Generations of Johnsons Walk the Talk of Fitness

By Cecily Sailer – February 17, 2012
Photo by Brian Fitzsimmons

by Cecily Sailer
Each year thousands of runners, walkers, and bikers make their orbits around Lady Bird Lake—burning off indulgent calories, training for marathons, or trucking a younger generation around the trail for some fresh air and blue sky. This is merely routine for Austin’s active crowd, but their daily devotionals also serve as a fitting tribute to the former First Lady who spent much of her life beautifying Central Texas and promoting happy, healthy living.Of course, Austin’s iconic watermark is just one of Lady Bird’s legacies in Central Texas. Three others—Lady Bird’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, her granddaughter, Nicole Covert, and her great-granddaughter, Claudia Covert—also share their matriarch’s passion for the outdoors and her commitment to health (as well as her poise, good humor, and good looks). They say Lady Bird set a strong example within the family, and Luci says exercise allowed her mother to maintain strength in more ways than one.“I think she found exercise a very steadying force,” Luci says. “It provided her comfort and a platform from which she could maintain stability in a very demanding world. Lyndon Johnson was a force of nature, so I think Mother found swimming and walking a real source of sustenance.”

During her years as First Lady, Luci says her mother relied on vitamins and massage, along with exercise, to maintain her physical health. She spent time walking when she could, but later began the at-home exercise routines popular in the 1960s, mostly because this allowed her to stay nearby when business called.

Like many people, Lady Bird incorporated fitness into her life as she could, despite her endless commitments. But, given her druthers, Luci says, Lady Bird would have chosen swimming any day.

“Everybody wanted a part of her, but in the water she was able to really have that alone time. On the exercise mat at home, someone could still come and get her. And they did. But when she swam, there was a sense of peace in that. She continued swimming even after she lost her balance completely. She swam 37 laps until she was 82.”

Luci shares her mother’s passion for the water, she says, and her sense of athleticism—or lack thereof. “Mother was not an athlete in any way, shape, or form, but she recognized the significance of exercise and passed that on to me,” Luci says. “I was not an athlete in any way or form. In fact, I was always the last person chosen for any team. I painfully remember my classmates bickering, ‘Why do we have to have Luci on our team? We had her on our team last time.’ I didn’t much blame them. But my ego athletically was pretty significantly diminished.”

As Jazzercise, dance, and aerobics took root in the 1970s, Luci found individual exercise offered freedom from the competition inherent in other sports. “It was very relevant to me,” she says.

In addition to her own personal fitness regimen, public and community health became a part of Luci’s life and career very early. For nearly 20 years, she performed visual screenings for Head Start, the national nonprofit that advocates for early childhood development and education. Luci attended nursing school and spent 20 years addressing issues in the field as chair of the University of Texas School of Nursing’s advisory board. She also volunteered her time and energy to national and local health institutions like the National Heart Association, Boston University’s School of Medicine, Seton Hospital, the Seton Fund, and Dell Children’s Foundation.

“My father believed that in our great country, decent health care ought to be a right, not a privilege, for all our people. I share his dream and am willing to work for it as long as I draw breath,” Luci says. And it’s quite a legacy to carry. During his presidency, Lyndon Baines Johnson advanced the nation’s public health programs by authorizing the legislation creating Medicare and Medicaid, which provided federal health benefits for the poor and elderly. He also issued executive orders, in the wake of the Civil Rights legislation, which led to Title IX of the Education Amendments in 1972 offering equal protection for women in hiring decisions at public universities but Title IX is best known today for expanding opportunities for women’s athletics programs at the nation’s public colleges and universities.

Today Luci carries that torch here in Central Texas, dedicating time to protecting and improving Austin’s preeminent “public gym,” the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail, which encircles the beloved lake now named for her mother, Lady Bird. She is also an avid cyclist in her own right. Inspired by her husband Ian Turpin’s love of cycling, the couple typically rides twenty or thirty miles together on the weekends.

“When we married, he was dumbfounded I didn’t really know how to ride a bike. I may be the only person you know who didn’t really learn until they were over 50, but it is my greatest joy now. I’ve had accidents on many continents, but I gladly keep getting back on the bike.”

In fact, Luci’s greatest personal achievement in the realm of fitness, she says, was completing a cycling vacation just six weeks after receiving treatment for Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The effects of GBS begin with tingling and numbness in the arms and legs and ultimately lead to paralysis, something Luci experienced in April of 2010.

She credits her devoted medical team and her own commitment to exercise for her recovery. “Prior to contracting GBS, I was exercising six days a week, and I believe with all that is in me that it was invaluable to my swift and complete recovery. That’s why my New Year’s resolution is to go back to a six-days-a-week exercise routine if I can make it happen.” Making it easier, Luci and her husband installed a gym in their home last year, which they share with their staff at LBJ Asset Management Partners. Here again, Luci’s personal commitment to health comes with an invitation to others to make time for exercise. As she says, exercise is about more than just good health—it helps her maintain a better outlook on life. “I’m happier, and I’m a better wife, mother, grandmother, sister, and friend.”

For Luci’s daughter, Nicole, fitness is also a family and community affair. She played competitive sports at a young age and helped take her high school volleyball team to state. Her husband, Brent Covert, also an Austinite, is equally athletic, and their children—Johnson, 15, and Claudia, 13—have been involved in organized sports since they could tumble, swing a bat, or kick a ball. All the while, Brent and Nicole have been right there beside them, not just cheering but coaching.

“We felt it was important for them to see us take an interest in their activities. It was something we could all do as a family,” Nicole says. She recalls coaching Claudia’s friends on basketball and volleyball teams, not to mold them into athletes, but to lend them a sense of belonging.

“A lot of the time, kids are intimidated to participate because they’re not good at it, especially the girls,” Nicole says. “But if they know the coach, they might be more willing to join in. Some might never play again, but at least they were on a team. There’s something so valuable in that. With an individual sport, you don’t have to work with anybody else or get along with anybody.”

For Claudia, her mother’s training paid off in more ways than one. Nicole’s expertise not only guided Claudia in basketball and volleyball but also solidified Claudia’s network of friends.

“My mom’s very athletic,” Claudia says. “She had experience in high school and in middle school, so if she knew we were struggling with a serve or a lay-up, she had the experience to help us, and she was welcoming to all my friends.”

With Claudia and Johnson now playing multiple sports, their days are filled with practices, games, and homework. But Nicole says this doesn’t come at the expense of family time. “We do find time to sit down and eat dinner as a family at least three to four times a week,” she says. “I think we all take for granted the time we have together, but I must say dinner at the Covert house is treasured by our family. No phone calls, no cell phones at the dinner table, no TV. Just family time.”

For the Johnson clan, the commitment to family and the commitment to good health seem one and the same, as though both are hard-wired in their lineage. But Luci notes this wasn’t always the case. At a young age, she watched her own parents struggle to reform their eating habits and daily routines.

“My father had his first heart attack when I was eight years old,” Luci recalls. “He quit smoking and removed fatty foods and desserts from his diet. He made sure ours was a shared sacrifice—a sacrifice a plump, little Luci was not so interested in,” she said. “He started swimming and walking and watched his caloric intake religiously.”

By then Luci’s mother had already made calorie counting routine. But Lady Bird never completely renounced her love of fried foods, though her will remained strong, Luci says. “Fried was a part of her deep East Texas culinary tradition. She yearned for it when the menu provided it and spent a lifetime having to deny herself.”

Hard-won as it may have been, this conversion toward healthier living took hold in the family, engendering in Luci and Nicole, and later Claudia, an appetite for activity, though Luci is reluctant to take credit for passing on to her children the lessons her parents learned the hard way. Always quick to celebrate those around her, Luci claims her own four children enlightened her about healthy living. Not the other way around.

“My office calls me the food and exercise police, but my children are the ones teaching me.”

While Luci’s four children do wield impressive resumés in the realm of diet and exercise—collectively they are nutritionists, marathoners, tennis players, and amateur boxers—they credit their mother with their achievements, even if she won’t credit herself.

As Nicole will testify, “My parents encouraged me and my siblings, from the time we could walk, to be active. My father was the athlete of the two, but my mother was always our biggest fan. By the time we were two years old, we were swimming, on the ski slopes, playing sports, running outside, going out on Lake LBJ, riding bikes and horses, exploring the ranch.”

Nicole also applauds Luci for keeping her grandchildren active, for demonstrating the joys of getting out, running around, and exploring the world rather than hunkering down for hours of air conditioning and video games.

“Before my grandmother passed away, we would spend most weekends out at the LBJ Ranch,” Nicole says. “My mother and step-father would wake up early and take the grandchildren who wanted to go for bike rides, and they would ride for miles.”

The more stories Luci and Nicole and Claudia tell, the more it seems fitness, to them, is about reinforcing family and strengthening the community that matters most. Half the reward of a workout comes from feeling stronger and relieving stress, but the other half comes from doing it together and making it fun. And, as is family tradition, this attitude goes beyond the family into the larger community.

Perhaps the best example of this is the annual LBJ 100 Bicycle Tour. Launched in 2008, and sponsored by the Friends of LBJ National Historical Park, the Hill Country Bicycle Touring Club, the National Park Service, and the Western National Park Association, the LBJ 100 now gathers more than 1,000 cyclists together each spring for rides anywhere from 10 to 85 miles long, beginning and ending on the LBJ Ranch, the very place where the Johnson tribe, over the decades, clocked hundreds of miles as part of their own informal cycling team.

Luci says the event is a way for the public to enjoy the land her family loved most, and she says her husband, Ian, helped inspire the event’s formation. Today, the couple draws their own inspiration from the event they helped to organize. Luci notes the Texas 4000 riders, a group of young cyclists from the University of Texas who, in preparation for a 4,000-mile journey from Austin to Anchorage to raise money for the fight against cancer, use the LBJ 100 as a training ride.

“I just love to hear their stories,” Luci says. “A lot of their stories are very poignant about why they make this sacrifice.”

The event is scheduled this year for March 24, and proceeds benefit the improvement and maintenance of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. At the end of the ride, all participating cyclists are invited to join a tour of the LBJ Ranch led by a true expert in Johnson family history—Luci, of course. And she is an exemplary storyteller.

In all, the ride, the tour, and the celebration surrounding both, embody perfectly the Johnson’s outlook on fitness. As Luci says, “Our family memories are phenomenal, and so many of them are glued to some form of physical activity. I’d say, for us, fitness is a celebration of life—its potentials, its challenges, its fun, its majesty.” Or, as Nicole says, “It’s just fun. And we can do it as a family.”



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