EACH FEBRUARY and September, when you read or hear about the winter or summer Senior Olympics being contested in Maryland, you might think, who cares?
After all, the geezer games are played, as Maryland's Senior Olympic backers put it, "within a spirit of good will and camaraderie."
But high-quality competition? Can't be.
Oh, baby, no.
With this year's Maryland Summer Senior Olympics to start Thursday and run into next weekend at Towson University, listen to two of Howard County's more accomplished senior athletes:
"There's a lot of fun, and you meet people who aren't all that serious or knowledgeable, but you always can find real competition," said Columbia's John Elliott, 64, who won the National Senior Games Association's triathlon title for men ages 60-64 in early June in Virginia Beach, Va. "There are enough who are really serious to give you a race. You'd be surprised at how good and competitive some of the athletes are."
Columbia's Gail Zitnay, 54, a seven-event winner at last year's Maryland games and a top-eight finisher among women ages 50-54 in three track and field events two years ago in the national games in Baton Rouge, La., said, "I've met women in their 80s who won't help you out in any way until they check first to make sure you're not in their age group. They're that competitive. I've also seen women older than I am who are a lot better than me at the events I do."
If you're accumulating gray hair faster than you want to but still like to play, or think you'd like to play more, if only against people your age, Elliott and Zitnay seem to be about the soundest role models you'll find. Here are snapshots of each:
John Elliott is proud of that national triathlon title, his first. He beat 19 competitors from 17 states in his age group and was second among 114 athletes in all age groups.
"Winds were 45 knots, and for the swim, there was a 3- to 4-foot chop, which made things interesting," he said.
Elliott's performance resulted from his view of life -- being an age-be-darned, day-in, day-out athlete, not just a weekend warrior. He pursues what national Senior Olympics promoters call "a healthy lifestyle."
Elliott, whose civilian job with the Army has kept him traveling for more than three decades, has competed and trained around the world.
He has been running, cycling or swimming most of his life, he said, and considers running his forte.
He competes regularly, sometimes for a team sponsored by Claritin Aquaphor, and not just against those age 60 or older.
In April, Elliott won the male grand masters competition in the Columbia Triathlon. He also was 305th overall out of 769 male entrants, a field that was many years younger, included a few pros, and had more racers of regional and even national caliber.
Last month, he won the 60-69 age group in a 10-kilometer run in Leesburg, Va., leaving a lot of younger runners behind while finishing 70th overall out of 734 entrants; was 68th out of 250 in a Charlottesville, Va., triathlon; and was 23rd out of 206 in a Catonsville 5-kilometer run.
Before Isabel spoiled the party last week, he was to compete in 5K and 10K cycling events that are part of the Maryland Senior Olympics, in which he has a decade of participation. He'll swim next week.
Gail Zitnay is a physical education teacher at Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood and has been with the county school system for 30 years. She's an ardent believer in pursuing that healthy lifestyle.
Watching husband Andy, a softball player of some renown, compete in Senior Olympics in Florida in 2000 lighted her fire to do likewise.
She watched several events at a nearby track while his team competed.
"I just thought it looked like so much incredible fun that I decided to try myself," she said. "I had, still have, so much to learn. I started so late in life, but I went on the Internet and taught myself, for example, by reading `Discus for Dummies," a Web site put up by an Iowa high school coach.
She holds two Maryland records for her age group, in the 1,500-meter race walk and in the triple jump.
In September last year, she dominated her state age group, taking firsts in discus, high jump, javelin, pole vault, running long jump, shot put and triple jump.
Her favorite memory is from the National Senior Games at Louisiana State University in 2001. She had three podium finishes (eighth or better).
"It was the most amazing experience of my life," she said. "They call you up, play some music and present your medal. It's a great feeling."
It's also a feeling Zitnay worries about savoring again, for she will sit out next week's Maryland games. Arthritis has appeared in her left hip, aggravated, she fears, by too much training.
"I'm concerned about it," she said, "because I really don't want to give this up."