KEARNEY — Five days a week, John Cochran heads to the Kearney Family YMCA to work out. He starts on a bicycle, does some stretching, walks a few laps around the track and then spends time on each of the 20 machines in the Y’s second-floor fitness center.

So what, you say? Cochran is 98 years and seven months old.

“I used to do a lot of hiking. For a time I took up jogging, but 20 years or so ago, I read that jogging after age 70 is not a good idea, so I quit, but when I was 70, my doctor said I had the circulation of a 17-year-old. That was very good news,” he said.

Cochran was born with the itch for fitness.

As a college student in Portales, N.M., he jogged nine miles three times a week long before jogging became trendy. When he moved to Kearney 45 years ago, he ran six to eight miles a day at Cottonmill Park. He’d run on mountain trails in Colorado. He has done sit-ups and push-ups and jumped rope. He has ridden his bike long distances, too.

Cochran has climbed Mount Washington, a 6,288-foot peak in northern New Hampshire, the highest peak in the Northeast. “We got three-quarters of the way down and I looked down and saw a full-grown black bear across the meadow,” he said.

At age 76, he climbed Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain in New Mexico at 13,167 feet. The day after that 12-hour round-trip climb, “I could tell I’d had a good workout,” he said.

Born in St. Joseph, Mo., on Feb. 7, 1920, Cochran’s life has been as adventurous as his workouts. He briefly worked in the shipyards in Connecticut (“I was no good. I learned I had 10 thumbs on each hand”) and spent time in the military before heading to Eastern New Mexico University in Portales to become a clinical psychologist. While there, he changed his major to speech and hearing disorders and never looked back.

He worked in Salt Lake City. He spent two years at Southwest Texas State College in San Marcos, “but I detested the heat and humidity,” he said, so he headed to Fairbanks, Alaska, to open a speech and language department at a university, but within a few months, the funding ran out, so he spent a year in the Bronx.

“Then I escaped and came to Kearney in 1973. It was an excellent move. This is a nice town. I’ve met some very nice people,” he said.

He taught communication disorders at what was then-Kearney State Teachers College, now the University of Nebraska at Kearney. With a $500,000 federal grant, he hired more faculty and built up the program. He retired in 1988.

His wife Averil died four years ago. His daughter Tamara Long of Kearney is a licensed practical nurse who works at the Mother Hull Home and does home health care. Son John is retired and lives in Albuquerque. Along with his regimen at the Y, Cochran loves to play Scrabble.

Regulars at the Y are in awe of him.

Heather Roubicek calls him “my adopted grandpa.” She said he leads a prayer every day before he leaves the Y after a workout. “He keeps everybody going,” she said.

Graten Beavers, a retired Buffalo County judge who has worked out at the Y since it opened in 1994, described Cochran as “an icon.” Beavers said, “He’s friends with everybody up here. He always talks to people of any age. He’s encouraging people constantly.”

Beavers took Cochran to lunch when he turned 98 in February and has promised to take him out again when he turns 100.

Dillon Nelson, the Y’s community engagement manager, said, “He gets mad when he can only do four pull-ups. I’m 28 and I can barely do one.”

“I’ve been fortunate,” Cochran said. “I want to be independent. I’m not where I was 10 years ago. I can’t hike any more because my legs have gone way down my last two years, but I’m still very pleased with what I can do.

“Seven or eight years ago, when I was about 90, I had a comprehensive geriatric workup. They spent three hours on me. The doctor said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re in great shape,’” Cochran said.

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