Mary L. Bowermaster, a septuagenarian from Fairfield, Ohio, began a formal exercise program just 16 years ago. Today she competes around the country in tennis and track and field events.
This week, (May 21-28) she and about 10,000 persons age 50 and older from around the country will test their athletic skills in the biennial US Senior Sports Classic, to be held in Tucson, Ariz., amid the saguaro cactuses of the Sonoran Desert.
Many of the athletes like Bowermaster did not begin formally competing until they were well past 50.
Jeff Jones, administrative director of the US National Senior Sports Organization (USNSO) says the athletes "want to change what the stereotype of aging is."
The events, which will take place primarily on the University of Arizona campus, include strenuous feats of physical endurance such as swimming, track and field, cycling, and volleyball. Participants will compete for gold, silver, and bronze medals in all 18 sports, Jones says.
It is the sixth such gathering organized by USNSO, a St. Louis-based, nonprofit organization whose aim is to promote health and fitness for seniors through competition. It is billed as the largest senior sports event in the US.
In Tucson, the athletes will compete in 60 events according to age bracket. Each age bracket is five years, so a 61-year-old tennis player goes up against players ages 60 to 64.
To participate in Tucson, athletes had to qualify in games held in their home states. The three top finishers in each category advanced to the national contest.
For Bowermaster, a five-time Master Athlete of the Year, sports has changed her life. Three days a week, she gets up at 5:30 a.m. at her home in suburban Cincinnati, and is at the local track by 6. "It opened up a whole new world for me," she says.
Her favorite event is the 100-meter dash, in which her best time is 14.10 seconds. Currently, she added, she is running in the 16- or 17-second range, depending on weather conditions.
To organizer Jones, each biennial event is inspirational, with the athletes' love of the game being the sole incentive to come out and compete.
The first event he witnessed was as an intern during the 1991 games in Syracuse, N.Y. A camaraderie among competing athletes is present, he says, in which they cheer each other on. It is a quality that he says is missing in the rest of sports today.
To Bowermaster, sports is the key to a positive outlook on life. "A lot of people just give up. You can't give up. If you have the willpower to go in, it will help you to improve and get better," she says.