Photos by: Christiane Neaves; Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux; Guinness World Records; David Kucherawy; Christie Sausa
En español | Think you're too old to try a new sport? Don't tell that to Betty Goedhart, who started on the trapeze at age 78.
"I saw others doing it, and I thought, ‘If they can do it, there is no reason why I can't,'” Goedhart says. “I knew I might not have another chance.”
It's tempting to slow down as you get older. But the latest studies show that staying active is perhaps the best way we know to defy the aging process and add years to one's life span.
As the older athletes we interviewed tell us, sometimes trying something new and different — or focusing on competing instead of just hitting the gym — pays off in years of motivation.
To inspire your next fitness feat, here are the stories of five competitors, ages 67 to 97, who started a new sport and never looked back.
The figure skater: Nancy Cox, 67
Nancy Cox never thought of herself as athletic. As a child, she didn't play organized sports, and she was always one of the last kids picked to be on a team.
Now, five decades later, she's in the best shape of her life.
The transformation began in 2011, when Cox and her husband were at their vacation home in Lake Placid, New York, and friends encouraged her to join them for a group ice skating lesson.
Cox, who was 60 at the time, had skated a bit on frozen ponds as a kid, and she took a semester-long figure skating class in college to meet a phys ed requirement.
Still, those first few steps on the ice were terrifying.
But the instructor helped Cox get comfortable, and it wasn't long before she was gliding around the rink, grinning.
"I just fell in love with it,” she says. “I thought, If I work at this, I can get better."
When Cox and her husband returned home to Baltimore, she pulled out her skates from college and headed to a nearby rink. “That first day, everybody laughed at my 1973 skates,” she says. “I realized that if I was going to do this at my age, I needed decent equipment."
After purchasing new blades, Cox signed up for weekly private lessons. On off days, she practiced during public open-skate sessions. Every summer, she attended an adult skating camp in Lake Placid.
Cox spent hours working on basic footwork, which she says is harder than it looks. “You're basically balancing on one blade at a time on the ice. It takes so many different muscles in your body.”
Before she started skating, Cox had been taking group fitness classes at the YMCA, but those felt like work. Skating felt like fun. And as her skills on the ice improved, her body started changing, too.
"I noticed my clothes getting too big,” she says. “Skating just whittled away my waist. I started tucking shirts in again.”
In December 2014, her blade caught on the ice and Cox went crashing down, breaking a bone in her shoulder. Her husband doubted whether she would be able to resume skating. But that February, as soon as doctors gave their OK, Cox was back out on the ice.
And her skills continued to improve. These days, Cox glides gracefully around the rink, arms extended. She has mastered crossovers, backwards skating and a basic two-foot spin.
The Lake Placid Skating Club recently honored Cox by naming her its adult skater of the year. And when Cox and her husband decided to move to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to be closer to their grandchildren, they made sure there was an ice rink nearby before they bought a home.
Cox sees the health benefits of skating paying years of dividends. Since she started, she has lost 18 pounds and dropped two sizes. Her legs and arms are more toned than they've ever been.
"It's really kind of amazing,” Cox says. “Most people my age are going the other way. This has turned out to be the best exercise I've ever done in my life — and I'm having fun.”
The runner: Roy Englert, 97
Roy Englert picked up running at age 60 after reading a book that said exercise was the key to health and longevity.
Thirty-seven years later, he's a living testament to that idea — running two to three days a week, mostly on a treadmill at a fitness center near his Springfield, Virginia, retirement community. In July, Englert ran a 42-minute 5K and set the world record for the 95-to-99 age group.
And he shows no signs of slowing down.
"I know I'm living on borrowed time,” he says. “My son says, ‘Dad, you've got a negative life expectancy.’ But I feel good. I'm having fun."
Englert wasn't an athlete growing up, although he did spend three years in the Navy and participated in D-Day during World War II.
Afterward, he had a long and successful career as a banking and securities lawyer for the U.S. Treasury Department.
Englert's first running workouts were simple laps around his basement. He remembers when he could barely do a quarter of a mile.
He gradually worked up to longer distances and began running at a nearby track. Then one day he heard about a masters meet at Georgetown University. “I thought, Well, I'll try that,” he says.
He ran two races and placed in both, winning gold and silver medals. “After that, I decided I wanted to compete,” he recalls.
For the next few decades, Englert and his wife, Helen, traveled the country so he could compete. “The best part was that it gave us an excuse to see so many places,” he says. “She was my biggest cheerleader.”
Helen died in 2014 after 65 years of marriage. Englert remarried four years ago, and now his second wife, Maureen, travels with him to events.
"I've been very lucky,” he says. “She's younger than me, and she won't let me out of her sight."
In addition to the 5K record, Englert holds records in his age group in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter races. He's a member of several world record relay teams. And he has competed in every one of the National Senior Games, held every other year, since they started in 1987.
These days, Englert doesn't have a lot of competition in his age group. “I run against the clock,” he says.
On a recent phone call, he said he was thinking about retiring from racing. As he puts it, “How do you top a world record?”
But don't hold him to that.
"I've actually retired a few times before,” he says. “Then something comes along that sounds fun, and I sign up to run again.”
The trapeze artist: Betty Goedhart, 86
Betty Goedhart recalls going to the circus as a child and marveling at the beautiful trapeze artists who flew effortlessly through the air. “Someday, I want to do that,” she told her parents.
Her opportunity didn't come until decades later, on her 78th birthday. That's when a friend gave Goedhart a gift certificate to take a class at a trapeze school in Escondido, California.
Goedhart loved the idea — right until she got to the top of the ladder. “I looked down and it seemed much higher than I thought it was going to be,” she says. “My heart started beating so fast. I was sweating. I was scared."
But Goedhart had been waiting 70 years for this. “I knew I had to do it because I might never have another chance,” she says.
She mustered her courage, grabbed the bar, closed her eyes … and jumped.
"I didn't die!” she says. “Actually, I loved everything about it."
Afterward, Goedhart went right back up again — and again, as she enrolled in a series of classes. “A lot of people thought I was crazy, including some of my family,” she says. “They would say, ‘You're old, your bones are brittle, and you're going to end up with a broken neck.'”
Goedhart's instructor reassured her that she wouldn't get hurt if she followed his instruction.
Besides, Goedhart had never been one to shy away from a new physical challenge. A professional ice skater for much of her life, she spent many years performing with the company Holiday on Ice. After retiring from skating, she and her husband ran the company from England, where she took up horseback riding and played polo on a men's team.
After her husband died, Goedhart moved back to California and tried other activities before she stumbled upon trapeze. What she likes most about trapeze, she says, is the way the participants all cheer each other on. “We became like a family, and that reminded me of the ice show,” she says.
Goedhart, now 86, still takes classes four times a week and participates in several performances every year. Her favorite move is the “razzle-dazzle,” which involves leaping off the platform, turning around on the bar, flying back over the platform, and then swinging back and forth one more time before letting go, flipping in the air and landing on the safety net. “It's an easy one I don't have to worry about, so I can smile the whole way through,” she explains.
Last year, upon turning 85, she was named the oldest trapeze artist in the world by Guinness World Records 2019.
Still working to improve her technique, Goedhart recently practiced a “double” that requires her to spin twice in the air and then grab another trapeze artist by the wrists. “I've touched the catcher's hands many times,” she says. “We are so close that I know we're going to get it.”
Sometimes, Goedhart says, even she can't believe she's in her late 80s. “It's amazing how much energy I have,” she says. “When you are doing something you love, you really do feel younger.”
The triathlete: Marie Neaves, 72
Marie Neaves wasn't thinking about any potential health benefits when she took up swimming at age 56, in 2004.
"I needed to find a place where I didn't have to think,” she says.
It had been a devastating year. Her husband and mother had both died, and her youngest child was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. “I needed the strength to help my son, but I thought I was going to lose my mind,” she says.
Although Neaves had never been a swimmer, the pool was the one place she could find peace. Even after her son's treatment was complete and he was in remission, Neaves kept swimming.
The benefits weren't just mental. Neaves felt stronger and healthier than she had in years and was able to stop taking cholesterol-lowering medication.
In 2005, when Neaves saw an ad for the Delaware Senior Olympics promising “Fun, Fellowship and Fitness,” she decided to try competing — and a whole new world opened up. After doing well in the Delaware games, she was invited to compete in the National Senior Games in Palo Alto, California. In 2009, she brought home gold, silver and bronze medals in swimming — and a Top 10 record in breaststroke.
"It was a little crazy because I had never done any swimming before except for recreational swimming with my kids,” says Neaves, who has been a part-time librarian in Odessa, Delaware, for 30 years. “I don't even do freestyle; I just do breaststroke and backstroke.”
After the wins in 2009, Neaves wanted a new challenge, so she began cycling. A friend encouraged her to try a triathlon.
Neaves was nervous about the running, so she decided to start with a mini triathlon that included a 2-mile run, plus a 4-mile bike ride and an indoor swim. She persuaded several younger coworkers and family members to join her.
"After the race, I was like, ‘That was so awesome,'” she said. “Everyone else was looking at me like, What are you talking about? That was so hard.”
But Neaves was hooked. Exercising six days a week, she alternated among running, biking and swimming, and worked up to longer and longer distances. After completing several sprint triathlons, Neaves did her first half-Ironman in 2013: That's a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run.
Neaves did several more half-Ironmans in different parts of the world, including one in her native Luxembourg, where her sisters came to cheer her on. Her times were so good for her age group that in 2017 she was invited to participate in the event's world championship in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
It was a tough, mountainous course. Neaves ended up being disqualified because she didn't finish the bike ride within the time limit. But she didn't feel like a failure. “I had about 10 family members and friends there, and I told them, ‘Let's go out and celebrate,'” she recalls. “The whole experience was wonderful, and I was proud that I had been invited to participate.”
In August, at 72, she again qualified for another world championship. She'll compete in 2020 in Edmonton, Canada.
Neaves says that she loves pushing herself to see what she can do — and that exercising every morning has added structure and a sense of purpose to her life.
"In the beginning, my kids thought it was just a phase,” she says. “Then after a while, they realized that I wasn't quitting. It doesn't matter where I am, I need to get out in the morning and go run. It's a part of me now."
The sprinter: David Kucherawy, 67
In 2008, David Kucherawy of Washington, Pennsylvania, started feeling pain in his chest every morning when he walked his dog. He chalked it up to indigestion. But as months went by, the pain worsened. Then one day it got so bad that it brought him to his knees.
"I thought, Oh, boy, I'm in trouble here,” he remembers.
In the emergency room, Kucherawy could tell the doctors were worried. Tests showed that his coronary artery -— the main blood vessel carrying oxygen to his heart — was 99 percent blocked. He needed surgery to clear the blockage, and doctors inserted a stent.
Within a few days, Kucherawy felt better. His doctors told him he was lucky. But they said if he didn't lose weight, eat better and exercise more, he'd have another blockage.
During his career as an administrator at a mental health hospital, Kucherawy hadn't made his health a priority. He knew that needed to change. He switched his diet and began walking at a faster clip. Before long, he was jogging.
By 2010, at age 58, he had lost 35 pounds. Shortly after his cardiologist said he no longer needed to take heart medications, Kucherawy saw a newspaper article about a senior track competition. Reading that anyone over age 50 could participate, Kucherawy decided to give it a try.
He chose the 50-meter dash and was shocked when he won for his age group. Even more surprising: It was fun. “I got such an adrenaline rush,” he recalls. “It gave me a real sense of accomplishment.”
Kucherawy signed up for more events, competing in both the 50- and 100-meter races. A medal at a state race qualified him to go to the National Senior Games in 2013. Although he didn't win any medals at his first national event, Kucherawy loved the competition and being surrounded by people who were dedicated to pushing their bodies to the limit, no matter what their age.
When Kucherawy got home, he trained harder and set his eye on the next National Senior Games in 2015. But two weeks before, he heard something snap while he was running. A ligament in his leg had torn.
It was a year before Kucherawy could run again, but by the time the next National Senior Games rolled around in 2017, he was ready. He took home the bronze in the 400-meter race, and his team won the silver in the 4-by-100-meter relay.
Kucherawy continued to push himself, training about three times a week with a goal of adding distance or improving his times every year. In fact, he recently achieved his best times ever in the 100-meter and 400-meter events.
"I've been running for nine years, and I've gotten faster, not slower,” he says. “It's the opposite of what you would expect.”
That reminds him of a quote by Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee that he taped into the pocket calendar he carries with him: “Age is no barrier. It's a limitation you put on your mind."