set him back. For a few days.
In June 2011, he began to feel a “general malaise,” but no chest pain. Stomach issues were ruled out, and a heart catheterization test revealed a 95 percent blockage in the left anterior descending artery, also called the “widow-maker” artery. Rakita’s father died at age 56 from heart disease, possibly from something similar.
He was diagnosed in Durango on a Thursday, had robotic surgery in Denver on Saturday and left the hospital Tuesday.
Less than three months later, he completed a triathlon – finishing only five minutes slower than the year before.
“Anybody can have a health problem,” said his friend, Dent. “But if you’re in really good condition like Dave was, the outcome’s going to be a heck of a lot better. That’s something to take away from the whole thing.”
So now Bobbi and Dave Rakita have a new focus: retirement. With family and business matters and a recent trip to Tucson to visit their son, “It hasn’t really felt like a full retirement yet,” Bobbi said.
There’s some house painting, gardening and landscaping on the project list. But no doubt, there’ll be some long swims, rides and runs.
If you had one, you could bet your gold watch on it.
email@example.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.