Competitions cater to players young at heart - with perhaps even younger replacement joints.

Older athletes still in the game

March 29, 2006|By JONI GUHNE | JONI GUHNE,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Judith Stillman isn't the least bit surprised when she comes home from work and finds a note from her husband saying he's "gone for the day." She knows exactly what he's up to - one of his twin passions of volleyball and softball - and she approves completely.

Richard Stillman, 73, is a lifelong athlete who is happy to be "involved in some form of sports just about every day of the week."

"You don't have time to think about slowing down when you keep busy," said Stillman, who plays with two replaced knees. Referring to his fellow senior volleyball and softball players, he said, "We're die-hards. We're not going to sit in front of the TV."

"The boys get together," added Judith Stillman, 61, who teaches nursing assistance for a nursing home management company, "and it keeps 'em young." She said her husband looks like a 55-year-old, and works and plays like one.

Because of his participation in and support of Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks' 50-and-older softball league - he has been active in the league since he and his wife moved to Glen Burnie 18 years ago - Stillman was named in 2000 to the AAC Senior Softball Hall of Fame. He received a plaque and a Hall of Fame jacket, said his wife, who was at the presentation with his children. She has two children, he has four, and together they have 16 grandchildren.

Stillman is one of several dozen Anne Arundel County residents who stay fit by participating in the 50-and-older leagues.

Anne Arundel has two such leagues, one for softball and one for basketball, said county softball park facilitator Jeff Porter. Softball season begins the week of April 10 and ends Aug. 30. Basketball is played in the fall.

Senior athletes play whenever and wherever they can find a game -sometimes in a county league, sometimes an independent league and sometimes at an event sponsored by the Maryland Senior Olympics.

Since 1980, when the Maryland Senior Olympics sponsored its first competition with 300 participants, the MSO has planned games for Maryland citizens - defined as anyone who lives, works or owns property in the state. Now more than 2,000 participants a year engage in all kinds of senior sports, from archery to track and field, even line dancing.

Catering to the growing senior population, generally defined as anyone 50 or older, the Maryland Senior Olympics held its first Walk, Bike, Swim and Run Across Maryland program in 1999. Athletes participate at their own pace, keep a record of their times and solicit sponsors for donations that are used to promote more Senior Olympics events. With a minimum of eight to 10 weeks of participation, the program can last up to 20 weeks, and is open to all ages.

Based at Towson University, Maryland Senior Olympics divides participants into five-year age brackets - starting at ages 50, 55, 60 and so on. When teams play, said Stillman, they are normally matched by age. But when there are not two teams of the same age, he said, his teammates will eagerly play anyone who's available. It makes their day to beat a younger team, he said.

Ten years ago, Stillman began having problems with the cartilage in his knees, and when he played softball he had to have a substitute run the bases for him. When the problems could no longer be corrected by arthroscopic surgery, he faced having to give up sports. For him, that wasn't an option, so he sought the help of orthopedic surgeon Marshall K. Steele III of Annapolis.

Steele, who recently retired from surgery to allow more time to travel around the country training personnel in other hospitals how to establish knee and hip replacement centers, performed Stillman's knee replacements. Like any other life-altering event, Stillman can tell you when: November 2004 for his right knee, July 2005 for his left.

"You have to see the guys who have banged-up knees play," said Stillman, a great-grandfather of three, "to appreciate the work the doctors do." Thanks to modern medicine, the 6-foot, 210-pound athlete is able to play year-round for the Royals Senior Volleyball team and coach, manage and play for the Fairfield Senior Volleyball team.

Ron Bowles, 60, is another bionic senior athlete. An engineer at Computer Science Corp. in Lanham, Bowles plays volleyball, power walks, and coaches indoor and outdoor track and cross country at Bowie High School despite having his right knee replaced two years ago. He anticipates replacement surgery on the left one in May.

"It's not quite like people think," said Bowles, who lives with his wife, Connie, in Bowie. The couple has one daughter and two granddaughters. "In order to get back to do what you want to do at a normal level," he said, "I did physical therapy from eight to nine hours a day."

That determination put him back on the team in time to win the National Senior Olympic volleyball championship for his age group one year later in Pittsburgh. The men beat teams from Ohio, Tennessee and Pennsylvania in the finals.

For senior athletes, remaining in the game is an accomplishment.

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