En español | Aging doesn't mean you have to put away your competitive spirit, especially when it comes to sports. While mastering treadmills, yoga mats and elliptical machines can play an important role in your fitness routine, those exercises don't provide the level of adrenaline-induced exuberance that comes with competing.
Americans are accustomed to going head-to-head on the playing field, the court and in the gym starting at a young age. Increasingly, older adults are looking to continue that same type of competition as they age.
Terry Hennessy, 70, of Sacramento, California, has been playing senior softball since the 1990s. Now the chief executive officer of Senior Softball-USA, Hennessy says when he began playing in the league, the 70-year-old division was as old as it got. Now there are at least 15 teams for players 85 and older and recently one of those teams contacted Hennessy about launching a 90-year-old division, something the organization may do this year.
"What's happened is people have become more active as they get older and they are in better shape,” says Hennessy. “They want to be with their friends because they like the sport... So that gives them an incentive to stay in shape so they can keep playing."
Motivation comes with the territory
Athletic competition doesn't have to take place at an elite level to reap the benefits. A rec league or even pick-up games among friends can keep older athletes motivated, provide important social connections and make it fun.
A 2020 article in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that “playing sport may contribute to the experience of successful aging for older adults.” The primary reasons included mental and physical health benefits, being social and developing a supportive community, being part of a team and opportunities for achievement and travel.
Leslie Hagan, 78, of Ocala, Florida, says competition has allowed her to stay active and cross winning a tennis championship off her bucket list.
In April, the physician and her teammates won the United States Tennis Association women's league sectionals championship in the 65 and over, 6.0 category. Her Marion County, Florida, team survived tiebreakers and tight matches to go 4-0 in the tournament. The group will travel to Arizona to compete in the national championships this year.
"This team played their hearts out,” says Hagan. “It was a dream for sure.… I can't wait to play at nationals."
The camaraderie is as important as the competition when it comes to athletics, says Donald Webster, 64, of Atlanta, who is a runner and cyclist. Webster is a member of the South Fulton Race club, the Metro Atlanta Cycling Club and Black Men Run. He says teammates hold him accountable.
"If I miss a couple of runs, it's 'Hey, where is Don?'” he says. “No question that's what has kept me consistent over all these years — the people."
Webster competes in 5Ks, 10Ks duathlons and an occasional half marathon. He even completed a couple of marathons. Last year, with races sidelined by COVID-19, Webster decided to enter a “virtual road race,” in which people ran and entered their times online.
"It's just not the same," says Webster. "People run on different terrains, different courses... I'm looking forward to post-COVID to get out there with crowds."
He already signed up for the 52nd Annual Peachtree Road Race, which takes place July 3 and 4, through Atlanta. He considers himself an “age-grouper,” meaning he competes against people his own age. This December, Webster will turn 65, which puts him in the 65-69 group. “I'll be among the youngest in that age group, something to look forward to,” he says.
Taking up a sport later in life
You don't have to have had a long athletic career to benefit from a bit of competition. Bill Cordes, 75, of St. Cloud, Florida, is a late bloomer who recently placed third in the U.S. Tennis Association 50-and-over 3.0 division in the National Singles Championship. Cordes didn't start competing in tennis until 2018. Up until then, he had been an avid spectator, attending tournaments and following his favorites, like Roger Federer.
Then he heard that the USTA planned to build a world-class national tennis facility in Orlando. The 64-acre facility includes a player development area for professional athletes, including those who compete in Grand Slams.
Unfazed by his age and inexperience — he occasionally played on the weekends, but had never competed — Cordes persuaded his wife to move nearly four hours north to be near the campus “so I could play every day,” he says.
A U.S. Army veteran, Cordes signed up for a USTA military program that offers free instruction for military members, took some lessons and started competing. His tennis career blossomed.
For lifelong athlete Kathleen Fitzgerald, 78, of Norman, Oklahoma, competition keeps her accountable and focused in a way that's different from taking a daily jog or a yoga class.
"You have a purpose. You have a goal you're working toward,” says Fitzgerald, the executive director of the Oklahoma Senior Games, in which she competes in table tennis and track and field. “You sign up for the competition and you know it's coming and if you aren't prepared it's your own fault.”
Until seven years ago, Fitzgerald was an ice skater, winning a silver medal in the senior games’ 55 and older competition. When she came off the ice, she says she realized that for her, it wasn't all about winning. “It was an appreciation for the people that had helped me, like my coach, the other skaters... Just the whole process of setting the goal and then working toward it,” Fitzgerald says.
For Hennessy, the softball player, nothing beats the feeling he gets when he steps up to bat or catches a ball in the field. “All of a sudden everything else melts away,” he says. “You don't worry about any other problems. You're just playing with your friends."
Merlisa Lawrence Corbett is a contributing writer who covers sports, interior design, business and human-interest stories. A former reporter for Sports Illustrated and tennis columnist for Bleacher Report, her work has also appeared in Essence and Black Enterprise. She is the author of the biography Serena Williams: Tennis Champion, Sports Legend and Cultural Heroine.