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Post & Courier (Charleston, SC)

 

Three days before his unexpected death, Jeff Tant posted his last photo to Instagram.

The 35-year-old focused his gaze at the camera, his face glistening with sweat and his brow slightly furrowed. "Saturday evening at the track: 5x100m sprint 6x400m run," he captioned the selfie.

Tant was training for a physical fitness test to become a Charleston police officer. The personal trainer and boxing instructor probably could've passed the agility test without any preparation, but he didn't want to just pass: He wanted to ace it.

A longtime athlete with a competitive streak, Tant's loved ones said he was the epitome of health. He spent Saturday mornings leading clients through grueling CrossFit-style workouts in his backyard gym. One cellphone video showed him walking on his hands between rows of punching bags. And most times, when others reached for junk foods, he craved Greek salads.

On the morning of his agility test, Aug. 7, his wife, Jennifer, was at home wondering when she should text him to check in. She got a call from a Charleston police officer. In a casual tone, the officer explained that Tant had finished the agility exercises, taken some puffs from his inhaler and asked for an ambulance.

Tant had occasionally experienced symptoms of asthma in the past, his wife said. But it never was anything that his inhaler or controlled breathing couldn't clear up.

The police officer offered to pick Tant up from the hospital. It sounded like he would be fine.

"I'll come get him," his wife told the officer.

But as she drove toward Charleston from their Summerville home, an employee at Roper Hospital's emergency room called and said she needed to get there as soon as possible.

Jennifer Tant, 37, was ushered to a consultation room, where a doctor and a nurse explained that her husband's heart rate had shot up and his blood pressure had plummeted. A team of physicians had tried everything they could but were not able to restart her husband's heart.

It had happened so quickly.

"I was totally in shock," his wife said. "As soon as I got taken to the consultation room, I knew, but I don't think I had admitted it."

Almost one month later, Jeff Tant's loved ones still don't have an explanation for his sudden death. After preliminary autopsy results came back without answers, they're awaiting the outcome of further testing.

They're focusing on his legacy: the many lives he touched in more than 15 years of training and mentoring people to meet their fitness goals. And they're picturing what his future could've looked like as a police officer, a career change that would've signified a new chapter as he and his wife, parents of a 2-year-old boy, talked about having a second child.

'He was just my hero'

Following an interview and a written exam, an entrance physical test is part of the beginning phases of applying to become an officer at the Charleston Police Department. It involves five exercises: bench press, timed situps, a 300-meter run, timed pushups and a 1½-mile run.

Tant "more than passed" the agility test, Police Chief Luther Reynolds said. The chief didn't personally meet the applicant, but he heard him described as driven, disciplined and very fit.

"He was a young man. He was just getting started with his career," Reynolds said. "The reaction from everybody is we're profoundly sad."

Reynolds said he wasn't aware of anyone else who has died immediately after or during an entrance agility test. Though the cause is not yet known, Tant's death prompted department officials to take another look at the test. Reynolds said they concluded that it strikes the right balance.

Tant first mentioned wanting to become an officer two years ago. His wife hesitated, worried about the inherently dangerous aspects of the job. Their son was a baby at the time. They tabled the conversation.

For a while, Tant looked for other jobs, hoping to find an employer that would offer full-time benefits. He'd been involved in fitness all his adult life. He'd worked as a personal trainer, managed a gym and sold fitness promotions. With hopes of growing his family, he was ready for a stable job where he didn't need to rely on sales commissions.

His aspirations of becoming a police officer resurfaced several months ago. This time, he was adamant.

"He was so good with people, and he felt like, 'I could defuse a situation.' That's what he was going for," said his mother, Susan Tant.

From playing baseball as a boy to competing in mixed martial arts and golfing with his brother, Jeff Tant was a tough athlete who loved to win.

Childhood friend Jeremy Trotter still has a scar on his index finger from where Tant, then 17, bit him because Tant didn't want to lose a wrestling match. Tant's senior quote in the Fort Dorchester High School yearbook was, "If at first you don't succeed, come back and I'll beat you again."

Tant pushed others, even challenging his father over who could catch the most fish on their weekly outings.

"Every sport I ever played ... he was the driving factor in all of my success," said his brother, 26-year-old Josh Tant. "He was just my hero growing up."

At 6-foot-2 with a brawny build, Jeff Tant turned heads when he walked into a room. He was strong-willed and confident, but his laugh and dimpled smile prevented him from coming off as too intense or intimidating.

He had a way of helping his training clients feel comfortable at Title Boxing Club, a gym with locations in North Charleston and West Ashley. Gym owner Rick Jarrell said Tant brought a great deal of knowledge to the job and knew how to relate to all types of people.

"Jeff had the 'it' factor," Jarrell said. "He had that magnetism about him."

Dealing with loss

Over the last few years, Tant devoted much of his time to his son, Easton. At his elaborate outdoor home gym, he'd sit the toddler in a swing and push him between repetitions. Easton was often at his father's side as he worked out, swinging a jump rope and hanging on gymnastic rings.

Tant ran a business, JET Elite Training. Ten clients would come to his house for workouts on a regular basis.

Tant's wife insisted that the group continue to meet up at her husband's home gym after his death. They came together on a recent Saturday morning. As usual, Easton ran outside when they arrived to greet them with fist bumps.

"As soon as they got out of the car, we all just started crying," Jennifer Tant said. "It took them a while to get going because everyone was so emotional."

More than 500 people attended Jeff Tant's viewing. Among those who paid their respects were several Charleston police officers who have since continued to reach out to his widow. They've let her know that even though her husband wasn't yet an officer, they consider her to be like family.

During the funeral service, Easton held on to a toy police car that the department had gifted him. When it came time to lay a rose atop his father's casket, Easton insisted on also leaving the squishy rubber cop car for his dad.

Easton asks for his "Daddy" every day. His father was always the one to put him to bed. Now the toddler sometimes tells his mother to "wait for Daddy" when it's time for him to go to sleep.

"I say, 'I want him to come home, too, Buddy. But ... where's he at?'" Jennifer Tant said.

Now Easton knows to reply by placing his hand over his heart and saying, "Right here."

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