Golden years, and going for gold
How do you stay fit and healthy after age 60? Two Detroit Senior Olympians share their secrets to success
It’s just after 8 a.m. on a Thursday earlier this summer, and the pool at the Adams Butzel Complex is nearly empty except for a lone swimmer doing laps and two lifeguards sitting poolside. A sign against one wall says, “Those who are coachable will become champions.”
As a participant in the annual Detroit Senior Olympics, Detroiter Carol Rogers, 61, is one of those people. On this early Thursday morning, she is training for the swimming event and to prepare herself she reached out to Kevin Neal, one of the lifeguards on duty who coaches others on how to swim at the Adams Butzel Complex, to give her some tips.
She steps out of the locker room, walks over to the edge of the pool and lowers herself into the water. With a kickboard in her hands, she takes off. “I’m just refining what she already knows,” Neal says as she makes her way up and down the lanes. They’ve been working on her technique and breathing. “Before she came to me she was gasping for air; now she’s not as winded.”
He turns his attention back to the pool and Rogers.
“Kick! Kick! Pick it up!” he shouts over the sound of the waves she makes as her legs slice through the water. She swims a few laps, takes a 1-minute rest, and does the interval all over again. She then ditches the kickboard after she finishes warming up to work on her freestyle stroke.
“Keep that tempo! Remember what I told you!” Rogers makes it to the end and looks up at Neal.
“Give me two more good ones. Give me two more just like that then we’ll cool down,” he tells her.
She gets out of the pool and says, “I’m not gonna lie, I’m a little tired.” But her workout isn’t over.
She changes into leggings and a hot pink T-shirt that says, “So fit, never quit.” Next she’ll play table tennis and softball.
The hard work paid off; during the Detroit Senior Olympics, which were held June 12-14 at various locations around the city, she garnered gold in swimming, table tennis and softball hit. She also added a silver medal in swim walk and bronze medals in volleyball and softball throw to her coffers.
“It’s not so much training but a way of life. You gotta be at my age. In the back of my mind I’m always thinking: How can I improve?”
More than 300 Senior Olympics competed this summer. This year, qualifying participants in the Detroit Senior Olympics were able to compete for the first time on the state and national levels at the Michigan Senior Olympics and the National Senior Games, raising the stakes for athletes and allowing them to represent Detroit on a larger stage.
Paul Yakaitis, 68, a longtime Detroit Public Schools teacher, is especially excited about the opportunity to level up. This was his third year participating in the Detroit Senior Olympics, where he competed in six events. He took the gold in the 1,600-meter walk and softball throw; second place in softball hit, 50-meter dash and singles tennis; and third in basketball free throw.
“Right now I’m thinking I’m getting hungry for the next level to challenge myself, to see if I can compete at that level,” says Yakaitis, who works out every day: weights and strength exercises including pull-ups, followed by a 1-mile run on the track. He alternates gym workouts with playing in the park where he practices softball hit and throw.
He stepped up his training for the Michigan Senior Olympics by adding an hour-and-half workout on the track that included running up and down the steps at the field, a few rounds of 100-yard dashes, a 1,600-meter walk and a 400-yard dash.
“It’s not so much training but a way of life,” he says. “You gotta be at my age. In the back of my mind I’m always thinking: How can I improve?” He is also fiercely competitive, and is just as fired up about winning medals as he was as motivating his students at Southeastern High School, where he was marketing co-op coordinator.
He started getting serious about fitness about four years ago. He thought he was healthy but after seeing the doctor, he discovered he had high cholesterol and blood pressure. He was eating a pound of steak in a sitting. And he thought he was in shape but the first time he played softball after joining a league, “I couldn't get off the couch for 3 or 4 days, my body was that sore. That's when I knew I had to do something different."
He’s also watching what he eats more carefully. Breakfast typically consists of yogurt and fruit (but sometimes later in the day he’ll eat two hot dogs). “I try to keep it light. I’m not giving up pork, not giving up beef.” While he still eats what he wants, portion control has helped him manage his weight, resulting in trimming a few pounds off his tall frame.
It’s taken him about four years to achieve this level of fitness, but it’s worth it — especially as he discovers things he could do that seemed impossible. “Never thought I could do (run a mile) until I got pushed” by others such as fellow gym members, he says.
For Rogers, she is just doing what she did as a youth who loved sports. After she retired in 2011 when she was laid off from her job as a supervisor in student transportation, she focused on playing.
“They always say when you retire do what you love,” Rogers says. Just look at the joy on her face (and check out that worm) when she appeared on “The Price Is Right” a few years ago.
“My husband said, you love to play,’ ” she says.
Aside from volleyball and softball, two sports she has been playing since she was young, she’s also picked up tennis, is learning how to belly dance and takes classes at Wayne County Community College. Through these classes she’s also learned how to eat healthier, using a technique called food combining that she learned at school, and has lost about 25 pounds. Instead of taking pills she’s learned more natural, holistic ways of treating her body. Her doctor wanted to put her on Lipitor for her cholesterol, but after asking about the side effects she opted not to. When she came back to the doctor a few months later, her cholesterol levels were “A-plus.”
“My goal to stay healthy while I'm still here. That's what my goal is just to stay healthy.” And to cross more things off her bucket list. Next up: skydiving.
Interested in training in senior fitness programs? Contact your nearest Detroit Recreation Center for more details. It's never too early to start training; next year's Detroit Senior Olympics will take place June 11-13. And check out this video on this year's Detroit Senior Olympics.