CHAMPAIGN, IL-Ten thousand athletes ranging in age from 50 to 100 will compete in 17 sports in the 2009 National Senior Games at Stanford August 1-15. In a time when a third of adults are obese and seventy percent fail to get enough physical activity, these individuals upend old notions about growing old.
So what makes these athletes and their peers different? What can we learn from them?
"They’re role models for an aging America," says Lee Bergquist, a former masters competitor who became so fascinated in the individuals he saw at his track meets that he wrote a book about older athletes. In Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete, Bergquist profiles an array of athletes who have used their sport and training regimens to turn back the aging clock.
"Certainly there are those who are blessed with good genes and incredible talent," he says. "But many simply find that an athletic act, executed with old bones and muscle, can give meaning to life in ways that love and religion can not."
"You’ve gone to college," says Lynne Ingalls, a former Chicago cleaning business owner who Bergquist interviewed in the book. "You have had your family. Your kids are married. And now it’s back to taking care of yourself. I want to test my own limits and challenge myself personally. I don’t think I have ever done that before. I was like so many of us who sat back and said I could do that, but never made the effort to find out-win, lose or draw."
Bergquist found that, in many ways, older athletes are no different from their contemporaries. Some are filled with confidence. Others are riddled with doubt. Some use the games they play for friendship and camaraderie. Others find it a sanctuary from the rest of their lives. "Most hope their conditioning will stretch out their active years-and maybe even let them live longer," he adds.
As he researched for Second Wind, Bergquist attended diverse competitions where men and women over the age of 50, in essence, were trying to stop time. He says that while they trained and competed, they didn’t think of themselves as old. "Yes, they were profoundly aware that their physical powers had diminished," he explains. "But for these moments in their life, they were simply athletes. They were evading a tag. They were edging past a competitor. They were doing something while so many of their contemporaries were doing nothing."
Bergquist hopes more people realize that the human body allows a comeback. "You can achieve a second wind by becoming more physically active," he emphasizes. "You may not be able run as fast or jump as high as a teenager. But you’d be surprised. Many middle-aged people are finding that they are swimming faster than any time in their lives because improvements in training and technique trump can physical decline. Countless studies show that we can build muscle mass into our 80s."
So how do we come back? Or maybe a better question is, how do we get started? Bergquist provides several tips, based on his experience and observations.
Look for inspiration. There are men and women all around us who provide motivation. Bergquist wrote about Greg Osterman, who at age 37 had a heart transplant. "He was a plumber and all he wanted to do was to get healthy again so he could get back to work and support his family," says Bergquist. "He went on to run marathons, and now in his mid 50s, he’s a bit of a gym rat." Osterman runs, lifts weights and is the picture of health, according to Second Wind.
Tap the knowledge boom in sports. So much information and technology has become available to make things easier, Bergquist declares. For something as simply as walking, pedometers let individuals count steps and sometimes even calculate calories burned. Tennis rackets are larger. Running shoes provide more protection than a decade ago. When injuries do occur, doctors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, stretching exercises and myriad websites with helpful information help people become healthy again.
Go slow. "You don’t need to become a champion to be healthy," Bergquist warns. "But if you aspire to greatness, you have to understand it won’t happen overnight. The world of senior sports is littered with men and women on the sidelines because they pushed themselves too hard." Look for ways to improve within the context of personal age and abilities.
Find something that will tickle your ego. When Bergquist walked a marathon with Don McNelly, age 87, he held no illusions of being fast anymore. He had stopped running in his early 80s. He had become a marathon walker. But every few weekends he would knock off another marathon on his life list. He had finished more than 150 after the age 80. "McNelly basked in the glory on his own personal quest," Bergquist explains. "A runner shot past us and told him he was a legend. ‘I love it,’ he shouted to no one in particular. ‘I love it.’"
For more information on the profiles in Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete, visit www.HumanKinetics.com. Bergquist invites others to share their "second wind" stories at www.SecondWindAthlete.com.
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