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Fitness Motivation From 4 Senior Athletes

These competitors don’t let age stop them from shooting for a spot at the National Senior Games in 2025 


spinner image people fifty plus at the starting line of the road race at the national senior games in pittsburgh
People 50+ take off at the starting line of the Road Race at the 2023 National Senior Games in Pittsburgh. Through the Games, athletes over the age of 50 get to compete and show off their athletic prowess.
NSGA/Brit Huckabay

In her 30s, Pamela Jones was grieving the loss of her mother, mainly leaving the house for work, “and then I would come back in and I would just sit in the house and just kind of ruminate … I just really missed her,” she says.

One day, her sister-in-law invited her to bowl with her recreational league, promising the team only needed a sit-in player for six weeks — until they could find another bowler. Reluctantly, Jones tried it out. “It was the most fun thing that I could have ever done. I made friends, and it really kind of broke me out of” isolation.

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spinner image pamela jones bowling
Pam Jones focuses on her aim at the 2022 Maryland Senior Games. She says bowling keeps her active by engaging every part of her body.
Maryland Senior Olympics / Dennis Tuttle

After those six weeks, the team wanted her to join the league permanently, and she gladly accepted. Although she enjoyed the exercise, breaking out of her comfort zone to meet new people was what initially made her fall in love with the sport. Decades later, she’s still dedicated to the game. Jones, 65, is preparing for the 2024 Maryland State Senior Games in hopes for a spot at the 2025 National Senior Games.

Compete in the Senior Games

Those interested in learning more about participating in the National Senior Games can visit nsga.com.

The National Senior Games Association (NSGA) was created in 1985 as a nonprofit to promote healthy lifestyles through competitive sports. It started holding championship events — the National Senior Games (formerly the National Senior Olympic Games) open only to those 50 or older looking to challenge themselves in more than 20 sports: team sports such as basketball and softball, individual sports such as swimming and archery, and nonambulatory sports in which walking isn’t necessary (bowling, cornhole, shuffleboard).

Participating in a competitive sport after age 50 has advantages. “There are significant benefits to exercise, and this is especially important as people age,” says Lauren Porras, M.D., sports medicine physician and clinical associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Vanderbilt University. There are cardiovascular improvements, “and that’s been proven,” she adds. Exercise has also shown to lower cancer rates, improve bone health and muscular development, and decrease rates of depression and anxiety. “So really, patients get a holistic improvement when they start exercising, particularly in that age group.”

AARP talked to four athletes who have competed at the games and who are training for the 2024 qualifiers in their states. They hope to rank in their age groups for a chance to compete at the 2025 National Senior Games in Des Moines, Iowa, in the summer. They share their training tips and words of encouragement for those looking to remain — or become — active after 50.

Find a social sport: ‘We don’t want to be isolated’

Jones, who lives in Owings Mills, Maryland, says she’s always led an active life, enjoying basketball, softball, racquetball and biking when she was younger. It was the social aspect of bowling that helped her through the loneliness of grief.

“I think we’ve all learned our lessons after the pandemic — that we don’t want to be isolated, stay in the house,” she says. “We, as human beings, need one another, and we got to get out there and kind of mix it up with other people. And bowling allows you to do that. It allows you to have fun and fellowship and meet some great people where you will have lasting friendships.”

Jones says she’s in frequent contact with folks she met bowling decades ago, and they’ve watched each other’s grandkids grow up, as if they were extended family.

She practices bowling three days a week and bowls in a league two days a week. She occasionally visits the Kegel Training Center in Lake Wales, Florida, where certified coaches teach bowling technique, speed and accuracy. Aside from bowling, Jones regularly walks with a friend and uses strength training bands.

“Bowling is a very unique sport because people of any age or ability can bowl,” she says. “Bowling uses every part of your body — your arms, your legs, you’re always walking.” At the end of a three-game set, Jones estimates she has walked a mile. She’ll compete in both singles and doubles bowling tournaments at the Maryland games next August.

For those who feel unmotivated to move, whether because of their age, ability or other circumstances, Jones says any movement is a good first step.

“It doesn't even have to be bowling. It could be doing something like taking a walk with your neighbor, when your neighbor walks the dog,” Jones says. “If you’re afraid that you may have a fall and there may be no one around to help you, even taking a walk around the mall is a good thing. The whole thing is to just get out there and kind of mix it up so that you can keep your body strong, as strong as possible.”

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Philipp Djang holds a trophy at the 2019 National Senior Games. He says he has won 40 gold medals, 11 silver medals and has set 21 NSGA records in swimming races across four age groups.
NSGA/Kaycee Yeargin

Make movement a habit: ‘Get up and move every day’

At the state level, Philipp Djang, 69, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, has participated in triathlon, racquetball and swimming competitions, the last being his greatest passion: “In terms of the National Senior Games championships, I have won 40 gold and 11 silver medals and set 21 National Senior Games Association records in swimming races across four age groups.”

He undergoes periodization training during which he tries to improve his swimming technique at a slow and steady pace in the offseason, amping up the intensity as a swim meet or competition day approaches. He’ll compete in the backstroke and individual medley (a combination of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle swimming) in both 25- and 50-meter (Olympic-size) pools in June 2024. 

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“I can’t do the same things I did when I was younger. But that’s OK, I’m getting older. And the bottom line is every day I get up, I do something,” Djang says. “For myself, fitness is [the] result of cultivating a habit. I exercise every day just like I brush my teeth.”

He says he likes to focus on the process as opposed to the result. “I’d rather work out than compete, but I do like the camaraderie of competition,” Djang says. “By the way, it takes a lot of courage to put on budgie smugglers [men’s fitted swimsuits], stand up on a starting block and swim your heart out. It’s not for everybody, but that nervous excitement and adrenaline rush is when I feel the most alive.”

Though Djang says he finds happiness in training for a goal and pushing his own limits while competing, he says that’s not the only way to find fulfillment.

“I think the real goal in life is longevity and happiness. And you don’t have to compete to meet those goals,” he says. “But what you do have to do is get up and move every day. Go out and find something to do.”

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Joyce Jones shows her medals from the 2022 National Senior Games. She says that aside from pickleball being a great workout, she enjoys the social aspect of the game.
Courtesy of NSGA

Find a work-around: ‘You shouldn’t let anything stop you’

Joyce Jones, 93, from Seattle, was playing pickleball before it was popular. 

“When I started playing it 45 years ago, I didn’t dream that it would ever get this big,” she says. In fact, she played a large part in having the sport added to the National Senior Games, petitioning for it to be included as a medal sport and seeing that finally happen in 2013.

She’s quite a figure for senior athletics, having competed in all but one National Senior Games competition, winning in badminton, tennis and pickleball. She only missed the 1991 national games in Syracuse, New York, due to a knee injury. She sympathizes with those with injuries but encourages them to find a work-around.

“I wouldn’t let that stop them. I have one knee that was replaced 22 years ago, and it’s still going strong,” she says, adding that she’s had to change how she holds the pickleball paddle due to gripping difficulties. “I find that I can still play OK and enjoy it by changing my grip. And so you shouldn’t let anything stop you if you want to play. You just have to adjust and figure out a way to get around that.” 

Jones says she doesn’t train much nowadays aside from playing pickleball two or three times a week. (And she always makes sure to stretch before and after playing.) She’s led an active and healthy lifestyle, never smoking or drinking and always thinking positively.

“I’ve had such a wonderful life. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have something different. I enjoy the playing, I enjoy meeting people, and I enjoy the competition, and I enjoy seeing old friends over and over. So I don’t know what my life would be like if I didn’t have this.”

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She knows exactly why pickleball has gained pop culture status: “Because it’s so social, and it’s easy to pick up. Just about anybody can go out and hit the ball back and forth over the net and have fun and get a good workout from it.”

For those who have not tried it: “I would say just give it a try. And if you’re not successful the first or second time, don’t give up. Just keep at it. Because anytime anybody practices and keeps trying, they’re going to succeed.”

In the summer of 2024, she’ll be facing other top pickleballers in the Washington State Senior Games.

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Brian Hankerson competes in the long jump at the 2023 National Senior Games. He emphasizes the importance of rest, saying his coach noticed more explosiveness in his jumps after he took some rest from training.
NSGA/Brit Huckabay

Understand technique, when to recover: ‘Rest is just as important’

Brian Hankerson, from Coral Springs, Florida, started running in his mid-40s, training with his children at track meets. At the time, he didn’t know how to train properly, neglecting fundamentals such as stretching, and he frequently got injured. At 64, he’s training to compete in various events within track and field including the 50-, 100- and 200-meter runs and the long jump, triple jump and high jump at the senior games, and he’s a much wiser runner. He knows the importance of implementing proper technique.  

“Learn how to do things properly, and you become much more efficient at it,” Hankerson says. “When you use a proper technique, you have better success, so you can maximize less ability with proper technique and potentially beat better ability.”

Hankerson says he has a comprehensive training regimen. He lifts weights about three days a week, and he runs, incorporating a mix of jumping drills and sprints.

He recalls not training for six weeks. When Hankerson met his long jump coach, his coach noticed he was “much more explosive than six weeks ago,” and suggested that he rest and recover before his next competition. He will compete in the Florida Senior Games in December 2023.

“Rest is just as important, especially at our age,” Hankerson says. “You might want to train all the time, but rest is really, really important.”

He enjoys testing his physical limits at the senior games and appreciates the camaraderie of all the people competing. He says “only good” comes out of keeping active and participating in the games. Hankerson says he’s never felt belittled for his age or ability, and he encourages others 50-plus to have the same outlook when it comes to keeping active and trying something new.

“I never embraced the posture that I’m too old. I train with high schoolers, I train with college athletes, I even train side by side with professional football players. And I did not embrace that I didn’t belong. The funny part is they will look to me and say, ‘Man, I want to be like you when I grow up!’ ”

Hankerson says he’s excited about what the future holds and is inspired by the people who compete at the senior games.

“I am around people that are 80, 90, 100 years old and still very, very active. It just gave me a whole different perspective on what we can do and what our bodies are capable of,” he says. “You have no idea what you’re capable of, until you really apply yourself to it. And you never know what gifts you’ve been blessed with that will allow you to do things you’ve never done before. You have to try it.”

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