In competitions, some say, `What's age got to do with it?'

The Middle Ages

May 06, 2007|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Reporter

As the spring weather begins to sprout athletes, you may spot a few late-bloomers like Beth Gunter of Abingdon, who is training for a national cycling competition in Louisville, Ky.

Gunter, 53, is biking 125 to 175 miles a week to prepare for next month's 2007 Summer National Senior Games, known as the Senior Olympics.

Dave Doi, 60, of Bethesda is swimming, running and biking in preparation for the competition's triathlon, while his 59-year-old wife, Sue Miler, a bronze medalist in volleyball in the 2005 games, is also working out and practicing with her team.

Jeff Smart's training regimen for table tennis includes a 45-minute swim practice three times a week, lifting weights and riding an exercise bike. The 53-year-old Columbia resident is also competing this month in regional championships as a warm-up to Louisville.

These competitors are among thousands of qualified athletes -- ages 50 to 100-plus -- who are gathering for the games. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the senior games were first held in St. Louis with 2,500 athletes. This year, 12,000 have registered -- more than for the Olympic Games in Athens or Beijing, says Phil Godfrey, president and chief executive of the National Senior Games Association.

In Maryland, 455 athletes have qualified for the games by winning state competitions. This year, a fourth of the state's delegation is composed of baby boomers, ages 50 to 61. Many are combining rigorous training schedules with full-time jobs as well as family obligations.

And, in the process, they're helping to change the face -- and persona -- of the well-tuned athlete.

"The ability of senior athletes has changed dramatically along with the perception that people can't continue to compete over a longer period of time," Godfrey says. "I hear people say over and over that they never expected to compete at this time in their lives at such a high level."

The business world is getting hip to the phenomenon as well. You need only glimpse the buff aging athletes who grace the cover of GeezerJock, a sports-and-fitness magazine created to serve the ever-increasing demographic of people past the age of 40.

First published three years ago, GeezerJock has a circulation of 50,000. It offers features about regional and national competitions, athletic trends and sports medicine and profiles of outstanding athletes with their recipes for success. In a recent issue, for instance, 59-year-old Paul Scopetski shared the workout that has kept him from missing any game in 28 years of playing semi-pro tackle football.

There are also stories that spin off cultural and sports news: One story interviewed older athletes who are caregivers for aging parents, while another discussed the issue of disqualifying masters athletes (40 years and older) for testing positive for drugs they must take for medical conditions. Last year, British shot putter Neil Griffin, 58, was suspended from competition for two years after testing positive for hormonal steroids prescribed for his diabetes.

In the online version, you can read a masters rugby blog, learn about nominees for the "Comeback Athlete of the Year" award and peruse a 15-part series by 57-year-old football coach Bill Unsworth about his second hip replacement.

GeezerJock editor Callahan says he became interested in aging athletes when he and magazine co-founder Steve Boman attended their first Senior Olympics in 1997. At the time, they were feature writers for The Daily Southtown, a newspaper in suburban Chicago.

"The thing that blew us away the most was watching the 59- and 55-year-olds run the 100 meters," Callahan says. "They ran so amazingly fast, within one or two seconds of the world record."

During next month's games, held June 22 to July 6. GeezerJock will publish a daily newspaper for the athletes that will offer feature stories, results and events coverage. There are 18 categories of sports competition, including archery, triathlon, basketball, race walk, softball and tennis, with more than 800 events staged in age groups.

Harford County cyclist Beth Gunter will compete in the 5K (3.1-mile) and 10K (6.2-mile) cycling competitions; she received a gold medal for those events in the state's 2006 qualifying trials with times of 9:30 and 19:33, respectively.

A member of the Chesapeake Wheelmen bicycle-racing club, Gunter works as an investigator and case manager for the Baltimore County Department of Juvenile Services. She says she often knocks off a 35-mile training run after work, a feat she compares to "brushing my teeth."

And she competes despite a total hip-replacement in 2000 that followed a crash on a training ride.

"I really enjoy the freedom of cycling and the dedication and perseverance of pushing myself to see how much I can get out of my body," she says.

Gunter plans to take her 83-year-old mother to Louisville for the games -- and also plans to win her events: "I'll stay focused and give it 100 percent," she says. Then it's on to compete in a 40K (25-mile) race in the USA Cycling championships near Pittsburgh two weeks later.

That kind of race schedule puts her squarely in the overachieving universe of GeezerJock.

"We thought a name like Masters News or Senior Fitness would fall flat and also not capture how good, strong and fast these athletes really are," Callahan says. "We wanted something that would capture the sea change [in masters sports].

"I think that by putting `geezer' and `jock' together, we have changed the meaning of both."

linell.smith@baltsun.com

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