What does a former drug kingpin with celebrity street status and a million-dollar lifestyle do for a second act when he’s released from jail with nothing more than a new lease on life?
Tommy Mickens went looking for redemption when he stepped out a free man after serving 20 years for drug trafficking, money laundering and tax evasion. He found it by helping seniors get in shape and gain confidence.
“I love what I do, and it comes from the heart,” Mickens says of the Tommy Experience – the high-energy, high-empathy and highly enjoyable workout for seniors that he created on his release from Butler, NC, in 2008.
The Road to Senior Fitness
If you were watching the news in the 1980s, you might remember the name Tommy Montana, Mickens’ street name during his drug dealing days. According to Mickens, selling drugs was his way to meet the needs of his dysfunctional family. His single mom was working three jobs; how else was a 15-year-old from Laurelton, Queens supposed to make a lot of money? Reportedly, once he’d built up his business to a staff of 50 working street corners, he could bring in $100,000 a week. Mickens claims that when he realized what drugs were doing to his neighborhood, he tried to get out – but he was arrested at 24, then sentenced at 26.
When you spend so much of your life behind bars, you live a lot of it in the past. One recurring image for Mickens was that of his mom, a vibrant woman who after a stroke was left partially paralyzed and without speech.
“If I hadn’t seen my mother’s face on that body, I wouldn’t have known it was her,” he told Senior Planet. She was in a nursing home, where Mickens says the staff would do nothing to motivate her or other patients to improve themselves. “They would toss coloring books at them or put on a movie. No one would try to motivate them,” Mickens says. She died while he was in solitary confinement.
Mickens shared the facility where he spent the end of his term with disabled prisoners. “They would try to move their wheelchairs and do stuff, but they couldn’t; no one would help them.” So he did. He helped them build upper body strength with arm curls and other exercises so they could do things for themselves. Mickens credits them with encouraging him to help others get in shape on his release.
The “Tommy Experience”
We visited Mickens’ class at the Willoughby Neighborhood Senior Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to see the Tommy Experience for ourselves. As the teacher, he’s the star of the show, and his banter is friendly, funny and encouraging (“you’re not weak!”). Chair exercises level the playing field, helping seniors of all ages and at all levels to build strength, work on balance, and deal with arthritis, sciatica “and all the parts that give people pain,” Mickens explains. Dance music and sound effects get the group going, and the class culminates with most of the seniors on their feet, moving and throwing punches to a movie-soundtrack that builds everyone’s confidence and sense of power.
“He’s a unique person, extremely motivating,” one student, Verna Francis says, offering a long list of positives – from the energizing music and his jokes, to his explanations of how each exercise benefits which muscles. Francis isn’t interested in hearing about his past and, in fact, rises to his defense. “I have arthritis, I could barely get out of the car, but after a few months, I’m now able to manage my legs and get in and out.”
It’s no surprise that Mickens has big goals. Currently, four hand-picked instructors assist him in some 50 classes per week around the city, but that’s not enough. “I want to build it into the biggest wellness program in the world.” And that includes attracting sponsors, because so many come to class without the right clothes.”
“Under Armour, Reebok and Nike sponsor high school teams and NBA teams – why shouldn’t they sponsor their mothers, their aunts; why not sponsor seniors?” Mickens says. “They need comfortable clothes. They say, it’s hard for me to walk, my heel is crooked; I can’t move in my clothes.”
“Each one of them is my mom,” Mickens says.
Tommy’s Top Five Workout Tips
- Know that you’re not weak
- Believe in yourself
- Whatever you do, always listen to your body
- Go at your own pace
- Watch what you eat