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Senior Athletes ‘Got Game’
Perhaps you’re old enough to remember when athletics were a domain reserved for the young. Oh, sure, the gifted might be offered opportunities to compete in college, but for those past college age, competitive sports would take a back seat, except for casual swimming, tennis, golf on occasion, or those “weekend warrior” attempts at regaining your youth — sometimes laden with injuries.
Post-school track and field was primarily for Olympic athletes, and if you saw someone running through your neighborhood, you might assume that the person was either a criminal fleeing the police or an officer chasing that criminal.
Competitive swimming and diving was something kids did and adults watched. Cycling —maybe a bike ride on a weekend, coupled with a picnic, but racing? Not likely.
The curtain long ago went down on that scene. Welcome to the 21st century. Age group competition isn’t just for the young; just look at the results of road races in Philadelphia and around the country. Athletes compete not just in their 20s, but also in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s — and beyond.
Even at 100: Indian-born marathoner Fauja Singh completed the Toronto Marathon at the age of 100.
A variety of athletic federations, in the United States and abroad, host national and world championships for older athletes; for example, the USA Track and Field National Masters Indoor and Outdoor Track Championships, as well as regional championships, are held annually, while the International Association of Athletics Federations offers world indoor and outdoor championships every two years.
Taking place this month in Indianapolis, U.S. Masters Swimming — open to swimmers 18 and over but with members competing in their 90s — provides workout and competition opportunities nationwide, and, like USATF, includes regional and national indoor and outdoor championships on its schedule. Added to that are many open- water swimming events sanctioned by the organization. In addition, USATF and USMS publish age group national and world records, with competitors as old as 100 still running and swimming.
But opportunities aren’t limited to swimming or track. The National Senior Games (held this summer in Cleveland), as well as the many state and local Senior Games, open to those 50 and over, feature not only these two staples, but also basketball, a variety of racquet sports, golf, horseshoes, shuffleboard, cycling and a “sprint distance” triathlon: a 400m swim, 20km bike ride, and 5km run.
If this triathlon proves too tame for some athletes, never fear: Senior athletes don’t need to confine themselves to the Senior Games. An 82-year-old nun became the oldest Ironman Triathlon finisher on record, completing the 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run in the 2012 Suburu Ironman Canada. Each of these events has a cut-off time, which, if exceeded, will require the athlete to drop out, and there is a 17-hour time limit that must be met for the competitor to be credited with a finish.
The Ironman World Championship event, held this year in October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, offers awards for athletes 80 and over — and three people finished and claimed these awards. Nine men and one woman finished in the 75-79 age division. Move down into the 50s and 60s and the numbers grow — as the times decrease.
To echo the refrain of the film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” In the case of senior athletes, if you build opportunities and recognition, the athletes will come. Indeed, the athletes have come to take part, and they don’t let too much stop them.
Localite Joan Waldbaum, who began swimming at age 68 — and setting records soon afterward — plans to take part in the Masters Division of the Maccabiah Games in Israel this July, despite facing surgery for pancreatic cancer this month. She told her doctor — told, not asked — that she would be swimming there. The doctor, she reports, said, “No problem.” No doubt the doctor understood her resolve.
Waldbaum called the diagnosis “very aggravating, upsetting my routine.” Yet she is also philosophical. “I’m ready for whatever comes,” she reflected.
She was ready in 2011 to attend the European Maccabi Games in Vienna — or so she thought, until, during the required physical, she was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia, and required a cardiac ablation.
In spite of this, she made it to the games, even winning medals in the 50m freestyle, the 200m medley and the 50m freestyle relay. She had gone that year to honor Jewish female swimmers who, during the Anschluss of 1938, were forced to flee, leaving behind the Hakoah swim team in Vienna.
Recalling the opening ceremonies, held in the same location as some of Hitler’s speeches, she felt a surge of pride: “We survived and we’re not going away any time soon,” she declared. Alan Kutner of Havertown, who at 74 plays table tennis twice a week at the Watkins Senior Center in Upper Darby, and pickleball — yes, pickleball! — three times a week in Glen Mills, takes similar pride in the Jewish heritage of his sport. “Jewish people were instrumental in making table tennis an international sport,” he explains.
Prior to World War II, “Jewish players predominated,” although Asian countries began to prevail afterward, he said.
However, his primary focus is the enjoyment he gets from competing. “It keeps me active, keeps me healthy,” he says. And he plays “competitively.” Of table tennis, he said, “We don’t call it ping pong,” a popular term with overtones of basement recreation room games. Although he plays hard, the attitude among players is friendly. Membership in the Upper Darby Table Tennis Club, to which he belongs at the senior center, welcomes all levels from beginner to expert, and although there is no official instruction, experts are willing to play beginners so as to help them improve their game.
While he has played table tennis for eight years — “I’d played when I was younger,” he says, but his career took over, and only after retirement was he able to return to his sport. He discovered pickleball only three months ago. It’s a rapidly growing sport and is featured in the national and local Senior Games — Kutner is a regular participant in the Delaware County games, scheduled next month — but appeals to all ages.
The game is played on a badminton-size court with a perforated ball similar to a whiffle ball, and players use racquets similar to those used in table tennis. For Kutner, it simply adds a dimension to his enjoyment of racquet sports and gives him the opportunity to work out and to meet people with similar interests.
The social value of taking part in sports also appeals to other Delaware County Senior Games participants. Harriet Harowitz of Boothwyn, who has played 9- and 18-hole golf, enjoys the chance to be “out with people” and the Senior Games have offered that opportunity. “I’m not competitive,” she explains, but she has done “pretty well” as a participant in the 65-69 age division. But she equally enjoys her once-a-week outings with “the girls.”
A favorite venue, she says, is Clayton Park, a public course in Delaware County. Besides its reasonable senior rates, it’s “very hilly, and there are no carts, so it’s good exercise,” says Harowitz, whose husband, Jay, introduced her to the sport and also plays.
June Robbins, 85, of Broomall, enjoys a variety of sports (and challenges: she once was a professional clown). Her daughter, a volunteer at the Delaware County Senior Games, persuaded her “several years ago,” she says, to take part, as a way to “get more exercise.” And except for last year, when a hip injury sidelined her, she has been a faithful participant ever since, with stints in Wii bowling, shuffleboard, horseshoes and miniature golf.
“It’s been a blast,” she enthuses, “a good way to meet people; you have fun without realizing you’re exercising,” and “everyone looks out for everyone else.”
Besides the generous snacks and water provided by organizers, who also hold an awards luncheon after the Games are over, Robbins, like Kutner, cites the willingness of experienced participants to help newcomers learn a sport. Of Wii bowling, she reports, “if you don’t even know how to do it, people will help you.”
This willingness to welcome beginners is evidenced as well in distance runner Freddi Carlip’s decision to offer a women’s running class. Carlip, 68, believes in the importance of “being a role model” for younger runners. Editor of the Lewisburg-based Runner’s Gazette, a paper devoted to running, training and racing, she shares her philosophy of fitness and consideration for other runners in that paper as well as in her “Miss Road Manners” column in FootNotes, the Road Runners Club of America newsletter.
Growing up in Oxford Circle, Carlip reports that she wasn’t much interested in sports. “I was always chosen last” in gym class, she said. “Jewish girls didn’t do anything athletic, and I wasn’t interested.”
But when she started running in April 1978, her newfound love for the sport helped her “throw off expectations.” At that point, she says, “I realized I could do anything.”
She remembers fondly a trip to Israel, running along the Dead Sea and past Masada. Now, she says, “I run as a Jewish woman.”
As she has gotten older, she now sees running for its own reward; grateful she can still do it. “It used to be about awards,” but now “not so much winning anything but just finishing is wonderful.
“Age is not a stumbling block.”
For more information, visit:
National Senior Games www.nsga.com
Delaware County Senior Games www.delcoseniorgames.org
U.S. Masters Swimming www.usms.org
Upper Darby Table Tennis Club www.upperdarbytabletennis.com
Diane McManus is a much published writer who teaches at Community College of Philadelphia. This article appeared originally in "The Good Life" special features section.