We’ve all heard it. Seventy is the new 50. You’re only as old as you feel.
Enter “Impossible Dreamers,” a documentary about competitive “senior” athletes.
The film opens with legendary golfer Gary Player, 80, distinguished silver hair neatly combed, hopping spryly onto a treadmill.
“Instead of spending money at the bar, and overeating, buy yourself a treadmill,” he suggests, pounding away. “Put it in your bathroom … all you do is spend five minutes in the morning, five minutes in the evening. It’ll be like the greatest miracle. …This is the best doctor in the world, right here.”
A mad gleam in his eye, he then goes into the “speed” portion of his workout, huffing and puffing like a demented steamboat.
Many of us live in apartments so — let’s say cozy — that the living room wouldn’t accommodate a treadmill, never mind in the bathroom.
Still, you can’t help falling in love with the guy. He’s fit, he’s optimistic, he has a whole philosophy of life. He repeatedly slaps his stomach, producing a sound similar to the sound the head of tuna would make if thwacked against a pier. “At 80 years of age,” Player crows, “my core is like … a plank. It’s like a plank!”
Every year, it turns out, more than 250,000 seniors, ranging in general age from 50 to 100, compete in a variety of sanctioned athletic events throughout the world.
Almost all the featured athletes are from our beloved home state. At Pasadena’s Cal Tech, we meet Jeanne Daprano, 75. She’s hoping to run a sub 7-minute mile to break her own world record of 7:13.
We meet Harry and Sarah Sneider, an Arcadia couple who, for 20 years, held Senior Olympic weightlifting competitions in their home (tragically, Harry died during the course of the filming). In one scene, each family member, from young to old, is in the living room happily bouncing on a mini-trampoline.
“There are more people over 50 now than ever before,” Harry observes. “So what are they interested in? Living longer!”
Well, yes and no. Personally, I’m interested in living fully, and to that end, would prefer, say, insect collecting, watching films, reading, walking, collecting stones and taking photos of the sky to jumping on a trampoline.
But “Vive la différence.”
We meet scads more of these stalwart, determined oldsters who are defying the effects of aging through diet, exercise and a positive attitude.
Doc Cheek, an 85-year-old competitive runner, says, “I talk about winning. I talk about my starting blocks. I talk about being in front.”
Pastor Ann Schranz, a 60-year-old minister, is learning how to box. “You learn you can take a punch.”
Tao Porchon-Lynch, 94, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest yoga master. She also realized, while convalescing from an operation performed by doctors who told her she’d never again achieve the lotus position, that she’d always wanted to learn the tango. So she went to Argentina and now also holds the Guinness record for oldest competitive ballroom dancer.
Many strive on behalf of others, realizing this somehow gives them added strength.
Daniela Barnea, 68, an award-winning competitive swimmer from the Bay Area notes, “I don’t want to be another Mark Spitz or another Phelps. I want to be a first me.” She remembers her cousins who survived the Nazi concentration camps and told of not being allowed to take a shower for almost a year. Standing by the pool where she practices, she says, “The thought of them making it and being strong and determined, it gives me the strength to swim well, and try to get to the other side.”
Doc Cheek observes, “It’s not just about you. It’s about what you’re gonna learn to help your mama, your daddy, your parents, your friends.”
The Pilgrim Pacers are an award-winning race-walking team from Claremont, who often dedicate their race to a community member back home who may be facing an operation or struggling in some way.
As biologist and teacher Shaul Youdkevitch observes, “Old age is not just the numbers. It’s a consciousness. It’s an attitude.”
In the end, Jeanne Daprano gets her sub 7-minute mile, finishing at 6:58. She says she’s never felt so good, so healthy, so relaxed, so fit.
Ninety-one-year-old Eddie Tyler Jr., aka Fast Eddie, a Studio City tennis whiz, plays the only other 90-something guy at the Newport Senior Games and wins, 6-0, 6-0.
Doc Cheek earns three gold medals in a single day at the Pasadena Senior Games, running in the 50, 100 and 200.
It’s all wonderfully inspiring. But I can’t help but think of those elderly people whose athleticism is of a different order. People who bear such heavy crosses that they perhaps fall beneath them, as Christ did his. People who care for a disabled child all their lives, or nurse their spouse through years of Alzheimer’s, or die of Alzheimer’s themselves.
Such people may never win any medals. But along with St. Paul, they, too, can say, truly, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
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Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.