Hhear us out: competitive sports can sometimes be spoiled by young people. You’ve heard of three-year-olds taking football lessons, helicopter parents making sure their elementary school student reaches the top, and college star athletes aspiring to a professional career.
But what about those who have dedicated their entire lives to a sport and want to compete until they reach their golden years? They may have slowed down a bit, but they are still lively and fit, especially compared to us non-athletes.
Unfortunately, some seniors face stereotypes that they are too “frail” or “weak” to be athletic or competitive. Ageism – the stereotyping or discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of age – permeates our youth-obsessed culture.
But don’t be fooled.
There are senior athletes with the same accolades – and more! – than the younger ones, and some live right here in Sarasota. From master arrow-throwers to fast swimmers and table tennis players, our city hosts athletes who compete every two years in the National Senior Games, a competition for athletes aged 60 and over. The 2022 games were held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida from May 10-23.
HHealth issues almost prevented archer Myers Parrish, 85, from competing this year. In 2021 he won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Senior National Games and in 30 years he has won more medals than you can count. He and his Michigan-born wife Alice have settled into an almost daily practice routine at the Sarasota Archery Club near 17th Street Park.
After surviving several open-heart surgeries, Myers returned to archery with more motivation. His wife says his passion, dedication and camaraderie in the sport kept him going. A third-generation Floridian, he’s been shooting since the day his grandmother gave him his first bow when he was six years old.
“We are very competitive between the two of us,” says Alice, 75. “We intend to compete as long as we can.” The pair won medals this time around and will compete at the 2023 Games in Pittsburgh. They also plan to continue teaching archery to the next generation, including their grandchildren Roscoe and Charlie.
On mild Tuesday afternoon, another archer, Jack Cason, 90, sits at a picnic table under the oak trees of the Sarasota Archery Club. He is calm and humble, except for the rare times he gives advice to his archer friends from the sidelines. Finally, he stands ready to equip himself with his compound bow (which can cost up to $6,000) and his quiver full of professional quality arrows. He stands at the starting line, draws his bow with a strong, steady arm – which he admits is harder to do at his age – and sends an arrow whizzing through the air at 20 mph, straight at a target at more than 60 meters one way.
“I won gold in my age category at this year’s Games,” Cason said. “I’ve won 45 gold medals since I started competing in 1971, but I’ve lost count of the number of medals I’ve won in total.”
Cason and other seniors up to 99 participate in events like swimming, cycling, athletics, table tennis, archery and more at the games. While competition is a reunion with old friends, most athletes agree: they’re here to win.
OWhen I step onto the court, I don’t take the task from anyone,” said 85-year-old John Shultz.
He plays table tennis on the courts of Colonial Oaks in Sarasota and recently competed in singles and doubles at the Senior Games. He was named Male Athlete of the Year in 2009 and held the longest winning streak in the competition’s history at 29 years old.
“I’ve been playing table tennis since high school and always tried to find time for it as an adult, even when family and work life were busy,” says Shultz. His practice has earned him accolades in the form of medals, plaques and even airtime – he was in a 2015 Ford Mustang commercial and has been featured on national and local television several times.
However, Shultz doesn’t always get the praise he deserves. He recounts numerous occasions where young players have commented on his advanced age and the fact that he can no longer compete. He says young people see him as an “easy win”.
“But once they realized how good I was and beat them, they quickly realized that I could help them up their game,” Shultz says. He laughs and adds, “I’ve had quite a few comebacks who wanted to play against me because they end up learning a lot. I’m wiser; I’ve been playing the game longer. They said I inspired them. “
EEven after sustaining injuries, these senior athletes are resilient and returning to what they love. Rudy Vazmina, a 72-year-old Sarasota attorney, suffered two lumbar spinal fusions as well as multiple knee injuries throughout his swimming career. He was an American NCAA athlete at Asheville College, swimming impressive times in the butterfly and breaststroke. Now he trains with a masters team at Arlington Park almost every day. He has appeared in many senior games, including 2015 when he won Sportsman of the Year. And its glory days are far from over.
“I came second in the 50-meter breaststroke and butterfly and second in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke at those games,” Vazmina said. “I’m happy with my times and I’m on the right track.”
He thinks people take him seriously because of the training he does in and out of the pool. He trains by cycling and lifting weights and follows a nutritious diet low in red meat and high in fruits and vegetables. It sounds serious, but Vazmina says he wouldn’t if it wasn’t fun.
“Once you have that competitive spirit and that passion, you never lose it, no matter how old you are,” he adds. “I plan to compete in Pittsburgh in 2023. My wife used to work there, I can’t wait to get back.”
BBy continuing to train and compete, seniors are breaking the stigma that you have to be a certain age to play sports. Sports, whether recreational or competitive, are for everyone. Staying active can also reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes; improve strength and balance; prevent injuries; and improve mental and cognitive health.
“Always train with someone better than you. It keeps you sharp,” advises Myers.
“There is a lot of respect in archery, for people of all levels,” said Alex Donetelli, 85, another archer. “If more sports were like this, I think we’d all be having a better time.”