In The Long Run

12 minute read
Lee Smith

Not all that long ago, conventional medical wisdom was that the human body crumbled gradually before it collapsed completely. But as recent research has demonstrated, physical decline can not only be slowed, it can also be reversed. Even those in their 90s can build muscles and increase their aerobic capacity. “You can die healthy,” says Dr. Peter Jokl, professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the Yale University School of Medicine. Yes, and in the meantime, if you take care of yourself and train properly, you can be a competitive athlete.

Those who think Jokl is talking about playing a few rounds of golf might want to drop in on the 1999 Senior Olympics, formally known as the National Senior Games, scheduled this year from Oct. 19 through 29 in Orlando, Fla. Begun a dozen years ago as a competition among 2,500 older athletes and played every other year since, the Senior Olympics has become a growing showcase for mature athletic talent. This year more than 12,000 men and women ages 50 or older–37 of them in their 90s–will compete in 18 sports from archery to volleyball.

What are the limitations of a senior athlete? Ligaments and tendons lose some of their fluid content and become less flexible with age. Muscles in older people don’t use sugar as well, so the ability to respond with a burst of activity declines.

Even so, better fed and more scientifically conditioned than any previous generation, today’s senior athletes are stretching their bodies’ performance beyond what was once thought possible. Some are even winning phantom races against young champions of the past, swimming and running faster, jumping higher and farther than Olympic medal winners in their prime early in the century. One bettered Johnny Weissmuller, who went on to become Hollywood’s most famous Tarzan (see chart).

A number of Senior Olympics competitors were high school and college All-Americans a generation or two ago. But many others are no more than moderately talented late bloomers. A fierce competitive spirit drives some. Others are attracted to the Games largely because of the camaraderie or as a way of keeping life fresh and exhilarating: “Because there’s always an event coming up,” says swimmer Bob Bailie, 64, of The Woodlands, Texas, “a senior athlete always has a date with the future.” Here are the stories of five of them.

PHIL MULKEY An Olympian dreads practice, eats fast food–and wins

Luckily for ordinary competitors with ambitions to win, relatively few former Olympians or other world-class athletes appear at the Senior Games. Perhaps they don’t want to smudge the public memory of their heroic youth. Phil Mulkey, 66, is an exception–a former Olympian who will compete in the Games who has an additional explanation for the absence of other stars of long ago. “Part of the reason may be that they are just worn out,” he says. The ordeals of a young superathlete’s training and competition have an aftermath. “I can tell you that my bones, my joints, my muscles hurt,” says Mulkey.

A skinny, resourceful farm kid in Missouri, Mulkey used the head of a post maul as a shot put, a plow disk as a discus, a pitchfork handle as a javelin. He cut a bamboo tree into a pole and vaulted onto the garage. That was the beginning of a career that took him to the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Going into the finals in the decathlon, he needed only to clear his usual height of 14 ft. 10 in., in the pole vault to win a bronze medal. But he pulled a groin muscle and had to withdraw.

Despite that devastating defeat, he never lost his passion for sports. Mulkey continued to compete through the ’60s, winning national titles as a decathlete. Along the way, he got married, raised four children, became a school headmaster and later tried his hand at several businesses in Atlanta.

To prepare for the Senior Games, Mulkey sprints daily along the streets of Marietta, Ga., outside Atlanta, and pole vaults an average of three times a week. He then downs a breakfast that would turn a health faddist ashen: scrambled eggs, sausage and biscuits and two hotcakes at a local fast-food spot. Vitamins B and C are the only supplements he takes.

Pain is a constant–sharper on some days than others. “Some things I dread,” he says,” like coming down the runway for the first pole vault. I say, oh, God, I hate to do this. Once you begin to loosen up, it’s O.K.”

Mulkey does not put himself through agony for the sake of fitness or fellowship. He goes to the Senior Games to win. Before and after the competition, he is sociable, but not during. “The adrenaline gets going, and how can you combine that with cordiality?” he asks. “I’m the worst guy out there.” Or perhaps the best. Since 1989, he has won 15 gold medals and has set 14 national Senior Games records in pole vault, high jump, long jump, discus and shot put.

DALE HERRING He sprinted around a curve and found himself back in his youth

Mission Viejo, Calif., has a lofty level of Olympic consciousness. Greg Louganis used to work out at the local multipool swimming complex. The bicycle races of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics ran on its roads. So acute is Mission Viejo’s awareness of sports that keeping athletic talent a secret is impossible. Dale Herring, 53, went out for his usual walk and jog with his wife Kathryn one morning a few years ago; on impulse, he decided to sprint around a curve, something he had not done in 30 years. Inevitably, he was spotted. The observer, a collegiate coach, urged Herring to run competitively.

Once again, athletics are shaping his life, as they did when he was a youthful basketball, softball and track star. He trains as many as six days a week with one or two extreme workouts that include 60-m sprints, a 300-m blowout and leg squats with 275 lbs. on his shoulders. He has a litany of advice for senior beginners: Start gradually and rest at least three days a week. Sprinters who have not run since college can expect two years of training before their muscles, tendons and nervous systems are working at peak. After a hard workout or meet, the body starts crashing; it must take in protein in the next 30 to 45 min. or it will not rebound for the next day’s activities. If you do not start lifting weights by age 50, you will lose 10% of your muscle mass by 60.

As he gets older, Herring gets faster: at 53, he runs the 100 m in 12.2 sec. and the 200 m in 25.3 sec.–comparable to the best high school female sprinters today. One of his best moments, however, had nothing to do with individual triumph. It came during the ’97 Games in Tucson, Ariz. He and his eight rivals in the 50-to-54 men’s 100-m race were approaching the starting line, their thoughts turned inward. They were the stars, the racehorses. They looked up and saw that just ahead of them, the women 85 and older–the slowest contenders on the field–were starting their 100 m. “Spontaneously, we jumped up and down and cheered them on–‘Go! Go!'” recalls Herring. “Then we fell into silence and blasted down the course. When we crossed the finish line, the ladies were there, cheering like crazy for us. It was really great.” That’s senior gamesmanship.

ALICE SANCHEZ “The Digger” buries opponents and careless teammates

For Alice Chambers Sanchez, 66, life rarely strays far from the volleyball court. There was the time 32 years ago when a big guy named Jess started horsing around on the court when she wanted to get serious about the game. “If you don’t want to play volleyball,” she told him, “get your ass off the court.” He did, but he returned a few days later, intrigued by the focused lady with a low tolerance for nonsense and an inclination for direct expression. They chatted, they batted the ball, they fell in love–and they got married.

Alice has been standing up to boys–and girls–since she was 12. She played softball and football with the guys and was president of the girls’ athletic association. She dreamed of being an Olympian, going to college and then teaching or coaching. The dream ended when she married for the first time at 18 and had four children in four years. By age 32, she was divorced and getting no help from her ex-husband. With the grit she showed on the sports field, she refused to accept welfare and took a job, working for 25 years at an aluminum plant, handling the mail and switchboard, and writing the company newspaper.

Through the toughest times, she stuck with sports and in 1963 began playing competitive volleyball. She has taken part in 36 U.S. national tournaments and, on the beaches and in the gyms of southern California, is known as a relentless opponent who can take on and outwit women much younger than she is. “I can read them,” she says. “When they put up their hands to hit, I know just about where the ball is going to go.” Sanchez remains fearless about pursuing shots that are about to hit the ground and does so without the benefit of protective kneepads, pluck that has earned her the nickname “the Digging Machine.”

She is as tough on her five teammates as she is on her opponents. “I’m not tolerant of many mistakes,” she says, “and I don’t play for fun. I play to win.” Over the years she has fired a dozen or so teammates, mostly for having outsize egos. The Pasadena Mavericks, a team on which she is both the oldest player and the captain, went undefeated in winning the Games championship in both ’95 and ’97.

SID DUCKMAN A hard-luck senior, knocked down by cancer, refuses to quit

There is a senior counterpart to Lance Armstrong, who overcame testicular cancer to win the Tour de France bicycle championship this year. He is Sid Duckman, 80, who has traveled a long road of medical catastrophe: a 1 1/2-ft. section of his colon was removed in the early ’80s because of cancer. A decade later, he underwent 35 radium treatments for prostate cancer. This summer his spleen and left kidney, also cancerous, were taken out.

Duckman, a high jumper, long jumper and javelin thrower, has been slowed down from time to time but never stopped. As a young man growing up in Bayonne, N.J., he could toss a football 65 yds. He briefly hoped for a career in professional baseball, but he didn’t perform well under big-time pressure. Instead he worked days in the local General Motors plant, studied for a bachelor’s degree at night and became a schoolteacher.

After retiring in 1985 to Daytona Beach, Fla., he focused his attention again on sports, concentrating first on the long jump and the high jump. His arm remained as strong as his legs. “I can still throw a softball 35 yds.,” he says. So five years ago, he decided to test his arm with the javelin. “I was terrible,” he says. “Accurate, but no length.” He trained for jumping at a local high school, but for understandable liability reasons, the school did not offer javelin instruction. So Duckman watched videotapes of the best javelin throwers in the world and slowed the action to study their style. He won a bronze medal in the ’95 Games with a toss of 81 ft. 7 in.

The comeback from his most recent surgery has been frustrating. Against his urologist’s advice, Duckman began exercising as soon as he could get to the track. “You don’t know me,” he told the doctor. As it turned out, the doctor did. Duckman was too weak for his presurgical routine. So now he is building up slowly as he gets ready for the October competition. He started with short, quarter-mile walks around his condominium, mixing that routine with both swimming and running in the pool. He can once again pump out 16 push-ups, more than, he notes, young recruits must do when they join the Army. “You can imagine how long it takes an 80-year-old to get into shape,” says Duckman. Yes. What is unimaginable would be Duckman’s not wanting to.

MIKE FRESHLEY An athlete who needed a hypnotist can now see victory on his own

When he was a high school athlete, Mike Freshley asked a friend’s father to hypnotize him before track meets and convince him that he could leap impossible distances. Under the spell, he long-jumped 23 ft. 3 in.–2 ft. better than the school record. At 58, Freshley, now a swimmer, no longer needs a hypnotist. Fully conscious, he can visualize heats in advance and see victory. His imagination is usually on target. In a Masters meet last year, he swam the most demanding race in the sport, the 400-m medley, in 6 min. flat, the best time in his 55-to-59 age group. This year he sees himself setting a record in the Seniors 200-m medley.

Beyond clairvoyance, Freshley brings extraordinary discipline to his training, a practice developed in his youth. Drafted into the Army after college, he became one of an elite 15 on the all-military pentathlon team. (General George Patton was once a member.) Training was 10 to 12 grueling hours a day of riding, swimming, fencing, shooting and running. Even his current regimen would stagger most people: four or five swims a week, sometimes including a 1-mile ocean race, two 20-mile bike rides, two weight-lifting sessions, as much as 3 hrs. of yoga and Pilates, and a lot of calisthenics and stretches.

Freshley, who lives in La Jolla, Calif., is an apostle of swimming. “Before 50, swimming is optional,” he says. “After 50, it’s mandatory. Guys’ egos force them to play basketball at 55 as they did at 20, and they damage their knees.” A 70-year-old swimmer looks 50, he maintains, but a 70-year-old runner looks 90. Swimming lowers cholesterol and reduces arthritis pain, he says, and it has strengthened his immune system to the point that he gets barely one cold a year. He recognizes, however, that not everyone will share his devotion. “Nobody has to do what I do–pant, feel your lungs will burst–to get results,” he says. “Show up three times a week and swim at 60% effort, and you’ll get as much health out of the program as I do.”

–With reporting by Emily Mitchell and Adrianne Navon/New York

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