Athletes at 80

Among the most fascinating men I have met are two athletes, both well into their 80s. Both, when we met, appeared remarkably healthy, strong and robust. The odd thing is that what I learned most from each was not about fitness, but about aging.

We will call the triathlete “Pete”. Pete competed in triathlons around the country. He flew to them in his own plane, which he kept in a barn on his property, so he took off and landed on his remote, private field at his house in Vermont.

Pete almost screamed good health. He was well-tanned, with long, silver-white hair pulled back into a ponytail.  Shaking his hand was like meeting a vise grip. Pete smiled continually. His conversation was always about what he planned to do next. His first book of poetry was completed and his second book was going well. “Yah know what, Scotty boy?” he’d say as his agile brain leapt from one topic to the next.

He kept telling me I needed to exercise more, “Yah gotta’ be tough if yah plan tah get old, Scotty boy… Bein’ old ain’t for sissies.” According to Pete, I didn’t do nearly enough of anything, except work, and I did too much of that.

Then I got a call from his son; Pete had died. Still fit, still strong, Pete just didn’t wake up one morning. You would think the passing of someone over 80 would not come as a surprise. 80 years is a long time. 80 is old by anyone’s count, but Pete was so healthy; he was so strong!

While I was struggling to fathom Pete’s passing, I met Bob, a bodybuilder. Here was another man who seemed to be cheating time. Strong, handsome, sharp mind and big biceps, he didn’t look 80, he looked 60! But when he got up to walk, he had that “old guy shuffle.”

My thoughts must have showed on my face because he smiled at me and said, “Lately, I’ve begun to slow down. I feel just as strong, but it’s like I’m always walking uphill.”

Smiling, he shared with me the ways time was wearing him down. “It’s like time has started whittling me away.  Each morning there is a little bit less of what I can do. I feel great, but that hill, boy, is it steep!”

Aging, I get it: time doesn’t care how strong or how active we are. No matter how fast we can run, we can’t outrun our age. But then I meet a couple of guys like these and it fools me. Both looked like they had a lot of miles left in them, but they wear down and out just like anyone — starting from a point of fitness, however, extends your abilities while you are here and that improves quality of life, or so it was for these two.

Bob summed it up for me: “I don’t expect to go on forever, but I do expect to be at my best when I go.”

“Aging in place”, the best we can for as long as we can.

By Scott Funk

Scott Funk is Vermont’s leading Aging in Place advocate, writing and speaking around the state on issues of concern to retirees and their families.

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