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The U.S. National Senior Olympics were fun, but athletes also got in some serious competition

Sylvia Auerbach Swartz of Queens, N.Y., is standing on Francis Field at Washington University in St. Louis, readying herself to put the shot. She adjusts the Ace bandage on her right elbow, steps into the ring, nestles the 6.6-pound shot in the crook of her neck and heaves. An official calls out the distance: "Nineteen feet, eight and one-half inches." Swartz, not given to displays of emotion, smiles. Pretty good for a 77-year-old great-grandmother who has arthritis in her hands, elbows, knees and shoulders. Swartz's younger sister Rose Auerbach Ruston, 73, who's sitting on the sideline, yells, "Go, Sylvia! All the way!" Swartz's second toss thuds into the turf at 19 feet even.

A few minutes later, just before her third and final throw, Swartz's baby sister, Pearl Auerbach, 67, runs up to offer some advice on technique. Rose is intent on her cheerleading, shouting, "O.K., Sylvia. Twenty-five feet!" The three sisters start to giggle at that.

On her last throw, the shot lands 18 feet downrange. But no matter, off that first toss Swartz has won a silver medal at the U.S. National Senior Olympics.

Last week, 3,452 athletes ranging in age from 55 to 91 gathered at the site of the 1904 St. Louis Olympics to have a few laughs and, as one octogenarian put it, "kick some butt." But the main message of the second biennial Senior Olympics was probably best expressed by the mottos seen on T-shirts: LIFE IS MOVEMENT—LET'S GET MOVING read the shirts worn by the Connecticut contingent; YOU DON'T STOP PLAYING BECAUSE YOU GROW OLD, YOU GROW OLD BECAUSE YOU STOP PLAYING was the warning offered by athletes from New York. These pensioners rode bicycles, not rocking chairs, and they had earned a trip to St. Louis by competing in 53 qualifying meets, in which 100,000 athletes—in 47 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, England and Taiwan—had competed.

The Senior Games may be a sports wave of the future. There are nearly 31 million Americans aged 65 or over—including, as of June 12, President George Bush, who did not show up for the horseshoe-throwing competition—and it is estimated that the number will increase to about 35 million in the next decade. The U.S. is graying faster than you can say Grecian Formula 16, and studies have found that, especially for the elderly, if you don't move it you really will lose it. In a 1987 article in The New York Times, health specialist Jane Brody wrote that "research has demonstrated that disuse accounts for about half the functional decline that usually occurs between the ages of 30 and 70...exercise by middle-aged and elderly people can set the clock back by as many as 25 to 45 years, the studies have shown."

Or as 91-year-old Guy Sibley of Princeville, Ill., put it, "Most people my age just retire and set, but that gets old. I like to keep going." Sibley, the oldest competitor at the Senior Games, finished last in his heat in the 100-meter dash but explained, "Winning ain't the object. It's just being able to do it."

That was essentially the spirit of the six-day-long Senior Olympics, organized by the U.S. National Senior Olympic Foundation, which is headquartered in St. Louis. Yes, the opening ceremonies on June 19 had some of the trappings and pageantry of the real Olympics—a parade of athletes, an oath, the relaying of the torch to light the flame, a mascot (the Silver Fox, as if you have to be told)—but at the Seniors, just finishing an event often earned a participant as much applause as winning it.

In the women's 200-meter freestyle on Tuesday morning, 79-year-old Arda Perkins of Dearborn, Mich., came in minutes behind her closest rival, but she had the other athletes and the spectators at the pool in Shaw Park on their feet. Perkins has been blind for 20 years, as a result of detached retinas, and her seeing-eye dog, Teddy, was led along the edge of the pool as a canine cheerleader by event director Caryl Simon. At the same time Simon gave Perkins, who was swimming all over the lane, verbal commands: "Keep going, Arda. Come closer. In the middle, Kick your feet, Arda." At one point Teddy leaned over to poke his nose in the pool, as if to nudge his mistress along. Perkins, a serene smile on her face, drifted from sidestroke to backstroke to crawl, but that made no difference to the crowd, which cheered her every move. After she finally touched in, Teddy fell into the pool while trying to lick her face, and the spectators gave them both a standing ovation. "I expected to do just awful, and I did," said Perkins afterward. "But I feel wonderful. My dad always said there's no such word as can't. I love life, I love people, and I'm a happy person."

Besides several actual Olympic sports (including many of the track and field and swimming events, cycling, archery, tennis and table tennis), the seniors competed in less strenuous sports such as horseshoes, shuffleboard, golf and Softball. The idea was, above all, to participate. To keep things competitive, the athletes were separated into six age categories (55-59, 60-64, 65-69, 70-74, 75-79 and 80-plus).

There were many seniors who barely sat down during the Games. Pearl Auerbach, for instance, finished the discus event at 10 a.m. on Tuesday—her throw of 52'6" won a bronze in the 65-69 age group—jumped on a shuttle bus and zipped over to Shaw Park to swim the 200-meter breaststroke. "I got shut out of the 200 TM, and I've probably missed the 200 backstroke and the 200 freestyle," she said breathlessly, "because the discus ran too long. And I've got table tennis after swimming. I'm going to have to change clothes on the bus."

While a jammed schedule and delays in competition were plaguing Pearl, sister Rose had to deal with a slightly different situation. In 1987, at the first Senior Olympics, she won three silver medals in various field events in her age group (70-74), and she was hoping for gold this time around. But Rose ran into heavy competition in the person of Helen Stephens from Florissant, Mo., the 1936 Olympic gold medal winner in the women's 100-meter dash and 400-meter relay, who had turned 71 and moved into the same age group. (Rose, no slouch herself, had been national AAU champion in the javelin in 1937 and 1938.) Suddenly, Rose had to face Stephens—who was out of the running events because of an injury—in three of the field events: shot, discus and javelin. Hampered by torn cartilage in her right knee, which required her to wear a Joe Namath-type brace, Rose won a silver and a bronze, while Stephens walked off with all three golds. Rose is looking forward to the 1991 Senior Olympics, which will be held in Syracuse, N.Y. "Next time," she said, "I'll leave Helen behind. I'll be moving into the next age group."

That's one of the best parts of age-group competition; eventually you wind up the youngest in your category. Olympic decathlete Phil Mulkey, who was a teammate of gold medalist Rafer Johnson at the 1960 Games in Rome, is now 56 years old and was competing in his first Senior Olympics. He said, "The beautiful thing about this competition is, you never graduate; you just move on to the next class." The Senior Games are one of the few places where folks aged 55-59, like Mulkey, are referred to as the "babies." When he won gold in the high jump, breaking his age-group record with a jump of 5'1", and collected three other gold medals, Mulkey was elated. "I still feel the competitive fires," he said. "My heart was beating out of my jersey because I wanted to do my best. If it were not for games like this, I might let down. I wouldn't be fit. Without the Senior Olympics I'd still train, but with no place to put it to a competitive test."

One could say these games were truly catholic. In the women's 1,500-meter race-walk on June 21, Sister Anne Heim, 75, a Benedictine nun from Fort Smith, Ark., wore a T-shirt that read THE FLYING NUN. Her black veil billowed behind her as she hoofed it around the track in her New Balance shoes, hoping to finish well enough to win a ribbon (awarded for fourth through sixth places). After crossing the finish line, Heim hovered near the scorers' tent, awaiting the results. "I hope I get a ribbon," she said. When her prayers were answered (she finished sixth), she raised her arms to the heavens and took a brief peek skyward.

On a more down-to-earth level, there was Wallace Crews, an 86-year-old track and field competitor from Lancaster, Wis. After finishing his competition in the shot put, javelin, discus and long jump, Crews sat under a striped tent at Francis Field and watched the other athletes. "I gave up smoking when I was 60 years old," he said. "And today I feel like a kid." Then he got up, threw an arm over a bystanders shoulder and confided, "You know, I've never seen such good-looking butts and legs in my life." Crews may be old but, as they say, he's not dead.

William E. Maine, from Youngstown, Ohio, was bothered by the fact that he couldn't enter more events. The schedule had conspired to hold the 84-year-old retired physician down to competition in swimming, track, tennis, discus, shot put, long jump, pole vault and high jump. "If they'd just provide me with a golf cart, I could get around to more venues," he said. On the third day of the Olympics, Maine noted that he had won gold in the 200-meter individual medley and a silver in the long jump, and he announced that he would add another gold, in the 80-plus men's 100-meter butterfly. Why such confidence? "I'm the only one entered," he said, and laughed. Maine credited no smoking, no drinking, eating well and keeping active as the secrets to his longevity. "When I go out for my track events," he said, "I run as fast as I can. I don't run like some doddering 80-or 90-year-old man. I'll start playing golf when I'm 100, because right now that's too tame for me."

When the Games ended Saturday, the Auerbach sisters had garnered a passel of medals: Pearl won gold in javelin, bronze in discus and two bronzes in badminton (singles and doubles). Sylvia won golds in discus and badminton and silvers in javelin, shot put and table tennis. But it was Rose (silver in javelin, bronze in shot put, bronze in table tennis) who summed up the Senior Olympics best. She stood in the infield at Francis Field, looked around at all the other competitors and said, "We're all pieced together with bandages and braces, and we have our aches and pains, but everybody gives it all they've got. These athletes are amazing."



The Auerbach sisters—Rose, 73, throwing the javelin; Sylvia, 77, putting the shot; and Pearl, 67, tossing the discus—returned home to Queens with a total of 12 age-group medals: three golds, four silvers and five bronzes.



After the 200 free, Perkins was enthusiastically congratulated by Teddy and the crowd.



Mulkey, a 1960 Olympian, competed in his first Seniors. Pearl Mehl (opposite) won four gold medals in the 75-79 age group.



[See caption above.]



The events ranged from the long jump to shuffleboard, a sport with subtle twists—as illustrated by 80-plus winner Seata Myers.