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Friday, November 22, 2019

National Senior Games: The Story of Age Defying Athletes

 By Peter Wimberg

When I was 35 in 1997, I rode in my USA Cycling National Championship in the individual time trial. One of the more memorable parts of that event was meeting some of the master age riders in the 50, 60, 70 and even 80+ age brackets. I remember two guys in their mid 70s who had an RV and were racing all over the country that summer. They were both in amazing shape and riding very fast times. There were also men and women in their 50s riding as fast as those in their 30s.

At the time, it was interesting for me to consider aging would affect my physical performance. Now at 57, it’s the reality of still being active and competing. While still racing in many USA Cycling events, I’ve also been competing in multiple state and national events under the national Senior Game umbrella since meeting the minimum age required at 50. If you’re want to see what is still possible as a ‘master’ or ‘senior’ athlete, these events will definitely give you something to train towards.

Queen City Wheels qualifiers - Back row: Toby Costello, Peter Wimberg, Patrick McMullen, Andy Jones, Karen Rokich, Julian Holland; Middle: Wendy Gilmore, Ginny Lenahan; Front: Mark Gilmore 
While originally known as the Senior Olympics, the National Senior Games  (NSG) sponsor a biennial national competition that one qualifies for by finishing in the top four in their home state or other states that allow non-residents to compete. The national event will attract some 20,000 athletes competing in archery, bowling, cycling, golf, race walking, pickleball, racquetball, tennis, running, triathlons, 16 swimming events, 15 track and field events, in addition to basketball, volleyball, softball and other team sports.

I regularly ride NSG affiliated state championships in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and Florida in the 5k and 10k cycling time trials, but only need a top four placement in any one of them to qualify. The NSG chooses a new host city about two years out, so we know in 2021 we’ll be in Ft. Lauderdale. The last three I’ve participated in have been in Cleveland, Minneapolis and Birmingham. The 2019 events were held in Albuquerque in June. 

Many of the athletes have been competing since they were in school, which means a minimum of 40 plus years, while others rediscovered a former favorite sport or decided to re-engage their desire to compete in something where they hadn’t much experience. Regardless, the senior athlete faces several challenges. 

There is no doubt that, as we age, we lose any of a number of physical attributes. Muscle mass declines. Maximum heart rate declines. Recovery takes longer. Injuries can be more common and take longer to overcome. Our former personal records for whatever sport we’ve enjoyed for years to decades tend to be distant memories. Knowing this is the natural process and accepting it is helpful if we want to keep competing against others within our age range and especially in competing and challenging ourselves.

Most of my fastest times were set in my mid to late 40s. I’m still very competitive in my 5 and 10 year age brackets, and still finishing ahead of many of the younger riders in their 20s, 30s and 40s. And, more importantly, I still love to train and compete. When the best from around the country qualify, you can be sure the athletes attending will be there to do their very best. So, just how fast and  strong are some of these seniors? Here are some of the national records.

If swimming is your event, you can compare your 50 yard freestyle to these records: men 50-54, 22:36: 55-59, 22:67; 60-64, 23:35: 65-69, 23:35; 70-74, 26:25; women’s records are 27:34, 27:16, 29:00, 29:15and 32:88 respectively. Just for comparison, if you swam a 21:19 for men or 24:28 as a woman, you would be in the top 20 all-time at Xavier University.

If running is your sport, the 5k national records for men range from 16:27 (5:20 per mile pace) in the 50-54 to 21:26 in the 80-84 bracket (6:55 miles.  For the women, the 50-54 age bracket record is 18:55 (6:07 per mile) and the 80-84 records sits at 30:07 (9:42 per mile).  I think you get the idea. These seniors aren’t messing around.

Are these just genetically gifted people? Maybe they have higher VO2 levels (ability to move oxygen), but I tend to think they just never gave up. They never saw aging as an end to fitness and doing what they enjoy. They’re still goal setters. They don’t look at not winning as not winning. Competing is winning.

In Minneapolis I happened to meet a 92 year old man having breakfast one morning. He flew across the country to do just two events, one being the 100 meter dash. He won the gold. The top ten all-time in that are between 190 and 200 seconds. Sure, twice as slow as Usain Bolt, but also four times his age when he set world records.

I met a 70 year old whose best time in the mile was well under six minutes. I met another guy who was participating in both the pole vault and archery, but not at the same time! I rode the elevator in my hotel with a women’s basketball team in the 70+ bracket. They were fired up -  and the defending gold medalists.

Cyclist, coach and personal trainer Peter Wimberg
I know many cyclists who stopped competing as they aged because at 50 they couldn’t beat the 20 somethings, and the idea of racing against their age seemed demeaning.  I think they overlooked the idea there will be others who are ultra competitive who would give them a run for the money. I also know people who would like to compete, but don’t want or need state or national level competitions on their calendar. In that case, there are many regional events like the Southwest Ohio Senior Games managed by the Cincinnati Recreation Commission. They offer an amazing array of events where the competition ranges from true beginners to national level talent.

Whether you’re inclined to go after a national medal, compete on a state level or just want to stay active in our city, the options for the 50+ athlete are there.  We can drastically slow the aging process and have fun as we do it if we stay active.

Peter Wimberg is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach, USA Triathlon coach, and ACE Certified  Personal trainer. He has won over 300 races including 50 state championships, six national silvers and two national golds in cycling. He is also an at-large member of the Ohio Senior Olympic Board of Directors.

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