Legionnaire commences 3,500-mile rowing journey

Robert Owens has followed doctors’ advice for a long time. 

“I was an adopted kid and was never able to find any family lineage for me,” said Owens, who was a para rescuer when he served in the Air Force. “I have no medical history. Doctors told me a long time ago that the best health insurance I could have is to be healthy.”

After his service, he continued his athletics including Ironman triathlons. Even though Owens had to scale back to half marathons and other shorter distances as he helped raise five children, he worked out as a way to relieve stress. When he turned 50, he accepted a challenge from his son to do an Ironman, 20 years after his most recent one.

“I like the training, I like what you do,” said Owens, a member of American Legion Post 291 in Newport, Calif., who has completed 12 total Ironmans. “It keeps me healthy. I rarely have any sickness.” 

Additionally, Owens has run seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, and completed the 50-hour Kokoro Navy SEAL hell week simulation when he was 69.

Joe de Sena, who created Spartan Games, labeled Owens as the “most fittest, mentally toughest 66-year-old in the world” four years ago. “I don’t believe that’s true, but it was nice for de Sena to have said that.” 

Owens, 71, sets out Dec. 4 on an epic challenge even for him. He will be the only American and oldest participant, by about 20 years, on a seven-man, five-woman team attempting to row a 24-foot boat across the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean. Teams of six will alternate rowing shifts of about three hours.

“It will be a mental grind, three hours on, three hours off,” he said. “I teach a lot about mental toughness so this is a way that I can demonstrate to my students and clients how to work your mind and stay in the game for something that needs resilience.”

The 3,500-mile journey is expected to take from 40 to 50 days.

Mark Divine, a retired Navy SEAL commander, knows Owens well. Divine hired Owens to train much younger SEAL hopefuls at his Crossfit-like training facility, called SEALFIT, in Encinitas, Calif. Owens is the only non-SEAL to be a trainer. 

“As Robert says, it’s hard to discover your true internal nature, your ‘why,’” said Divine, who has known Owens for about six years. “If you are out of shape, physically broken, that is a major distraction and it occupies all of your time, either feeding it through your addictions to distract yourself from it or being too lazy to do anything about it. Then you live that quiet life of desperation. I think a lot of vets are living a life of loud desperation. We want them to get back healthy. A healthy body means a healthy brain. With a healthy brain, we get to curate those healthy thoughts. We feed the courage wolf by starving the fear wolf.”

Owens has tapped his effort as the “Mark Crampton Memorial Row,” and is intending to raise awareness of, and funding for, the prevention of veteran suicide. Crampton, who died by suicide in April 2022, was Divine’s platoon chief in 1993.

“(Crampton) was an extraordinary individual,” Divine recalled. “He had a profound influence on my life. Mark later went on to be in charge of all instructors at BUDs. When he came back, he was part of my cadre at SEALFIT. Mark Crampton was extraordinarily fit, always in service to others, always had a smile, had a wry sense of humor, showed no signs of anything wrong internally. It shocked the entire SEAL community.”

The effort coincides with The American Legion’s Be the One initiative that aims to reduce the stigma of mental health, and in turn, diminish the number.

“This is how it ties into The American Legion Be the One,” Divine explained. “Positive thinking is best done when you are presenting it to others as a gift. Veterans can’t do this if they are physically broken. So first thing is that we get them healthy and connect in a team. Everybody needs a team. Within the team, everyone gives positive support to their teammates and they learn to pay it forward to their teammates, their families and to their friends.”

Not only is Owens supporting efforts to reduce veteran suicide, he is also hoping his efforts engage fellow Legionnaires.

“When I go into most posts, most Legionnaires are overweight,” he observed. “And they are not health-conscious. When I go around the country, one of the topics I speak on is to choose how we age. If you want to stay unhealthy, knock yourself out. If you want to get on the floor with your grandkids, if you want to stay out of the hospital, without a heart attack, work out at least an hour a day.”

It doesn’t take much, he says, noting that an hour of daily activity has an impact. It could be as simple as walking for 60 minutes every day and making better food choices.

Owens says he has gone to dozens of funerals of fellow veterans who chose poor health habits over healthy ones.

“It’s a motivation for me to not be like that and to talk with people about living longer and having a quality of life,” he said. “They need to get some discipline in their lives to do the uncomfortable things so they can pay now and play later. Instead of play now and pay too soon.”