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
Peace Tommy. My name is Prince, government name WilliamBurton. I Hve a 78 year old mother in law. I would like for her to participate your arobics classs. Please feel free to contact me at wmburton(dot)burtons(at)gmail.com
It’s very inspiring to see how Tommy made a phenomenal transition from gangster to a senior citizen fitness guru.
Senior citizens are the forgotten people in our society, and it’s exhilarating to see that a once fallen man like Tommy, who was deemed a nuisance to society, has taken a vested interest in their total well being.
Tommy’s classes are comprised to seniors from various ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s a beautiful thing to see how he openly displays enormous affection and respect for the seniors, and have it reciprocated 100%.
When Tommy roars a positive affirmation to elevate and stimulate them mentally, emotionally, and physically, the seniors boisterously shout back at the top of their lungs collectively and in unison. The chemistry between them is evident, because the seniors are more animated, illuminated, and invigorated by his presence.
Tommy also has a very informative website, (Thetommyexperience.net), which provides health tips, and articles about nutrition and exercise, I use it to share information with my elderly parents.
Kudos to Tommy! His life is a testament and an amazing comeback story. It’s certainly possible that he can make his current business, “The Tommy Experience”, a renown global brand. May Tommy continues to be successful in all of his future endeavors. He is on the cusp of something big!!!
Tommy, nothing can take the place of persistence. You have a great mind and you influence others positively by being a coach, teacher, counselor and mentor. You are without a doubt an amazing person with a big heart and untapped potential. Peace & Blessings always!
The ability to redefine yourself can be very challenging if you’ve led a lifestyle as Tommy did. Finding a way to be great to yourself yet inspire others takes soul searching and money can not be the motivation. Everyone counted him out except those who have loved him through thick and thin. We are not surprised at all. We are only surprised that it’s taken everyone else this long to come around. His love for seniors is indicative of his core values. He loves what he does. How many people are getting up 6 or 7 days a week to do what they love? If you don’t know anyone…maybe you should meet Tommy!
Tommy Mickens is the man!!!
We’re getting the idea that Tommy Mickens has quite a fan club!
his personality is magnetic to all who know him! he is liked the pied piper to the elders!!
Barbara I hope you are doing well. It’s great that publications are being written about Tommy to bring an awareness to people old and young, with faith all is possible. I speak to Tommy on a regular bases and he isn’t proud of his past, but he understands with out it he wouldn’t be the great individual he has become today. Tommy and his story is one that is changing lives. His story needs to be produced.
Tommy is a great guy and he is dedicated to helping seniors. His work is from his heart. Keep up the great work my brother. PJ!!
Great article. Great guy. Great program.
Tommy’s story is inspiring!
His caring for the seniors is so genuine. He has a rapport with them that lights them up. He has a gift to make exercise fun for everyone. The participants in my center can’t wait for him to come and brighten their day and bring strength to their heart, body, mind and soul.