Newsreal: Not over the hill

While the television cameras focus on Olympic athletes who seem impossibly young, and competitors in their late 20s are considered "over the hill," athletes 40 and over -- including some in their 90s -- are a growing presence on tracks and fields everywhere.

Topics: Olympics,

You won’t see them at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, but they’re a growing and vigorous presence on athletic fields all across the world — overachievers in a very special sense — over 40, over 60, over 80, competing in conventional Olympic events.

“Masters” athletes — those over 40 — are carving a big niche for themselves in sports. Between 1980 and 1996, according to the U.S. Track and Field Association, the number of marathon runners over 40 increased more than five-fold, from 31,200 to 162,360.

This phenomenon is not limited to the United States. Last summer, more than 6,000 men and women from 72 countries, ranging in age from 35 to 93, gathered for the 12th World Association of Veteran Athletes Games in Durban, South Africa. Among the highlights: a 100-yard dash for men over 90, pole vault for women over 70 and 5,000-meter racewalk for women over 85.

Though a few competitors could have starred in “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” others looked strong and competent. But for all who participate, these games are part of the serious enterprise of challenging the limits of possibility for the middle-aged and the old — especially women.

The 102 American women competing in Durban ranged widely in age, ability, experience and goals. A few had years of high-level competitive experience, but the oldest didn’t take up sports at all until she was 83.

“Four years ago, I was sitting in my chair, feeling old for the first time in my life,” said Dorothy Robarts, 87, of Mill Valley, Calif., just north of San Francisco. Robarts keeps her curled hair blond with Miss Clairol, hears perfectly and doesn’t miss a beat in conversation. “I thought then, I can sit here and rust out, or I can get up and wear out,” she added.

So she took up yoga, then joined a racewalking class at the local community college and won first place in all her starts at regional competitions and the WAVA Games in Buffalo, N.Y.

In Durban, Robarts encountered tougher competition, with three other women aged 84-89 in her 5K racewalk. “I got the first silver medal of my life,” she said crossly. “That Swedish woman has been cross-country skiing all her life, and she beat me!”

Then Robarts brightened. “But it’s all right. I do this for my health and my mind. Besides, I had the time of my life touring South Africa.”

Other contenders who, like Robarts, could have made money wagering that bystanders could not guess their actual ages were a pair of identical twins from Princeton, N.J., Michael Hill and Johnnie Hill-Hudgins. Though they look about 30, they are 50.

The two have been competing all their lives, garnering scores of medals since forming the first girls’ track team at Princeton High School in 1965. But that’s not all. The sisters’ business card reads, “Singers, Models, Actresses, Karate.” They have appeared on TV as American Gladiators and in commercials; they have toured the world as singers, and were stunt doubles for Whitney Houston in “The Preacher’s Wife.”

To finance their trip, the Hills held fund-raisers in their community. The U.S. does not pay the expenses of senior athletes traveling to competitions — which embitters some lower-income competitors, who complain that world championships should be open to all good athletes, not only to good athletes with money.

Patricia Peterson, a sprinter from Albany, N.Y., looks every bit of her 72 years. Wiry, white-haired and wrinkled, she wears trifocal wire-rimmed glasses, no-nonsense short hair, no makeup, a navy blue polo shirt and shorts. But in competition, the old elf looks about 25 — arms pumping freely as she speeds down the track, long legs stretched out in graceful, ground-covering strides.

Peterson has been hooked on sports since she began officiating at basketball games as a seventh grader in 1938, and has used any resource she could muster for nearly 40 years as a teacher and coach to gain equal resources for women athletes. Her own sprinting career began in 1987 when, just for fun, she signed up at the New York State Senior Games.

Two years later, however, illness struck. “Non-Hodgkins lymphoma is the kind of cancer that doesn’t go away,” she notes. Chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and support from her church, family and friends have pulled her through two bouts with the disease. After the first, she recovered enough to win medals at the 1995 WAVA Games. And after battling back from cancer a second time, she competed at Durban, winning three gold medals and setting an American age-group record in the 400 meters.

The 13th WAVA Games will take place in England in 1999, on the eve of the millennium. The Hill twins won’t go — they plan to focus on their singing career. Dorothy Robarts would like a rematch in the racewalk, although, at 87, she thinks that two years is too far ahead to plan. Pat Peterson hopes to be alive and racing.

Eve Pell has been a teacher, a private investigator and a staff reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting. She is also a grandmother and nationally ranked age-group runner. She lives in Mill Valley, Calif.

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