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Silver Mettle

Vermont's elderly athletes are going the distance -- and not just in years


Published April 14, 2004 at 7:03 p.m.

When Alverta Perkins was asked recently to talk about health and fitness to a local elementary school class, she didn't think it was rude of a student to ask her, "How old are you?" Quite the opposite. The 80-year-old shot-putter and long jumper thinks it's important for children to see people her age who are athletic. "The kids didn't laugh at me," Perkins says. "I think they were just awed that someone as old as I am can still walk."

And Perkins showed the kids she can do a lot more than walk. "This one fourth grader, a little smart ass, challenged me to a race. I beat him," she says proudly. "Of course, if we had gone any further, he would have beat me, but I was so pleased."

Despite her obvious delight at beating the pants off a boy one-tenth her age, Perkins is no fire-in-the-belly competitor. Mostly, she does it because it's a lot of fun, she says. And next month, she will join dozens of other senior citizens at South Burlington High School to compete in Vermont's only qualifying meet for the track and field events at the 2005 National Senior Games/Senior Olympics in Pittsburgh. In a culture that usually equates old age with infirmity and disease, this event is a wake-up call for anyone who has dreaded an approaching milestone birthday or whined about being "too old" to take up a new sport.

Perkins was 75 when she started training for the Senior Olympics. At the time, she had just enrolled in a fitness and aging class at the University of Vermont. "Afterwards, we went out to the track and I watched someone training out there for the long jump," Perkins recalls. "And I said, 'I never did that in my life, but it sure looks like fun.'"

In fact, Perkins had never done any track and field events before. Aside from taking an occasional hike with her family, she says she wasn't even an active person, let alone an athlete. "Oh, God, no," Perkins says. "They would never let me play sports because I was so lousy."

But at an age when most of her contemporaries were taking up sedentary activities like bridge and backgammon, Perkins was learning to long jump, run the 60-meter sprint, and throw the discus and shot put. "I'm just now starting to try the triple jump, if I can remember which comes first, the skip or the hop," Perkins adds, without a hint of jest. "And I've also tried the javelin a couple of times. I'd like to do more of that."

If the idea of an 80-year-old grandmother hurling a javelin across a field evokes giggles, Perkins doesn't seem to mind. She exudes a childlike ebullience, herself, just talking about her events. On a rainy afternoon last week, the petite, retired nurse greets me at the door of her South Burlington apartment wearing a gray, hooded sweatshirt and running shoes. We are soon joined by two of her friends and fellow athletes, Fran Moravcsik and Barbara Jordan.

Jordan, who is 68, refuses Perkins' offer of a chair, opting instead to sit on the carpet with one leg out to her side, like a little girl playing jacks -- or a hurdler stretching out before a race. Actually, Jordan holds the world record in her age group (65-89) in the 300-meter hurdles, as well as national records for the indoor 60-meter hurdles and the outdoor 80-meter hurdles. A few weeks ago, she took first place in a senior pentathlon in Boston, an event that included the hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put and 800-meter run.

Jordan teaches the fitness and aging class three mornings a week at UVM. She explains that the class grew out of a research project conducted by a local gerontologist who wanted to study the relationship in the elderly between exercise and insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. The three-year study, which began in 1984, tracked the health of two dozen healthy individuals who were at least 60 years old. Jordan's role was to train the participants over a 12-week period and keep their heart rates above a predetermined level.

The study eventually demonstrated that regular exercise does help seniors fight insulin resistance. But the study had another, unintended benefit: The participants had so much fun that they didn't want it to end. So Jordan found a way to continue their training by turning it into a class. Over the years, it has bounced from one community organization to another -- the class is currently part of UVM's recreational sports program -- but Jordan admits, "UVM doesn't quite know where to put us now."

Moravcsik was one of Jordan's students. Like Perkins, she doesn't consider herself a "serious" athlete, but still enjoys going to competitions and has traveled to senior games as far away as Australia. Moravcsik, who turns 70 in July, will compete next month in the shot put and the discus, and may throw the javelin as well. Why all the throwing sports? "So I don't have to run," she confesses.

Moravcsik says that one challenge in becoming an athlete at her age -- she began competing just four years ago -- is overcoming the notion that rigorous exercise is inherently dangerous to old people. She's met many senior athletes who compete despite health problems, or have been helped by their physical training. Moravcsik, who was a licensed massage therapist in Oregon, recommends that senior athletes seek out health-care providers who not only specialize in geriatric fitness, but who are also athletes themselves.

"The thing you have to watch out for is the doctor who automatically tells you not to do something if there's any kind of pain," Moravcsik explains. "Because a lot of times even if you stop exercising, the pain still continues. If the doctor doesn't do exercise himself, he's emotionally invested in exercise being a bad thing."

Jordan, who studied geriatric fitness at Coopers Institute in Texas, says it's difficult for older athletes to find coaches who know how train them properly. "They either treat you like an invalid and say, 'Don't do this,' and 'Don't do that,'" she says, "or else they think you're like a teenager or high schooler and train you like one."

Jordan doesn't deny that there are risks inherent in being an athlete at her age -- in recent years, she broke two ribs doing the high jump, and also stumbled on a hurdle and tore a ligament in her right knee. But most of her injuries have been minor bumps and bruises. And as long as seniors use common sense when they exercise, they're often capable of more than they realize.

Jordan has also disproved a widely held assumption that athletes become less competitive over time. In the last three years, she has bettered two of her previous records, "which is interesting," she says, "since they say you lose about 1 percent of your speed a year."

What do these women's families and friends think about their adult-onset athleticism? "They think it's wonderful," says Perkins. "They're not going to do it themselves. They sort of turn you into --"

"A freak?" suggests Moravcsik.

"A role model," corrects Perkins.

All three women say they would like to see more public interest in elderly sports like the Masters and the National Senior Games. For one, it would be nice to attract corporate sponsorship -- traveling to distant games gets expensive, Perkins says, "and you use a lot of Ben Gay." More importantly, though, with America's increasingly sedentary habits, obesity epidemic, obsession with youth and pervasive negative stereotypes about the elderly, it's inspirational to see hundreds of physically fit old people running around a track.

"I took my younger sister to [a meet in] Boston the time I was there. I said, 'You've got to see this,'" Moravcsik recalls. "And she said, 'When I see men that age, they usually have more clothes on.'"