A Little Gray Hair, a Lot of Game

A Little Gray Hair, a Lot of Game

IT wasn’t the feel of the ball or the cheers of her teammates that made Jeanni Winston keep playing basketball. It was the rush she got when her first shot, a 3-pointer, sailed through the net. For a widow in her 60’s who had been a White House staff assistant for John F. Kennedy, this was something new. She had never played sports competitively before and was not prepared for the thrill.

Now, Mrs. Winston, 67, is in the best shape of her life. She drives around her neighborhood in Washington with two or three basketballs in her car, looking for pickup games. At playgrounds, she begs players – from teenagers to men just getting off work – to let her in their game. Sometimes she bribes them with a spaghetti dinner.

“The big guys on the playground have been giving me incredible tips,” said Mrs. Winston, who said she was 5-foot-5 “before my bones receded.” “When I was young,” she explained, “young women just didn’t play sports. We weren’t that far from the Victorian era in our thinking on that.”

Today she is a member of a growing cohort of athletes over 50 who are discovering competitive athletics for the first time, or returning to competition after detours of decades through careers and parenthood. Mrs. Winston is one of about 10,000 athletes expected to take part in 18 sports at the National Senior Games beginning tomorrow in Pittsburgh, up from the 2,500 who participated in the first games in 1987.

The 16-day contest draws the exceptionally fit vanguard of a growing number of older Americans who are physically active. From 1998 to 2004, health club memberships among people over 55 rose 33 percent, according to American Sports Data, a marketing research company.

But the new competitors are after something more than mere health and fitness. They want to win.

Many of these athletes are baby boomers who have been pushed to succeed, said Dr. Sally White, a sports psychologist at Lehigh University. “They were raised in a family where the parents said, ‘Did you win?’ ” she said.

Other senior games competitors are part of the latest generation of retirees to eschew shuffleboard and embrace the message of recent decades that fitness is related to health.

Madelaine Cazel, 67, lives in the Villages, Fla., a retirement community with a state-of-the-art track, softball fields, golf courses, tennis courts, pools and fitness centers. Mrs. Cazel will compete in 10 events at the senior games – softball, golf, javelin, discus, shot put, long jump and four running races (100, 200, 400 and 800 meters).

A typical day for Mrs. Cazel involves five workouts: in the morning, two hours of practice for the throwing events; an hour at the driving range; wind sprints and running at the track; after lunch, an hour of putting and chipping; and, finally, weight lifting.

“You don’t have the responsibility with kids anymore,” Mrs. Cazel said. “You can do anything you want to do.”

“Usually people think that as you get older you can do less and less,” she added, “but the older I get, the better I get.” She already holds Florida records for discus and javelin in the 65-to-69 age group. She wants to compete in one more senior games, in 2007, when she plans to set records for the 70-to-74 age group.

Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, 51, a sports psychologist at Stanford University, said competitions are a great way for aging athletes to stay motivated. Dr. Dahlkoetter, who was the first female finisher in the 1980 San Francisco marathon and finished second among women at the Hawaii Ironman in 1982, has begun competing in masters running events.

“It used to be more dog eat dog,” Dr. Dahlkoetter, said, referring to races she ran when she was younger. “But the senior athletes have a larger perspective.” In fact, she added, they like to say “the older I get, the faster I used to be.”

Hal McGrath, 75, of Cazenovia, N.Y., has won two gold medals in doubles tennis at the senior games and hopes to add a third to his collection at Pittsburgh. A captain of the Syracuse University tennis team in 1951, he still plays three or four times a week. “Your second serve may not kick like it did in the 50’s,” said Mr. McGrath, who works in marketing for a bank. “But at least I’m still out there.”

For three years after the death of his wife, Rusty, he could not bear to play mixed doubles. She had been his only teammate. Then, when he was recovering from a broken wrist two years ago, he started playing with women again as a way to ease back into the game. Word spread, and now he has 31 willing mixed doubles partners, a group his friends refer to as “Hal’s harem.” Playing doesn’t erase the ache of missing his wife of 46 years, he said, but it is a pleasant distraction.

Dr. George Schmidt, 55, an optometrist in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., an all-American swimmer in his Ohio State days, will also be at Pittsburgh. He competes in about 15 masters competitions a year, even though a bad shoulder limits him to an hour of training a day. But he sometimes swims the individual medley event within seconds of his college time, because his stroke technique is better than ever.

“It’s great to get up next to some guy half my age – not an ounce of fat on him, six inches taller – and beat him,” he said.

The greatest difference between younger and senior athletes is in recovery time, said Teri Tiso, the chairwoman of the physical education department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. As people age, they lose bone density and their muscles don’t stretch as easily as they did.

Mrs. Cazel said she warms up and stretches more now than she did before. She walks in the pool to work her cardiovascular system without stressing her joints. And she sees a chiropractor regularly.

Mrs. Winston, who plays basketball as a guard, recently began lifting two days a week with a personal trainer. “I was embarrassed and ashamed because my underarms would have made Batman look sick,” she said. Since she took up basketball a year and a half ago, she has not suffered a sports injury, and only rarely gets aches and pains. But she is often bone-tired.

“I feel like I could sleep for 90 hours a week,” she said.

Senior athletes have at least one advantage over young ones: they focus on the present, not the future. “It’s about who they are right now,” said Dr. Richard Keefe, a sports psychologist at Duke University. “Not about who they might be.”

For Mrs. Winston, that means the pleasure of playing in the senior games with her children and grandchildren watching. “At first, when I thought about it, I said that I wanted a gold medal for my grandchildren, to show them that I’m still vital,” she said. “But then I realized that I also want it for me. And that’s when I was able to do things that I didn’t know I could do.”

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