Jerry Fennelly was in the hunt for a high finish — third or even second — in his competitive category at the Harvey Cedar Triathlon at Long Beach Island this past June 3.
He had just finished the opening swim of the three-part event and was on his bicycle flying toward the final running segment. Then a gust of wind hit, putting him off balance. Unable to avoid a traffic cone marking the bike route, he struck it and crashed at an estimated 23 miles per hour.
Eyewitnesses said that Fennelly was still pedaling as he went down: Just what you would expect from a hard-driving, successful, self-described Type-A whose NAI Fennelly company has been a leader in the central Jersey commercial market for 26 years.
The upshot? A fractured skull, helicopter transports, surgery, a medically-induced coma, nearly a month of hospitalization and in-patient therapy at three different facilities — plus a serious reevaluation by the 52-year-old Fennelly of life as an aging athlete.
Why should that matter to others? Because the Baby Boomers are also the Fitness Boomers. Arguably no generation in history has taken to exercise and adult sports participation so avidly. According to the International Health & Racquet Sportsclub Association, people 55 and older are in the fastest-growing age demographic of fitness club membership. The association reports that they numbered some 8 million in 2005. In 2009, that had risen to 10.3 million.
Since time immemorial, aging athletes have pondered declining endurance, strength, and flexibility as well as increased risk of injury. Fennelly believes that in his case other factors, including a minuscule — but nearly fatal — slowing of split-second decision-making ability, may have come into play. It was a challenging, perhaps humbling, experience for a man whose energy, goal-orientation, and multi-tasking skills have served him splendidly in business as well as sports.
A fit and relaxed Fennelly, his salt and pepper hair one of the few signs of his middle age, recently discussed business, athletics and their relationship in a conference room at NAI Fennelly’s 200 Whitehead Road offices — which he planned to vacate this month for a new headquarters at 500 Alexander Park.
In anticipation of the imminent move, pictures had been removed from the walls. Many were aerial views of office parks represented by Fennelly’s commercial realty firm. But others involved sports. One treasured image is autographed by Yogi Berra himself, showing him as a very young Yankee shaking hands with none other than Babe Ruth.
Before Whitehead Road, the company had been at 105 College Road East and then 3535 Quakerbridge Road. These moves, and the pending relocation to Alexander Park, are no random wanderlust.
Fennelly explains that his company’s long-time strategy emphasizes leasing its own offices in complexes it is representing. “We stake a presence and then lease up the space,” he says. “So you’re basically putting your money where your mouth is. It’s worked out exceptionally well.”
Also very much part of his strategy is to offer a range of commercial realty services, including leasing, sales and management. “You want to offer more services rather than fewer,” Fennelly says. So it’s not surprising that this full-service firm’s president is a multi-tasking executive who as an athlete took to the multi-tasking triathlon.
Gerard J. Fennelly was born in Colonia, near Woodbridge in 1960, the fourth of five children. Both his parents had their own real estate brokerages: his father, commercial; his mother, residential.
The senior Fennelly insisted that all his children get their real estate licenses before they were allowed to get their driver’s licenses. “Which is torture,” Fennelly says, with a smile and shake of his head, “because you can get your driver’s license at 17 but you have to wait until age 18 to get your real estate license.”
Four of the children are still involved with real estate in different parts of the country (the oldest sister is a speech therapist). Fennelly’s father died six years ago; his mother recently retired.
Fennelly ran track as a miler in high school and fenced saber while majoring in finance at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City.
He starting working for Coldwell Banker Real Estate in 1981, initially working out of its lower Manhattan office. “I canvassed the World Trade Center back when you could still do it,” he says.
After proving himself, CBRE asked him where he’d like to work next. He started to answer the Woodbridge/Metro Park area “because that’s where I grew up. Then I stopped mid-sentence and asked, ‘Where’s your biggest listing?’”
The answer: Princeton. “And I said, that’s where I want to be.” He took listings for about 250,000 square feet in the Forrestal Center and, fittingly, ran with them.
Fennelly says he “loved” CBRE as a company but ran into a conflict with his manager. Working 100-hour weeks generated commensurate piles of paperwork. The manager, Fennelly says, would tidy up his desk by literally tossing out the piles. One day in 1986, there came one tidying too many.
“I left on a Friday, went skiing over the weekend, and opened [my] business on Monday,” he recalls.
As befits an athlete, Fennelly was willing to get up early and do his roadwork — literally. By 1988, Fennelly Associates had landed the Palmer Square accounts and had revenues of a half million dollars. But Fennelly was not going to rest on such laurels. He came up with the idea of standing on the Princeton Junction train platforms at 5 a.m., handing marketing brochures about the Square to prospects, and informing them about affordable local office space. Fennelly recalled a “tremendous” hit ratio, with many corporate real estate directors being among the commuters.
In 1999, Fennelly Associates became a managed member of NAI, a Princeton-headquartered global realty group. Membership gives NAI Fennelly a national and even international business platform.
Fennelly has a reputation for community involvement as well as business success. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Board of the State League of Municipalities, among others.
He has founded several fundraising runs to benefit non-profits from the YMCA to the Parkinson Alliance. His second annual “Diaper Dash for Healthy Babies,” a 5K run and one mile walk on Friday, October 12, will benefit Capital Health’s pediatrics program (to register as a sponsor or a participant, go to www.capitalhealth.org/foundation ).
He undertook an entire year of charity in 2010. The project started spontaneously. Jerry and his wife, Nancy, were attending a black tie dinner celebrating the 100th anniversary of a major law firm when a speaker announced that the firm was doing 100 good deeds by way of thanks.
Nancy turned to her husband and said, “You should do that for your 50th birthday.”
And so they did: Food was collected for the needy, money raised for Haiti relief, office space provided for an Arts Council of Princeton fundraiser, used wheelchairs and other equipment found for redistribution, trees planted for reforesting, ad hoc assistance given at accident scenes, and on and on, week by week. And of course there was running and biking for research and treatment of autism, stroke, and other medical conditions.
Nancy was an American Express corporate accounts manager working out of New York for 28 years. The couple lives in Hopewell with their two athletically inclined children: Matthew, 21, studying film at Syracuse, is a runner; Ashley, 17, planning business studies in college, plays tennis.
Like Fennelly’s business strategies, his interest in the triathlon evolved over the years. In his experience, intense 100-hour work weeks don’t necessarily deplete a highly motivated business person. They may actually “feed the body’s motor,” he says, and necessitate directing the excess energy.
“It’s amazing how many people have the energy and don’t direct it to the right place and do stupid things. But if you push the energy in the right places, you can change the world.”
Even when, as head of his own company, he reduced his load to relatively sedate 60 and 70-hour work weeks, he still needed an outlet. Fennelly began running five kilometer (about three miles) road races, sometimes doing 30 to 40 competitions annually. But at age 40 he developed knee problems. To stay fit and competitive, he cut back on the running and made up the difference with cross training in swimming, cycling, and weight lifting. His evolution into a triathlete had begun.
Of the several varieties of triathlons — which range all the way up to the punishing “Iron Man” competitions, which can combine a 2.4 mile swim with a 112-mile bike ride and then a full 26.2 mile marathon run — Fennelly has specialized in the shorter “sprint triathlon.” But the sprints are challenging enough at a quarter to half mile swim, 10 to 20 mile bike ride, and 5K run. (Perhaps more than realty expertise is in the Fennelly genetics: his father also started doing triathlons. He last competed at age 82.)
Fennelly quickly learned that the triathlon, for all its joys, can be a bitterly accurate metaphor for the business world. Multi-tasking and pushing beyond your last accomplishments are the least of it. The competition can be fierce. It’s not unusual to be punched, slapped, kicked, or even swum over while swimming in a pack. Not on purpose, at least not usually. It’s just collateral damage from the striving.
Just as in business, Fennelly agrees: “You have to be thinking about the people around you. They’re Type A and they’re out to win. We’re in a competitive world.”
During a swimming stage in a 2011 sprint triathlon at Mercer County Park, Fennelly was in a tight thrashing pack of competitors when he was kicked in the head. He momentarily blacked out and sank beneath the surface. Fortunately, he came to within a few moments and fought his way back up — but took a few more shots before breaking the surface.
Some aren’t so lucky. Like a business startup that overextends itself from the beginning and collapses, competitors’ hearts occasionally give out when going from resting to as much as a raging 185 beats per minute. At a 2010 competition in Mercer County Park on an especially hot day, Fennelly saw an older competitor unnecessarily wearing a heavy wetsuit. He urged him to remove it.
“He said he couldn’t swim without it,” Fennelly recalls. Tragically, the man overheated during the stress of the swimming leg and suffered a heart attack.
So what exactly happened to Jerry Fennelly during that near-fatal June 3 triathlon?
“A couple of years back I started placing,” he recalls. “So I started really training.” Motivation is key to success, of course, but perhaps Fennelly already had a premonition of danger: “I lined up that day and said to myself, ‘I’m not going to die in this race.’ When you start saying that, it’s time to get out.”
Fennelly had “a kick-ass swim, then I hit the bike hard.” As he charged up the beach to mount his cycle, he realized he was fighting for third place in his group with prospects for an even higher finish.
But Fennelly had only warmed up in the water: He had not biked or run any of the land courses beforehand. A coach would have insisted on this, especially during the first competitive triathlon of the season. “I wasn’t getting coaching,” he freely admits. “I didn’t test the course. I got too confident.”
So Jerry Fennelly was seeing the traffic cones for the first time at 23 miles per hour. Then the gust of wind hit.
When Fennelly ran into the traffic cone and went down, he rolled over his carbon fiber-framed racing bike, snapping it in half. He impacted on his left shoulder and side of his head. Despite his helmet, his skull fractured.
“The cop who scraped me off the ground called a helicopter,” he relates. “He didn’t even bother with an ambulance.” Fifty minutes later, Fennelly was in the emergency room of the Jersey Shore Medical Center, having blood pumped from his skull to relieve pressure on the brain.
Then — as per a widely-used treatment protocol — he was put into a medically-induced coma.
It was here that his wife Nancy asserted herself. She arranged to have her husband air lifted to Capital Health the next day. There — as per a new protocol for serious head injuries — Fennelly was brought out of the coma. Doctors and therapists then set about stimulating his brain and nervous system.
Fennelly praises the swift and effective treatment he received at Jersey Shore. But he feels that the newer, non-coma protocol at Capital Health was more appropriate for him.
“That’s the whole concept today,” Fennelly says. “They want your system working. I think that’s why [my recovery] went so well.”
He was at Capital Health for two weeks, then was transferred to Saint Lawrence Rehab Center for 12 days where he started physical — and mental — rehabilitation. Ever the charger, he urged his doctors to push him harder.
Fennelly continues his post-accident therapy — not only the physical but the mental component. In two to three classes a week at Saint Lawrence, he is given game and puzzle drills to increase brain capacity.
For example: Take seven playing cards at random and lay them face up. Memorize them. Then turn them face down and arrange them in value order.
“Think of the brain as a muscle.” Fennelly says. “If you exercise it, it gets stronger.”
Fennelly feels his brain did not process the unbalancing by the wind gust rapidly enough to signal the rest of his body on how to compensate. It was not a matter of simple reflexes but more complex reactions.
“One of the capacities of the brain is multi-tasking,” he says. Well, I’ve been multi-tasking all my life. Over [age] 50, you might be able to handle five things at once. But you add a sixth thing, boom, you’re down. It’s possible the capacity of the brain does affect multi-tasking. That’s what professionals told me in the hospital.”
Is this an inevitable part of aging? It may be much more complicated than stereotyped slowing reflexes. A 2010 study published in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience found that the corpus callosum, which usually acts as a dam between the two hemispheres of the brain, may actually become a bridge between the two as we age. Hence, “cross-talk” between the hemispheres may occur during motor tasks.
Recruiting more parts of the brain might seem like a huge advantage. But think of it as a business in which additional managers start giving input on a task which previously was handled by just one manager. The result? Slowed responses to pressing problems.
Happily, Fennelly reports that he suffered no short or long-term memory issues due to the accident. “The doctors kept using the word ‘remarkable’,” he says. “I had excellent rehab.”
Under doctor’s orders he cannot race any more on the bicycle: a second cranial impact coming so soon could be fatal.
So increasingly trimmed from physical therapy, he’s gone back to training for 5K running races. His times are steadily coming down. And he’s ramped up his swimming, while accepting his new limitations.
“It’s brutal,” he admits. “It’s really hard to think about. I’ve really been struggling with it. But the swimming part has been great.”
While NAI Fennelly has been planning its move to 500 Alexander Park, its president has been planning his athletic comeback: a Labor Day Weekend “neighborhood” 5K road race at Long Beach Island (the Fennellys have a vacation home nearby.)
Will it be difficult to run competitively near the scene of his near-catastrophic bicycle wipeout? “It’s going to be different,” he replies. “I’ll be slower, but psychologically fine.”
Like business, sports can be all about regrouping and rebounding, getting good data and input, a process that is as much about attitude as action: “You have to adapt your thought processes.”
“The real trick with aging as an athlete,” says Fennelly, “is to get some formal coaching. And live within your levels. That’s the hardest part because we’re always trying to exceed our levels.”
NAI Fennelly Inc., 500 Alexander Park, Princeton 08540; 609-520-0061; fax, 609-631-9208. Gerard J. Fennelly, president. www.fennelly.com