(Saturday, May 29th, 2010)

Lucky Meisenheimer

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Someone told me to interview Lucky. Within a few days of learning his name, two other people brought him up in conversation. That’s how I knew it was time to track this guy down and introduce myself. Thanks to a fellow Facebooker who suggested we be friends, he was easy to find. What was more challenging was wrapping my head around Lucky’s accomplishments and his influence on those around him. I’m amazed by how one person has the time to do so many things. His accomplishments are no secret. Here are a few things you learn just by googling the name Lucky Meisenheimer:

* He has his own wikipedia page.
* He swam for Eastern Kentucky University (Division 1 NCAA), where he was team captain, school record holder and Kentucky Intercollegiate champion.
* He’s a local dermatologist that has served as Chief of Dermatology of Orlando Regional Medical Center since 2003.
* He wrote a book called Lucky’s Collectors Guide to 20th Century Yo-Yos. A copy of it resides in the Smithsonian Museum.
* He is a Guinness Book of World Record holder for having the largest collection of yo-yos, and his picture is on the cover of the Golden 50th Anniversary book edition. Consequently, a large part of his house is dedicated to housing them and now models like a museum. He also owns the largest all wood yo-yo. It rests in his backyard and is six feet tall and functional by crane.
* He has been featured on the following TV shows or programs: “The Martha Stewart Show”, Nickelodeon’s “What Would You Do”, “Treasures in your Home”, “Weird Homes”, “The Ultimate Collector”, “Nickelodeon Sports and Games”, 「開運・なんでも鑑定団」(Tokyo Television’s 1# show), Disney Promotional Feeds, WESH News, WKMG News, Orange TV, and CBS Nightly News.
* He has the highest level of coaching certification given by the American Swim Coaches Association at Masters Level 5 and has served as a past president of the Masters Aquatics Coaches Association.
* He has coached the Orange County Special Olympics Swim Team since 1993. It’s one of the largest teams in the world.
* People gather at his house every single morning at 6:30 a.m., Monday thru Saturday, to participate in an event called Lucky’s Lake Swim.
* He was featured in the National Lampoon movie RoboDoc, and oh, he has his own independent film and production company, Lucky-Rose Films.

And that’s not all. Trust me. Lucky for us, he lives in Orlando and allows strangers into his home to interrogate.

Jana: So I’m looking over a brief list of your accomplishments and really don’t know where to start.  What facet of your life do you want to start talking about?
Lucky: I can go any direction. [Laughs] What peeks your interest?

How did you get the name Lucky?
That is an old college swimming team nickname. I wish I could say it had something to do with success with women, but it had to do with a pair of gym shorts. Everyone wrote their name at the bottom of their work out shorts to identify them when they went through the laundry. I don’t remember the reason why now, but they were gonna put “Lucky John” on there because my name is John. However, they ran out of room. So they put “Lucky J” on them. From that point on I was known by nothing else. The “J” got dropped over the years, and now I’m just Lucky.

Where were you born?
I was born over at Patrick Air Force base in Cocoa.

How did you end up in Kentucky for college?
I grew up in Kentucky. My father was a meteorologist. He actually delayed the launch of the first satellite for two days—that’s his claim to fame. He’s in the history books for doing that. [Laughs]

What made you move to Orlando?
I always wanted to come down to Florida. We vacationed here a lot when I was a kid. I thought Florida was The Mecca of the Universe, and I’m also a skin cancer surgeon. You go where the skin cancer is.

The reason I chose Orlando—and I had searched all the coastal towns—is because The Aquatic Center had just been built here a few years before. Sand Lake Hospital had also just been built and they didn’t have a dermatologist. I just thought, “This is a sign from God.”  [Laughs]

Let’s talk dermatology for a bit. As a Central Florida dermatologist, what is your most diagnosed skin issue?
Skin cancer by far. I’d say about eighty percent of my practice is sun-related problems. Even the cosmetic end of our practice is largely due to the sun.

How often do you recommend people get their skin checked by a dermatologist?
It depends. If someone’s had a problem with pre-cancerous cells or cancer, or something like that, they need to be checked on a regular basis. If someone has protected themselves from the sun over the years, and they do self-examinations, I’d say come in once every four years for a looksie. If they’ve had skin cancer in the past, I’d say at least come in once a year.

Should people that live in Florida be taught how to look at their skin?
That’s certainly wise depending on your skin type. If you’re African-American you don’t need to worry at all. If you’re blonde haired and blue-eyed and you work as a farmer, well, you’re only gonna have issues. Everyone should be aware of any changes to their moles. If a mole is changing or bleeding, you certainly need to get in to see a dermatologist.

This morning on The Today Show they said that any SPF over 50 is a waste of money. Is that true?
Yeah, the difference between a 30 and a 50 is miniscule. Anything beyond that is minimal, too. I believe they’re going to change the SPF rules so that it only goes up to 50.  I tell my patients if you put on at least a SPF 30 you should be fine.

Tell me about how Lucky’s Lake Swim started.
Very simply, we started swimming the lake. That’s part of why I wanted to move down here to Florida, I wanted to swim on an open lake. I started coaching at The Aquatic Center in ’89. There was interest in doing a morning workout and we couldn’t do it at The Aquatic Center, so we did it here. It started as three days a week, to three days a week plus Saturdays. When it got dark during the winter months, we stopped. Then people wanted to keep going and all of a sudden we were swimming in the dark. Then some guys asked to swim in the cold, and I was like, “Well, are you going to show up? Then yeah!” Now, we swim six days a week year round. It’s not going to advance any more than that. [Laughs] I need a day off, and that’s Sunday.

About how many people show up at your house to swim the lake?
Right now, this year, and now that we’re in the peak season, we average two hundred on Saturday’s. It’s pretty amazing. The whole front yard is packed with cars. They’re lined up and down the road. It’s jaw dropping to see.

What happens if you want to go on vacation?
It’s bigger me. [Laughs] We have a lot of guys that come everyday now. They’re regulars. They’ve swum the lake hundreds, even thousands of times, and they help me. I couldn’t do it by myself. We have so many people that come out on Saturdays that we actually put buoys up on the lake so there are no collisions. They help with signing the “Wall of Fame” and passing out the swag—that sort of thing.

How many people have signed your wall of fame?
You’re welcome to go out and count. [Laughs] It’d take an afternoon. There’s thousands.

And to get your name on the wall, you have to swim across the lake and back?
Yep, you get to sign the wall if you swim it once, and if you do something on a national prominence, or you’re on a college swimming team, or if you’ve done an iron-man distance triathlon, we add that under your name. It’s funny how just signing a wall is such a motivator for people to come out and take a swim.

What do you hope to achieve from this program?
I don’t know that I’m hoping to achieve anything. I’m just having a good time. I do know that it’s evolved into some great benefits. First of all, it’s getting people in the water to swim. And a lot of people have never experienced open-water swimming before. It’s neat to see someone come out who thinks it’s going to be a terrible experience, to then become a regular, like clock work, just because they enjoy it so much. Being a swim coach, I like to see that. Swimming is one of the few sports in life that you can do until the day you die.

One side benefit is that a lake restoration society has developed from this.  We’re raising money to help clean up the lake and keep it Florida pristine, if you will. Even more importantly, we’ve started this “Most Wanted” program, and through my donations and others that have matched my donations, we’ve raised $19,000 dollars for the Aquatic Center scholarship program, which has been great.

I read that Ripley’s Believe It or Not gave you credit for swimming a half-mile backstroke with your toe in your mouth. How did you even know you had a talent like that?
That was one of my first claims to fame. [Laughs] Like most things in life, it was kind of an accidental thing. I’m known for parody and being humorous to my friends. I was standing in the water stretching, and someone said, “Ew. Don’t put your foot in your mouth!” So, of course, I did.  Then someone said, “I bet you can’t swim that way.” I said, “I’m sure I can.” And sure enough, I could. So I had someone take a Polaroid picture.  I put the picture at the bottom of a newsletter, this was back before the Internet, and I put on there that I had set the Guinness World record for swimming with my foot in my mouth. It was a joke.

Well, the guys thought I was serious and were really excited about it. They told me I should really do it, and then I got to thinking. Swimming is not like the highest publicized sport on campus. So I started practicing swimming with my foot in my mouth on my mornings off.  I asked the coach several months in advance if we could set up a time to set this record. When it came time, he had forgotten about it. The guys had gone out and put up fliers everywhere. The story got picked up by news stations. Then somehow the radio stations picked it up. So we go into practice and the stands start filling up. My coach asked, “Does anyone know why the stands are filling up with people?” My teammates were like, “Well coach, don’t you remember? You told Lucky he could swim the half-mile with the foot in his mouth and set a world record.” He said, “Oh my god!” [Laughs]

By the end of it, he was happy. We filled the stands. We had more people there than at any swim meet. It didn’t get picked up by Guinness, but Ripley’s Believe It or Not did pick it up. I also was the funny story at the end of The Paul Harvey radio show, and in Kentucky that was big! [Laughs]

Do you remember the first time you picked up a yo-yo?
I don’t remember. I was a kid. You just grow up with yo-yos around. I remember in seventh grade there was yo-yo craze. I wasn’t the best kid in school but I was one of the better ones because I’m obsessive compulsive and I practiced.

I didn’t think about it much for years. Then what happened was I saw a yo-yo in a trick book. I thought that was cool. In medical school, all of our classes were in the same room, yet they gave us twenty minutes to change classes. So we all just stood out in the hallway and talked, some people drank coffee and whatever. I played the yo-yo. I went through the trick book and got reasonably good at it. Later, when I went on rounds on the pediatric floor I’d entertain the kids.  But still didn’t think too much about it then.

When I came to Orlando, and back then I was still competing in swimming a lot, I had a lot of down time. So I started looking in old antique shops and found yo-yos. I thought, “This is kinda cool.” So I started picking them up. About that time, that was the late 80’s, Tommy Smothers had just come out with this yo-yo man character. There was a newsletter called The Yo-Yo Times, and coincidentally I started getting that. I became fascinated by the yo-yo’s history. I was not of the era of the contest. They had ended before I came into yo-yo’s, and it was this fantastic piece of Americana that everyone was forgetting about.

In the late 20’s through the 60’s, the yo-yo man came to town and they had competitions and gave out patches and prizes. There weren’t any books about it, but the guys who had done all of this were still around. So I started calling them up and asking about the history. Then I had enough information that I started writing a few articles for The Yo-Yo Times, and somewhere a long the way people started referring to me as the expert on the history of the yo-yo, just because I had written some articles and done some research on it. Finally and ultimately, I wrote the book on collecting yo-yos and it ended up in the Smithsonian, which I think is pretty cool, especially since it was the first book I’d ever written.

How long did it take you to write the book?
Four and a half years. Now, there were down times [during that process] but mostly it was a lot of photo shopping. I didn’t have some of the yo-yos featured in the book in mint condition, so I tried to recreate the seals so that they were like the originals. I would spend sometimes three hours on one yo-yo photo just to get the seals right. It was a labor of love. My wife might describe it as something different. [Laughs]

How many yo-yos do you own?
The Guinness Record is 4,500 and something different ones. I actually have more than that. When I first got the record I just quit counting—it was too hard. I probably have in the neighborhood of 10,000 yo-yos but some of them are duplicates and different color variations. I don’t count those. I probably have close to 5,000 different types of yo-yos.

Did you contact Guinness, or did Guinness contact you?
I contacted Guinness first with a picture. They wrote back with specific instructions on how to properly fill out the submissions form. I guess I had done it wrong. They especially put attention to the photograph.

You see, there’s four different levels of Guinness. There’s getting the record and getting the certificate, and you may never get in the book because they only list two to three thousand records there. Then there’s the mention of the record. Then there’s getting a paragraph written about you. And then there’s the photograph.  I managed to get the whole thing the first time.

How did you manage that?
Well, we took a great picture. I took all my yo-yos down and put them in a pile. Then, I buried myself up unto my chest in them. It was a very, very, very cool picture.

In speaking to other people who have tried to get records, Guinness is not very good at getting back people about what to do exactly.  I have a French newspaper that I‘m on the cover of … somebody just happened to see it and bring it to me. They were using my picture to promote the 50th Anniversary Book in France. That was the ultimate coolness.

How much do you think your collection is worth?
I’d say $100,000 or more.  At one time, when yo-yos were really going off, right around the year 2000 or 2001, whatever its worth now was worth four more times then.  There are yo-yos now, matter of fact, I just got a box in yesterday full of six yo-yos, mint condition, and one of those yo-yos might have sold for seven to eight hundred dollars back in the day. I got them for fifty bucks a piece. Yo-yos are like stocks, they go up and down, pardon the pun.

Do you have to take out a special insurance on your house for them?
No, because the reality is, if the house were to burn, the loss is the history. Since I’ve sorta become the keeper of history, the loss would be more tragic than financial.

What’s the most money you’ve ever spent on a single yo-yo?
I’m not sure because I think my wife did it. I won’t spend a lot of money on a yo-yo. I might have spent $500 on a yo-yo once, that’ll have been it. It was historically very important and very old. These are historical pieces that museums would love to have because of their history, and I’m bidding against museums for some of these.

Do you have a favorite yo-yo?
Yes! It’s the first Flores yo-yo I found. It’s like the Holy Grail for yo-yo collectors. [Laughs] According to Steven Spielberg the Holy Grail is this big non-descript thing that is not ornate, and that would describe the Flores yo-yo. It’s just a simple yo-yo with a simple stamp that says Flores on it. The historical significance of that is that Pedro Flores brought the name yo-yo to the United States in 1928. They had made yo-yos before then but they were called bandalores. He did two things: he named it yo-yo and he started contests. That started the initial craze. He only made those yo-yos for two years, so if you find one you’re considered a Jedi yo-yo collector. I tell people that to be a true yo-yo collector you must find one out in the field, but most of the times people find them on E-bay.

Why did he name it yo-yo?
That’s what it was called in the Philippines. It’s been referred to as the yo-yo for centuries in the Philippines. It’s just been called something else in other countries.

Have you ever competed in a yo-yo competition?
Yes. In 1993, I competed in the first modern National Championships. In 1992, I was out in California and they had been running a state championship for years there. Essentially, everybody that was a yo-yo player was going to California for the state championship. They had a Duncan collection in the little museum there in Chico, California. I was in San Francisco for a medical thing, but I’d drive all day just to get there so I could go to this deal.

The guy running this thing ran was a super nice guy. We talked yo-yos after the event for a couple of hours, and that’s when I told him he should rename this thing the National Championships. He said, “I don’t have a right to do that.” I was like, “Yeah, you do. You’re it.” We talked about it and the next year he changed the name. I felt obligated to go, so I competed in it, but didn’t make it to the finals. But my wife, she competed in it and I believe, and if I’m not mistaken, she is the first woman to compete in the modern Nationals.

They didn’t have any women in the competition at the time, and they really wanted one. So she did it. She didn’t know the yo-yo at all. We were at lunch and Don Dunkin Jr. of the legendary Dunkin yo-yo family was there. He showed her a few basic tricks, and she was nice enough to get on stage and do them. The rest is history. [Laughs] Now, there are women who are in the Championships that are just phenomenal.

What’s the goal of a yo-yo competition exactly?
To win!

But what do you do?
The rules have changed. Traditionally, and in the first National Championship, you just had to perform some tricks in front of the judges and make them. There might have been a loop off towards the end but that was basically it. In modern competition, and since 1995-1996, yo-yos have changed and now have transaxles, which means they have incredibly long spin times. That changed the style of play. Now you can throw a yo-yo and do multiple tricks on one throw, which led to choreographed routines to music. I remember the first test of that, back in ’95 or ’96, I forget what they called it, but no one thought they would do it for real. They just did it for fun, and it was the most watched event. It became the thing, and now everything else has disappeared. You have to perform standard tricks to get into the finals, but once you get in the finals you do a three-minute choreographed routine.

What kind of music do people choose?
Most of the kids now are younger, so there’s heavy metal or some kind of pounding music, usually. Every now again, someone will throw in a classical piece. There was one song, one year that every kid played. Oh my gosh! It’ll come to me, but you just heard that song over and over … it was the theme to Mortal Kombat. You remember that? Oh my god. We laughed about it for years after that.

What is your favorite competition yo-yo move?
I can’t do it. [Laughs] The athletes that participate now are training five or six hours a day. They can do back flips while throwing two yo-yo’s at the same time. If you ever get a chance to see it, it’s amazing.

What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
Well, I just finished my novel. It’s an adventurous science-fiction piece, a fun and easy read.

What?! When do you sleep?
I sleep really well actually. I don’t watch TV. That’s my biggest time saver. Occasionally I’ll sit down with my boys and watch “The Simpsons” or something, but I’m more of a movie guy.

Is that because you’ve been in movies?
[Laughs] No, I’ve liked movies since before I was in them. But sure, I like the ones I’m in too.

What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?
I’m gonna go back to the platitudes that my three boys are my greatest accomplishments. It’s the honest to God truth. I like to incorporate them into what I do so that they can see what they can accomplish. The boys have done their own videos. They have one on YouTube, this Pong video, I think it’s hysterical and they did that when my eldest was just ten-years-old.

All three of them were in that National Lampoon’s movie behind the scenes thing I did. They’re in the Internet credits. They swim and play water polo. John, my oldest, he helps with the Special Olympics. I’m not trying to do all these things by myself. I wanna bring the family in to the whole thing.

What is the one word you want people to think about when they hear your name?
That’s a good question. [Pauses] I know the word people usually say, and that’s eclectic. [Laughs] I’m not sure if that’s the word I want to be known for. I don’t know. If I could think about it for a couple of hours, I’m sure I could come up with a word but for now you’ve stumped with that question.

*Interview Date: May 26, 2010

Want to sign your name on the wall? Go to LuckysLakeSwim.com to find out how.

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