Navy Leader Goes from Smoker to Ironman

Story by Karen Carstens, Health.mil

Command Master Chief Terry Prince used to go on 10 cigarette breaks a day before he quit smoking, gained and lost 50 pounds, and became an Ironman triathlete.

“I started smoking in 1987, probably six months after I joined the Navy,” the Defense Health Agency’s senior enlisted advisorrecently told Health.mil. “Most of my friends smoked. That’s how I got hooked.”

Photo: Navy Master Chief  Terry Prince. (DoD photo by Daniel Henry/Released)

Navy Master Chief Terry Prince. (DoD photo by Daniel Henry/Released)

The Milwaukee native recalled how upset his mother was when he returned home on leave as a young sailor with a tattoo and a pack of cigarettes. His parents had both been heavy smokers, but had kicked the habit. They were his inspiration years later for giving it up. So was the death of an aunt from lung cancer in her thirties.

Prince quit smoking in 2001. He kept a logbook to track his behavior. He replaced cigarettes with carrot sticks and straws. He told everyone what he was doing. He avoided places where he knew smokers would be. And he relied on the power of prayer.

“I decided to quit because I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, and to be a better example to the sailors in my charge,” he said, adding that the techniques he employed are similar to the ones developed by Alcoholics Anonymous to help people stop drinking. “I used a combination of log entries, prayer and engaging the help of friends to get away from it.”

These suggestions came from the director of the hospital at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state, who had launched a quit smoking challenge based on Defense Department guidelines. Prince, who was stationed there as a dental technician at the time, was the sole person among those taking the challenge who made it all the way to their “quit day.”

He has not smoked a single cigarette since.

“What I discovered through the logbook was that 10 times a day, during the workday, I was outside smoking for about 10 minutes or more,” said Prince. “That’s 100 minutes – over an hour and a half per day – away from my people, away from the workspace.”

And he realized that it was making him sick. “I did not feel better after smoking a cigarette,” he said. “In fact I felt worse.”

Although he could have received medications to help him stay off cigarettes upon completing the challenge to stop smoking, Prince decided against it.

“I wanted to do it without using the patch or gum because I wanted the nicotine out of my system cold turkey for 30 days at least,” he said, adding that he had read that this was the minimum time needed to break a bad habit for good.

Now Prince, who is 6-foot-8 and weighs 250 pounds, regularly uses the gym at Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, makes sure he gets enough sleep, and eats healthy foods most of the time. If he eats a hamburger and fries one day, he eats something healthier another to strike the right balance. His mantra is prevention, and what he calls “leaning in” to health.

Along with his wife, a psychologist and former fellow Navy dental hygienist, Prince makes health a priority every day. They go to the gym together sometimes, and he has become a big fan of several Paleolithic diet recipes she has made recently, such as a tomato sauce that includes carrots and bison.

It was not always so.

After he quit smoking, just shortly before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Prince ballooned up to 305 pounds, the heaviest he has ever been. When his uniforms still just barely fit him, he went on a diet that involved eating six small meals a day comprised of a protein and some carbohydrates, including green vegetables. He combined this with regular runs and workouts. His exercise routine now includes more weight training, walking and cycling, based on the recommendations of his physician.

“Running to me is the number one thing. It burns the most calories for the effort,” he said. “But I got to the point where I was just running, running, running every day. Nothing is healthy if you do it every single day. It’s moderation. It’s doing something different, so that the routine varies.”

His efforts paid off in 2003, when he completed the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii, an event he used to watch on TV and dream of taking part in as he smoked his cigarettes.

“This is my pride and joy right here,” Prince said as he showed off his medal from one of the most grueling physical challenges in the world – a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon.

“Nothing is impossible,” said Prince. “If you truly put your heart and your mind into whatever you do, and you bring it in from your soul, you can do anything. And this is proof. There’s no one in the world who can walk into this office and say, ‘I don’t think I could do that’ – because I couldn’t.”

As a former smoker with a one-time weight issue, Prince has real empathy for anyone struggling with the same kinds of challenges. “I was there,” he said.

Prince would advise any service member who is trying to quit smoking to use the numerous options offered by the Military Health System; tell people what you are doing; exercise and breathe right; buy plenty of carrots and celery; reward yourself; and try not to do everything at once, like introducing a tough new workout the day after you quit.

“I’m a huge believer in prevention in order to reduce the risk of disease later. I can’t stress enough that ‘leaning in’ to health leads to a happier and more fulfilling life,” he said.

Quitting smoking is about doing just that.

“The biggest motivator for people to quit smoking … is just to feel better,” said Prince. “Regardless of what people say to me, tobacco use is destructive to the body. They know it. I know it. You know it – everybody knows it. And I think sometimes that gets overlooked.”

Prince said he felt better right after he stopped smoking.

“When you quit you feel that instant recovery,” he said. “It’s not about money. It’s not about peer pressure … It really has to come from your soul. And for that you have to get people to help you. You’ve got to admit, ‘I’m powerless, and I need help to get through this.’ And then you find out you’re not powerless after all.”

The Defense Department’s Operation Live Well website has assembled a set of tools and resources to help you lead a healthy lifestyle, including a Web page on DoD initiatives on tobacco-free living. One of the programs listed, Quit Tobacco, has earned numerous awards.

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Navy Leader Goes from Smoker to Ironman