Md. Senior Olympians go for the gold More than 1,400 compete in games

October 13, 1991|By Peter Jensen

So you think amateurs like Greg Louganis, Carl Lewis or Mary Lou Retton put in a lot of hours of practice before capturing their Olympic gold medals?

Think again.

Such youngsters pale in comparison to an Olympian of Robert Walker's stature. The retired patent examiner from Silver Spring put in no fewer than 70 years of practice, off and on, before winning a gold medal yesterday.

"I started right after World War I," said Mr. Walker, 82, who defeated two fellow octogenarians to capture first place in the horseshoe toss. "We could find horseshoes on the streets of Washington, D.C. You could pick them up and start playing."

Mr. Walker and his wife, a 77-year-old who captured two gold medals of her own in women's swimming, were among the 1,447 senior citizens who participated in the Maryland Senior Olympics, a four-day event that concluded yesterday at Towson State University.

It was the 12th time Maryland has conducted such statewide games, and competitors ranged from the minimum age of 55 up to 94. The competition featured some of the traditional Olympic fare -- running, swimming and basketball -- but also included less strenuous events such as table tennis, mixed badminton doubles and duckpin bowling.

Duckpins or not, spectators soon realize that even though many of these athletes collect Social Security, they are hardly retiring. Take for instance 67-year-old Thomas Lechner, a former All-American swimmer at the U.S. Naval Academy (class of '49) whose 39-second winning time in the 50-yard backstroke looked pretty good at any age.

"He'll definitely be feeling his oats tonight. That was his third gold medal," said his wife, Maria-Waid "Bim" Lechner.

Glen Olsen, 77, brought along two daughters, Cathie and Peggy, and a friend, Eleanor Barry, from Frederick to watch him compete in track and field. The drive proved worth while: He won the bronze medal in the javelin throw for his age group with a 54-foot, 8-inch toss.

"He'd never thrown the javelin before last year. He just decided he was going to do it," said Ms. Barry. "He got a book and borrowed a javelin."

Indeed, fostering such enthusiasm for sport is the motive behind the games. Organizers point out that while winning the 400-meter -- with a 2-minute, 39-second time will never get you a Wheaties endorsement, it does prove that the 80-year-old who recorded the time has made an effort to stay active and fit.

"This demonstrates that seniors who are faithful to a regular exercise regime can increase their abilities no matter what their age," said Dr. Robert Zeigler, a Towson State physical education professor who has organized every Senior Olympics since the program was launched in 1980. "The person may not be a 16-year-old, but even a 62-year-old who is training will do better than he did at 60."

To keep things safe, entrants were asked in advance to describe their training and a doctor, numerous Red Cross volunteers and an ambulance with emergency medical technicians were kept on hand -- not to mention a lot of bandages and salve. No serious injuries were reported.

In the interests of fairness, each competition was broken down into 5-year age intervals for both men and women, ages 55-59, 60-64, and onward up to 90 and older. Some categories occasionally ended up with only one entrant, but "when a 94-year-old shows up, he should get a medal for that," Dr. Zeigler said.

More than 1,000 medals were handed out during the games which were sponsored by the Maryland Senior Olympics Commission with support coming from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland, the Maryland Office on Aging and the Maryland Commission on Physical Fitness. Some of the athletes said they were already eager to return to the Maryland Senior Olympics next year so they can qualify for the national games in Baton Rouge, La. in 1993.

"Exercise has really made a difference in our lives," said Edna Seibert, a 76-year-old, 100-meter -- gold medalist who moved into a Catonsville retirement complex with her husband last week. "I look around at women 20 years younger, and some are in wheelchairs. That's not for me."

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