When he was a young man doing trick dives for water shows, Gilbert LaLonde used to put on two or three layers of clothes soaked with fuel and then get set on fire before somersaulting from a diving board into a pool of water.
LaLonde was also a pretty good diver when he wasn’t on fire.
The St. Paul resident, a former captain of the University of Minnesota swimming and diving team, won diving championships in high school, in the Army and later in life, setting world records and competing around the world as a master athlete well into his 70s.
LaLonde died Jan. 25 from prostate cancer. He was 89.
He grew up in Minneapolis, one in a family of seven children. His father, a railroad worker, died when LaLonde was 12, so LaLonde helped support the family by shining shoes and selling newspapers in downtown Minneapolis.
His diving career started at Minneapolis’ Marshall University High School, where he was an All-American swimmer and diver and went on to win the state high school diving championship in 1947.
After competing for the University of Minnesota, he joined the U.S. Army in 1952 and won the All-Army diving competition.
LaLonde briefly worked as a teacher and coach at Marshall High School, but in 1955 he began what became a long career working in retail advertising for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He stayed at the Pioneer Press until his retirement in 1990.
His son, Timothy LaLonde, said his father was a natural athlete who made money doing stunt dives for shows like the Tommy Bartlett Show and the Minneapolis Aquatennial Aqua Follies. He also did a trampoline act at fairs and carnivals.
“He was kind of a physical freak, almost,” Timothy said. “He was like crazy strong and crazy coordinated.”
LaLonde typically swam a mile or two a day and could do one-armed push-ups, Timothy said. Once when his father was in his 40s and was mowing the lawn, Timothy saw him do a somersault over the lawn mower and a bicycle just for the heck of it.
“He was a little bit of a character,” his son said. “He had a little bit of an offbeat sense of humor.”
When he was about 60, LaLonde decided to get back into competition by going to masters diving competitions. After just five weeks of practice, he broke an age-group record.
“He was a very competitive person and he missed the competition,” Timothy said.
Sponsored by the Hamline Diving Club, LaLonde competed and won senior championships around the world, including Canada, Denmark, Lithuania and the Soviet Union.
“He traveled all over and laughed a lot and met a lot of people,” his son said.
“He was just the friendliest guy. Loved the joy of diving,” said Ron Kontura, vice chair of U.S. Masters Diving.
A citation inducting LaLonde into the Minnesota Senior Sports Association Hall of Fame in 2015 noted that LaLonde won five World Masters diving championships, won Russian and Canadian Masters diving championships, broke world records 10 times in masters diving and had a 1989 record that was still standing.
“He beat state high school champions at open meets in his 60s,” Timothy said, adding that his father specialized in diving from a one-meter and three-meter board.
LaLonde stopped competing when he was about 78, but “he was able to do a full twisting one-and-a-half somersault when he was over 80 years old,” his son said.
In addition to his son, LaLonde is survived by his companion, Dixie Lello; his daughter, Michelle Stennes; eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Services have been held.