Going the Distance: Senior Elite Athletes Prove That Age is a State of Mind

Reading Time: 15 minutes
"by " HearingLife
10/28/2019

Competitive singles tennis player with a .70 winning average. Synchronized swimmer who regularly finishes in the top six at international meets. Mountaineer who ascends 5,500-foot rock faces. Sprint swimmer who sets records in the backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle.

People who fit these descriptions are considered top-form athletes but when their ages range from 68 to 96, their status gets elevated to a whole other realm: exceptional, rare, even legendary.

We choose to call them inspirational. These athletes compete at a high level, train with purpose and determination, and, often, continue to win even against people half their age.

 

 

“This is the one thing that has stimulated my mind and my life. I enjoy being with the people I swim with, both young and older people. They have all the same ambitions I had and still have: To win and be recognized as a good swimmer.”

Jurgen Schmidt, a 96-year-old master’s swimmer from Huntington Beach, California

Meet and be motivated by these exceptional seniors

Here are four profiles of inspirational athletes, people with the drive and enthusiasm to maintain their athleticism — and their competitive edge — well into their senior years. Besides talent and hard work, they all say that their love of sport and the sense of community and connection it affords them keeps them striving for more.

Christa Keeling, 77, competitive singles tennis player

Born in Austria, you can still hear the German accent that Christa retains as well as the tomboy athleticism of her childhood. A skier and windsurfer most of her life, Christa took up tennis in her 50s and has competed for more than two decades in and around Marin County, where she now lives.

Her favorite time to compete is the official United States Tennis Association-sanctioned early summer season open to any adult over 18 (other seasons feature limited age categories). Her singles record, with a winning average of 70 percent, means regularly toppling opponents less than half her age. “It bugs me to lose; it bugs me tremendously,” she said with a laugh.

“Playing with, and against, younger women is a benefit of the sport,” she added. “I love playing with younger teammates; I love the wonderful team spirit.” 

Injury-free in a sport known for sore knees

In a sport rife with knee and shoulder injuries, Christa remains healthy and pain-free. She had knee surgery 40 years ago, after a doctor discovered she had two knee caps. “He pushed one out and sewed it up and I haven’t had a problem since,” she said. “I hope to play until I can’t walk on to the courts.”

Recently Christa signed with a local modeling agency that represents women over 50 years old. She also tried pickleball but it couldn’t stand up to her passion for tennis. “I will never give it up,” she said.  

Alan Kearney, 68, mountaineer and athlete

Alan KearneyIn the spring of this year, Alan Kearney guided a six-day mountaineering trip in the Washington Cascades, including a two-day ascent of Inspiration Glacier on the east side of Eldorado Peak, a 8,868-foot summit popular with climbers. As an experienced mountaineer and climber who has pioneered first ascents in Patagonia and British Columbia, Alan enjoys instructing younger mountaineers in this physically challenging sport.

Traversing glaciers as recreation in your 60s

By Alan’s standards, the Cascades trip was a fairly ordinary outing. Six days of camping, traversing glaciers, and climbing rock faces is his idea of recreational fun. For his clients—many less than half his age—it was a significant challenge to get to the summit. “Not all of them made it,” he said. 

Free climbing, free soloing and aid climbing

In his 50 years of climbing, Alan has generally always “made it.” He is an expert in feeling his way up a mountain face, finding delicate pits and clefts for inserting a hand or a foot, often aided by just a single rope. His technique, called “free climbing” is just a degree removed from “free soloing” which is climbing without any aids. If a free climber ends up putting weight on a rope or hanging from one, that part of climb is called “aid climbing.”

Free climbing is how, in 1981, Alan and a partner created a new ascent up the south face of the Central Tower of Paine, an 8,000-foot peak in Chilean Patagonia. It took them four tries and two instances of aid climbing, but their achievement remains remarkable. In total, Alan has made 27 first ascents (summiting a mountain via a new route) in the American northwest, Alaska, British Columbia, and Patagonia. 

"I can do it!"

“From an early age, I fell in love with the mountains and the outdoors,” he said. He is also an  avid writer and photographer, documenting his climbs in two books, Mountaineering in Patagonia and Classic Climbs of the Northwest as well as dozens of articles. His images of inspiring peaks and vistas are part of Getty Images’ stock collection.

Although most of his friends over age 60 have forsworn climbing due to the arduousness of the sport, Alan stays in top physical shape—including backcountry skiing, hiking, and ice climbing—so that “when somebody says, ‘let’s go climbing,’ I can do it.” 

Meet Jurgen Schmidt, 96, competitive swimmer and Master’s International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee

spot_jurgen_schmidtBorn in Hamburg, Germany, in 1923, Jurgen started swimming in high school near Chicago, after he took a water safety course to become a lifeguard. After he graduated, he joined the U.S. Navy and began swimming competitively with the team at the Navy training school. 

Brief deployments during WWII and Korea, then marriage and work, halted his serious swimming. Then, in 1973 at the age of 50, he joined a master’s swimming club in Wheaton, Illinois, getting up at 4 a.m. to make the morning practices before going to work. It was the start of a glorious athletic career. 

Competing and winning in Australia

Jurgen became a regular record setter in his club and in his age group. In 1988 he competed in the world’s master swimming meet in Brisbane, Australia, winning the 50-meter butterfly, placing third in two other events, and breaking the existing record for his 60-65 age group in the 200-meter medley relay.

In 2013, at the age of 90, he formed a superteam in the combined age group of 360-plus (an official master’s category), inviting individual record holders Frank Piemme, 88, Rita Simonton, 95, and Maurine Kornfeld, 92, to join him. The team set new national records in five events. 

Setting new athletic records in his 90s

Although the addition of a pacemaker and defibrillator has slowed him down, last October Jurgen set three new records at a Southern Pacific meet (which includes swimmers north of San Diego to Monterey county and east to Las Vegas) in the 95-99 age group in the backstroke, freestyle, and breaststroke. In 2018, he was inducted into the Master’s International Swimming Hall of Fame.

 

 

“People tell me I’m an inspiration, I’m a legend.”

Jurgen Schmidt, 96, competitive swimmer

“This is my 46th year of master’s swimming,” he said. “When I go to a meet, people tell me I’m an inspiration, I’m a legend.” Until recently, Jurgen was still competing against the 85-to-89 age group. “I still enjoy swimming against them even though they are younger than me.”

Christine Schroeder, 68, competitive synchronized swimmer

There is a wall full of national medals and nearly two dozen world medals in Christine Schroeder’s house, commemorating her accomplishments in synchronized swimming. Christine discovered synchro (as synchronized swimmers call it; the sport is now officially called water ballet) when she was 12 years old. It was then a nascent sport best known for the “aqua musicals” it inspired featuring swimmer and actress Esther Williams. 

Like Williams, Christine was a good swimmer but disliked the monotony of lap swimming. “I felt I wanted to be pretty and artistic in the water,” she said. She picked up a synchro rulebook and some tips from some local enthusiasts. But with few places to compete in her hometown of Aurora, Colorado, Christine packed her bags at 18 and moved to San Francisco where a national team had formed coached by early synchro pioneer, Marion Kane Elston. 

The San Francisco Merionettes developed her technique and for two years she competed and won in junior and national championships, culminating in a team event win at the Pan American games in 1971. Then, she went to Europe to coach the Swiss and Dutch teams. “I learned about teamwork and working with people,” she said. “Synchro is about making something beautiful together.”

Christine eventually dropped out of the synchronized swimming circuit and had a family. But at 44 she decided to return. She joined her former Merionettes coach who was then coaching the Redwood Empire Synchronized team out of Santa Rosa, California. That was 24 years ago, and Christine has been practicing and competing with the team ever since.

She competes nearly every other year in world championships and regularly in national meets. In 2012, at the synchro world meet in Riccione, Italy, she placed third in duet (or partner) synchro in the 50-59 age group and first in solo performance in the 60-69 age group. This year at the world meet in Gwangju, South Korea, she placed sixth in the solo and second in the duets in the 60-69 age group. Meanwhile, her Redwood team, with an age range of 43-79, placed second overall at the 2019 U.S. Masters Championship meet in Tupelo, Miss in October 2019.

Mentoring and training young athletes

Christine coaches a youth synchro team and maintains a serious conditioning schedule, including swim practice three times a week and synchro drills with her masters team once a week. She said it’s the sense of community that keeps her inspired. “The friends you meet in synchro you keep forever.”

Inspired to compete

It may be talent, or especially hardy genes, that set senior elite athletes apart. What our four inspirational competitors also share is a sense of purpose, a positive outlook, and a desire to prevail despite the odds.

As Christa Keeling, the tennis champ, said about her passion for her sport: “I usually do things 100 percent.” It’s an apt description for all of our athletes and in the end, more enduring and inspirational than any medal or winning time. 

We salute all senior athletes everywhere for showing us how to be better, not only on a tennis court, a mountain slope, or in a swimming pool, but in any circumstance and at any time. What they demonstrate is that at any time of life, it’s possible to be a winner.

You don't need to be competitive to be an active senior

Whether you enjoy swimming laps at your local Y, you can be fit after 55. Plus there are plenty of benefits to staying active long after you retire. Whether you enjoy the hidden benefits of yoga or just want to embrace exercise as the key to general wellness, you don't have to be a top athlete to be inspired to get in the pool, dust off your tennis racket, go for a walk – or even dare to go on a hike that goes a it beyond your comfort zone.

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