Today's Success Stories blog post was written by Mary Leigh Burke. Thank you, Mary Leigh, for sharing your "50+ Athlete" story with us.
Nine years ago, I wrote a blog post about my athletic activities as a 55 year old, having discovered the joys of Masters swimming and triathlon despite having no athletic talent whatsoever. I subtitled it "I May Be Slow, but I'm Not Last" and you can read it here:
When I wrote the piece, I was immersed in my life as a senior level technical writer in the Bay Area. Athletics – swimming, triathlon, and eventually, cross country skiing with Team In Training - provided an exhilarating counterpoint to my very logic-and-brain-intensive career. Being physically active, diving into the body and the present moment with gusto and force, was a kind of spiritual practice in which I rejoiced.
Today, I'm retired and living far from that world, in the small university town of Corvallis, Oregon. I have a little house with a backyard vegetable garden. I'm active in my Zen Buddhist group, and I teach Insight Meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. And I am still out there on the trails, in the pool, and in rivers and lakes, enjoying myself as much as ever.
Back then, not being last was important to me, and this is the first thing that leaps out as I consider what's changed over these years. I no longer care what I look like to anybody, and I care less and less what anybody thinks of me. Although still very fit and strong, I don't look as slim or buff as I used to when I was devoting most of my free time to training. I probably would come in last if I still did any competitions - I don't care! This is very freeing.
Conversely, really enjoying my athletic life is more important to me now than achieving goals around performance or body characteristics. A couple of years ago, a chiropractor took a good look at my chronically unstable sacroiliac (the fruit of 30 years of sitting at a computer) and suggested it would be better if I could consider replacing running with hiking. This would have been really distressing in my former life; I probably wouldn't have done it. Now, it struck me as a good idea. This is probably one of the top locations in the country for hiking – we have miles and miles of well maintained forest trails – and I'd been noticing that running caused me to miss a lot of the amazing beauty whizzing past me. Plus, now I'm retired, so I have the time.
So I replaced running with longer hikes and have never looked back. Every day I'm out there I cherish the gift of the physical strength that allows me to be out there still.
Letting go of old ways of doing things is a major skill for aging, as is finding new things to appreciate. One of those has turned out to be a new opportunity for a Masters swim workout.
For my first few years here, I couldn't find Masters – or rather, I found it but it didn't work for me in the form locally available. I came home and cried the first time I tried it, grieving the team I left behind in California. Over the years I slowly got over that disappointment, but I still considered that the one thing I missed most "Oregonians are not into swimming the way Californians are, the energy just isn't there, etc. etc." Then one day on the trail, I came upon a guy wearing a tee shirt from a swim event and I asked him about it; as we chatted, he told me that a different local group, which I had thought was closed to non-university people, does in fact let anybody join.
I was (and am) the slowest person in the pool at the Oregon State University Masters workout, but the coach is kind and helpful, the other swimmers are friendly, and my long-dormant swimming fitness has advanced by leaps and bounds. I might even do a bit of competing again, or at least some open water swims – there's one across the Columbia Gorge in Hood River at the end of the summer that really calls to me. Next time I go back to visit my old Bay Area group, I will probably no longer be in the slow lane (oh wait...I'm not supposed to care about that ...).
My athletic life is rounded out with daily yoga and a twice-weekly "Power Pilates" class that I enjoy along with a whole lot of other 60-plus athletic types at my local gym – in this small town, it's walking distance from my door, as are many of the hiking trails.
When it's not winter, I ride my bike all over town, too.
It's a good life. As I get older, I plan to stay as active as body and karma allow for as long as I can – still out there, enjoying life. You can too!