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Senior Athletes

Jimmy Magahern | Dec 31, 2012, 9:59 a.m.
At age 68, Gayle Clawson is a competitive powerlifter who has won dozens of metals, plaques and trophies as a senior athlete. Adam Moreno

“I’m going to be there this year,” pledges Clawson, no stranger to standing up under pressure. “I don’t know if I’ll win, but one way or another, I’ll be there!”

Ageless Athletes

It’s been called “the best-kept secret in sports,” but each year since its inception in 1985, the National Senior Games (its original name, the National Senior Olympics, was changed in 1990 after objections from the U.S. Olympic Committee) has been steadily growing in popularity. This coming summer, more than 13,000 athletes are expected to compete in the National Senior Games to be held in downtown Cleveland—about 3,000 more than competed in the Olympic Games in London last summer.

Aside from the thousands of athletes 50 and older who make it to the national event, hundreds of thousands more participate in state qualifying events, like next month’s Arizona Senior Olympics (which, through a grandfather clause addressing states that were using the name prior to the USOC agreement, is allowed to continue using the prized Olympics moniker).

Trend watchers say the boost in senior athletics is a function of increasing lifespans, more free time and the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, which has always embraced fitness and sees no reason to stop. But today’s older athletes aren’t just Jazzercising and playing Wii bowling. A 2011 study by the National Sporting Goods Association found that sports participation among adults age 55 and older has increased by nearly 30 percent in the last 10 years—almost triple the increase reported for the entire U.S. population. And we’re not talking shuffleboard: today’s older athletes are participating in weightlifting, water skiing, basketball, mountain biking and kayaking, which curiously shows a whopping increase by nearly 350 percent.

Barbara Brandt has seen increased participation in the Arizona Senior Olympics, too, since she took part in her first competition back in 1988, and credits the surge to expanded opportunities for older adults—and particularly women—to engage in such things.

“They didn’t have that stuff for us girls when we were growing up,” says the 83-year-old Brandt, whose specialties are the discus and javelin throws. Although Brandt had played softball when she was younger, she had never participated in track and field events before. Upon hearing about the Senior Olympics in her late 50s, Barbara and her husband borrowed a few books from their grown daughter, who was at the time working as a P.E. teacher in Cleveland, and learned from textbook diagrams how to throw a discus and a javelin.

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Barbara Brandt at the 2012 USA Masters Outdoor Track and Field Championships held at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill. in August 2012.

Thanks to a strong arm developed during her softball years, Barbara turned out to be a natural on the javelin, and also learned how to excel at the discus throw. But it took her a while to get there, and—contrary to the common perception that athletic ability diminishes with age—she’s actually improved as she’s gotten older.

The Senior Games divide participants into five-year age groups, and Brandt has dominated every age division she’s passed through for the last 13 years. She set a new record for the American javelin throw in the 70-to-74-year-old category, broke the javelin record again in the 75-to-79 age group, and currently holds the record in the 80-to-84-year-old group, for tossing a javelin an impressive 19.58 meters, or roughly 64 feet.

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