Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Love at first hike

Fitness enthusiasts Jack and Jan O'Connell found love later in life

Finding love later in life is the hope of many single seniors. But finding that special someone after the careers, marriages, children, losses and achievements of younger years can seem a daunting mission. Franklin County residents Jack and Jan O’Connell’s story proves a perfect match doesn’t have to be an uphill climb.

“Jack lost his wife after a very brief illness in February of 2003, and I lost my husband, Steve, in March of 2003,” said Jan. “Early in August 2005, I saw Jack’s abbreviated profile on [dating website] match.com. When I read he was a widower, I felt for him and his family and wrote to him in support. He wrote an entire page back, which I still have.”

Soon, the two were sharing a first-date picnic lunch and hike to Sharp Top at the Peaks of Otter in Bedford. The hiking part was easy; breaking the ice took a bit more effort.

“No sparks flew when we met,” said Jan. “When we reached the top, we talked for several hours. The more we talked, the more we realized we were interested in each other.”

The couple learned they had much more in common than the loss of a spouse. Jack, a district conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, has two daughters, and Jan, a registered nurse, two sons. Both make fitness a priority, enjoy all sorts of outdoor activity and prefer rustic cabins and camping to more posh vacation options. At the end of the date, they wanted to see one another again, but it would have to wait.

Jack had dates lined up for the rest of the week.

“I asked that he let me know how it goes, and should he meet someone he really liked, then I wished him good luck and happiness. I could not believe it when Jack called me every night to fill me in,” said Jan.

Jack’s other dates turned out to be unsuccessful, and he and Jan began an official courtship. Jack said much of it was spent doing many of the same activities they participate in today.

“We enjoy the outdoors at every opportunity – going biking on the New River or Greenbrier River trails or spending a weekend in a rustic cabin to go hiking in the mountains. We travel on our own or with the Roanoke Ski Club, never running out of places that we want to explore,” he said.

There are some differences between the two, however. Jan noted Jack’s natural athleticism and brave handling of expert-level ski slopes, which she has yet to conquer. But it is their many similarities that have kept them together.

“When you are middle-aged, there are so many things that have to mesh for a relationship to work out,” said Jack.

“Jan and I were delighted that things worked out relatively easy for us. We work in the same area, like to reside in a rural setting, attend church regularly and are dedicated to our families.”

As added affirmation, they were one of the highest scoring couples on a church premarital test. After two years of dating, the couple married.

“The choice for our honeymoon was a week’s stay in a restored Civil War-era cabin near Marlinton, West Virginia,” said Jack. “We made no plans and decided each morning where we would hike and drive. One day, we rented bicycles and biked on the beautiful Greenbrier River Trail. We had so much fun that we purchased bicycles and have biked the entire lengths of both the Greenbrier and New River trails several times over.”

The O’Connells continue to prioritize outdoor activity and fitness. The couple can be found frequenting the Franklin County YMCA in Rocky Mount, where Jack is the instructor of Thursday evening’s “Rock Hard Abs” class.

“I have been a YMCA member for about 15 years. I just want to stay fit and live a long and healthy life. Teaching a class at the YMCA was a personal challenge for me to grow in confidence,” said Jack.

Jack and Jan’s experiences have given them insight for others who long for similar success.

“Dating and marriage isn’t for everyone. I think it is important to be truthful, open and honest in any relationship, and especially with yourself,” said Jan.

Jack added, “After I lost my wife, I wanted to resume a loving relationship right away. I often came home from dates feeling depressed, like I would never find the right person for me. My daughters, family and friends gave me support and encouragement. Their advice was: Don’t settle. Wait for the right person. It was good advice.”