When NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty found herself at the starting line of the 40K cycling race at the National Senior Games in Minneapolis in July 2015, she reflected back on the marvel of being there at all. She had taken a leave from NPR to work on a book about midlife, feeling the strain of aging herself. “I interviewed someone for my book who had recovered from cancer by riding his bike, losing 70 pounds and finding a whole new world of masters athletics. He was inspiring. I needed a new challenge in my life, and he offered to coach me,” Hagerty says.
She had been a runner until arthritis sidelined her, so she had a good baseline of fitness. But competition was a whole new endeavor for Hagerty, who was then 55. Despite being initially terrified of racing, she qualified for the National Senior Games in a state race in 2014, and then went on to grab 9th place in the 40K road race, 7th in the 10K time trial and 6th in the 5K time trial at Minneapolis in 2015. She writes about the experience in her new book “Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife.” The world of masters athletics was eye opening to her, to say the least. “You can’t imagine how fit and competitive men and women in their 40s and 50s are, and I love improving with them,” Hagerty says.
COMING TO A STATE NEAR YOU
More than 10,000 athletes over the age of 50 are expected to compete in the 2019 National Senior Games in Albuquerque next June. Held every other year since 1987, NSG is the largest multi-sport qualified competition event in the world for men and women ages 50 and older. It features 20 medal sports and 800 events over two weeks, including several cycling races, a 5K and 10K running race, race walking, a triathlon and several track and field events.
Athletes must qualify at one of 53 state qualifying competitions in the year prior to compete. Almost all of the state games are open to out-of-state athletes, so people can participate and have a chance to qualify in their sport and age group in as many as they want to attend, says Del Moon, communications and media director of NSG. “The biggest misconception is that you have to be an elite athlete to participate in Senior Games,” Moon says. “While people have to qualify for national games, anyone can enter at local- and state-level games and just do it for the fun and fitness.”
So, how hard is it to qualify? In general, the most popular sports like cycling and running have the hardest competition. As for qualifying, there are generally more athletes attending in the most populous states. About 30,000 people wind up qualifying, with about 1/3 of them going on to compete at the national level.
THE LONGEVITY OF A MASTERS ATHLETE
Runner Jerry LeVasseur, now 80, didn’t start racing seriously until he was in his 40s. Once he caught the bug, he couldn’t stop. He’s been to almost every Senior Games since he first qualified for the 1995 games, and he’s placed first in age group competitions more than 1,000 times as a masters athlete. LeVasseur trained through prostate cancer and several surgeries, and competition has been a big motivator to keep going. “For anyone going to these events, I say you are a winner for doing it. When I come back from competitions people ask me, ‘Did you win?’ and I always say, ‘Yes, I finished the race,’” LeVasseur said in an NSG profile.
That kind of longevity is not surprising at all to Moon. “With NSG, people find great competition, real camaraderie and lasting friendships with like-minded people. Our athletes are some of the best examples of healthy aging to be found anywhere on the planet,” he says.
For athletes like Hagerty, it’s not so much about aging well as it is about pushing beyond a comfort zone. “I realized my journey had little to do with a bike race,” Hagerty writes in her book. “It is about creating a new challenge for the first time in two decades, aiming for a goal with a very real possibility that I will fail.”