Lee Bergquist, a reporter turned author, wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he ventured into the world of “senior” athletics, but it certainly wasn’t 60-year-old swimmers training eight hours a day or runners in their 50s going faster and farther than they could when they were in college.
And he didn’t expect to find older Americans all over the country using the kind of fitness tools and techniques—including hiring coaches— typically employed by college or professional athletes.
“What surprised me most was just how knowledgeable these people were about their sports—how intense they were about their training,” Bergquist says. “We think of that as something younger people do.”
The world of the super-fit older athlete
Not anymore. The 2009 Summer National Senior Games in Palo Alto, Calif., have opened a window into the world of the super-fit older athlete, a world that Bergquist, a journalist from Milwaukee, explores in his new book, Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete.
Some older athletes “are as driven as ambitious executives,” he writes. “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 cannot.”
Indeed, Bergquist contends this group of high-performing athletes, who came to their sports later in life, is challenging the whole notion of what it means to grow older.
The Senior Games, Bergquist says, and the larger fitness and sports movements for older Americans, have become laboratories, and the rest of society should be studying the remarkable results. “These people are showing what the human body can do as one gets older, and it’s a lot more than we thought,” he says.
‘It feels good to break records’
One of the stars of the games, Daniela Barnea, is a case in point. Not a standout as a young athlete, Barnea got serious about swimming later in life. Now, at age 65, she has won six gold medals and set six records in swimming at the games, which started Aug. 1 and end Aug. 15.
Her story, Bergquist says, is the story of many of the older competitors who really excel in their sports, especially women. “They may not have been involved or competitive when they were very young,” he says, “but something grabs hold of them and they decide to get very serious.”
For Barnea, that compelling force was “the taste of winning,” she says. “It feels good to be first. It feels good to break records.”
Need for a change of pace
For others, including Bergquist himself, the motivation was simply the need for a change of pace. “I decided at age 40 that I was getting old,” says Bergquist, who is now 55. A longtime jogger who felt his daily runs were growing tedious and uninteresting, Bergquist decided to switch to another activity.
“I went out to the track and tried to run fast as I possibly could,” he says.
Soon he was taking part in masters track competitions for those ages 40 and older, racing 100, 200 and 400 meters. “That opened my eyes to this whole world of older athletics,” he says.
While he no longer competes, Bergquist stays in top shape, running, biking, hiking, lifting weights, even skateboarding with his 12-year-old son. And that, he says, is the really important message of senior athletics in general, and the Senior Games specifically.
“The key is that whatever activity you choose, it has to become part of your life,” Bergquist says.
The Senior Games competitors are living, moving proof of that. Whether they’re men and women finding athletic success at an older age like Barnea, or lifelong competitors like 80-year-old Tony Diamond of Washington, D.C., who narrowly missed qualifying for the 1952 U.S. Olympic team in the marathon and plans to compete this weekend.
Then there are even older role models like Roger Gentilhomme, a native of Falmouth, Mass., who at age 100 is the oldest athlete registered for the games. His sport? Tennis.
Regardless of age or athletic background, Bergquist says, these older competitors “are exemplars of how, if you remain fit, you can push back the aging clock, reduce your health care costs and live a healthier life.”
Health and fitness writer John Hanc teaches journalism at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.