Rita Evans took a breather from her workout in the Union College pool and chuckled about her early experiences at national championships. “Those Olympians, they wouldn’t talk to me,” said Evans, a relative upstart when she started racing at 75. Within a few years, she was winning national titles and they knew her name.
“When I got good, I got good fast,” Evans said. “I don’t know if you’d call me an athlete, but I’m having an awful lot of fun.”
Ignoring conventional wisdom that aging ends your playing days, in the past few decades more graying athletes like the slender 84-year-old Evans are competing. Research confirms clear health advantages over non-athletes, though recent data show similar rates of individual physical decline.
Henry Sypniewski shattered the national half-marathon record for 85-year-olds by nearly 15 minutes this past summer. The retired machine shop foreman and World War II veteran from the Buffalo suburb of Cheektowaga clocked 2:11:57.
Sypniewski was a runner in high school, for decades didn’t have time, then took it up again at 70. He was 335th out of almost 400 finishers in the 13.1-mile Erie Runners Club Presque Isle race in July.
A week earlier, at the Utica Boilermaker, he set a 15-kilometer record of 1:30:24 for runners ages 85-89.
“So help me I could have run at least four or five minutes faster, I think,” he said, referring to a starting position behind about 6,000 other runners that slowed him down.
In September, he set unofficial marathon (5:11:04) and 5-kilometer (27:15) marks, and in October did it for 10 kilometers (56:38). Ryan Lamppa of USA Track and Field said Sypniewski’s records still need to be verified.
Retired at 66, Sypniewski took up race walking, then saw an ad for a moonlight run.
“It almost killed me, but I beat a couple of old geezers who were 70, and that got me started,” he said.
He trains two days a week, running 550 yards downhill, then walking back up, five times. “I don’t run any harder than I have to in practice,” he said. Other days he walks or exercises, saving wear on his knees.
“As you get older, you lose so many seconds per year. Your body slows down,” he said. He’s had minor injuries, but says he has a good doctor and chiropractor. “My wife cooks up good meals for me. You’ve got to get a good meal under you when you run.”
The USATF’s masters championships this year hosted 1,500 men and women 30 and older. Among U.S. marathon finishers in 2000, 44 percent were over 40, up from 25 percent two decades earlier.
A long-term study of master athlete physiology at the University of Southern California began 17 years ago with 146 men and 82 women over 40.
“The data show that high levels of activity appear to slow down the aging of muscles and help to maintain strength and performance,” principal investigator Robert Wiswell told USC News.
Health advantages, challenges
However, recent studies of endurance runners show aerobic capacity declining at a similar rate to sedentary adults, about 10 percent a decade, said researcher Steven Hawkins at California State University, Los Angeles.
“The early studies that showed a reduced loss or even no loss were studies in which the training was either increasing in that period or absolutely maintained,” Hawkins said. “We think aging seems to present some kind of challenge to training maintenance that makes that impossible for the average person.”
Researchers believe the relative decline begins around age 30, Hawkins said. But athletes’ aerobic capacity in absolute terms remains significantly higher than in non-athletes, with ongoing advantages in cardiovascular profile, disease incidence and bone strength.
“What some of these older people are doing today is astounding,” Hawkins said. The older champions could “reflect a subpopulation that is genetic mutants,” or share an emotional profile that gives them an advantage over the average person, he said.
About half the master athletes in the USC study compete, with no apparent indication of increasing injuries from competition as they age. Some master athletes can be so compulsive about training that eventually they break down, while champions back off as needed and gear workouts toward competition, he said.
Evans took up swimming in her 40s as rehabilitation for a back injury. She did laps, studied technique, joined a masters’ program, and eventually started racing.
She refused to heed the coach who was advising her to do more butterfly laps after they made her shoulder sore. She’ll talk to coaches, but structures her own workouts, swimming 1,000 yards in a half-hour practice.
“You can’t push an old body like you can a young one,” she said. “I don’t compete unless I’m ready for it.”
United States Masters Swimming lists her as an All-American with top times among competitors 80-84 for backstroke and individual medley in 2000 and 2001. She swam the 200-yard backstroke in 4:01.97. The USMS record of 1:59.22 was set in 2000 by 21-year-old Sara Schweitzer.
This year Evans traveled to Tempe, Ariz., from her upstate New York home for the USMS Short Course National Championships and took a second, two thirds and a fourth. “I didn’t do very well,” she said.
The former Navy nurse, who raised two children and cared for her late paraplegic husband, swims, canoes and windsurfs on Lake George in summer. She takes an herbal supplement for arthritis and has little patience for ailment complaints.
After recent surgery for a one-centimeter tear in a shoulder tendon, she returned to the pool again within weeks, limiting herself to kicking and sculling while awaiting her doctor’s clearance to swim.
“I pay my own way,” Evans said about swimming and everything else. “So I do as I damn well please.”