These Sarasota Seniors Are Fighting Ageism in Competitive Sports
Hear us out: competitive sports can sometimes be wasted on the young. You ever hear about three-year-olds taking soccer lessons, helicopter parents ensuring their elementary schooler gets to the top, and the collegiate star athletes yearning for a professional career.
But what about those who've dedicated entire lives to a sport and want to compete into their golden years? They may have slowed down a little, but they're still sharp and fit, especially compared to us non-athletes
Unfortunately, some elderly folks face stereotypes that they are too "fragile" or "weak" to be athletic or competitive. Ageism—the stereotyping or discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of age—permeates our youth-obsessed culture.
But don't be fooled.
There are senior athletes with the same accolades—and more!—than younger ones, and some are living right here in Sarasota. From master archers slinging arrows to speedy swimmers and table tennis players, our town is home to athletes who compete every two years at the National Senior Games, a competition for athletes ages 60 and up. The 2022 games took place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida from May 10-23.
Health issues almost kept archer Myers Parrish, 85, from competing this year. In 2021, he won the Lifetime Achievement award from the National Senior Games, and over the course of 30 years, he's won more medals than you can count. He and his wife Alice, originally from Michigan, have settled into an almost daily routine of practicing at the Sarasota Archery Club, near 17th Street park.
After surviving several open heart surgeries, Myers has come back to archery with more drive. His wife says his passion, dedication and camaraderie within the sport have kept him going. A third-generation Floridian, he's been shooting since the day his grandmother gave him his first bow at six years old.
"We are very competitive between the two of us," says Alice, 75. "We intend on competing as long as we can." The couple took home medals this time around, and will compete at the 2023 games in Pittsburgh. They also plan to continue teaching the next generation about archery, including their grandchildren Roscoe and Charlie.
On a balmy Tuesday afternoon, another archer—90 year-old Jack Cason—sits at a picnic table under the oak trees of the Sarasota Archery Club. He's quiet and humble, save for the few times he gives advice to his archer friends from the sidelines. Finally, he stands to equip himself with his compound bow (which can cost up to $6,000) and his quiver full of professional-grade arrows. He posts up at the starting line, draws back his bow with a strong, steady arm—which he admits is harder to do at his age—and sends an arrow whizzing through the air at 20 mph, straight to a target more than 60 yards away.
"I won gold in my age category at this year's games," Cason says. "I've won 45 gold medals since I began competing in 1971, but I've lost count of how many medals I've won overall."
Cason and other seniors up to age 99 participate in events like swimming, cycling, track and field, table tennis, archery and more at the games. While the competition allows for reunions among old friends, most athletes agree: they're there to win.
When I get out onto the court, I don't take it easy on anyone," says 85 year-old John Shultz.
He plays table tennis at the Colonial Oaks courts in Sarasota and recently competed in singles and doubles categories at the Senior Games. He was named Male Athlete of the Year in 2009 and held the longest consecutive winning streak in the competition's history at 29 years.
"I've been playing table tennis since high school, and have always tried to find time for it as an adult, even when family and work life were busy," says Shultz. His practice has earned him accolades in the form of medals, plaques and even air time— he was in a 2015 Ford Mustang commercial and has been featured on national and local television several times.
Shultz doesn't always get the praise he deserves, though. He recounts many occasions where younger players made comments about his old age and how he can't possibly compete any longer. He says youngsters view him as an "easy win."
"But once they realize how good I am, and I beat them, they quickly realize I could actually help them improve their game," says Shultz. He chuckles and adds, "I've had quite a few come back wanting to play against me because they end up learning a lot. I'm wiser; I've played the game longer. They've said I inspire them."
Even after suffering injuries, these senior athletes are resilient and return to what they love. Rudy Vazmina, a 72-year-old Sarasota lawyer, underwent two spinal lumbar fusions as well as several knee injuries throughout his time as a swimmer. He was an All-American NCAA athlete at Asheville College, swimming impressive times in the butterfly and breaststroke. Now, he trains with a masters team at Arlington Park almost every day. He's competed in many Senior Games, including 2015, when he won Sportsman of the Year. And his glory days are far from over.
"I came in second place in the 50-meter breaststroke and butterfly and second in the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke at this games," says Vazmina. "I'm happy with my times and I'm on the right track."
He thinks people take him seriously because of the training he does in and out of the pool. He cross trains by biking and lifting weights and follows a nutritious diet low in red meat and high in fruits and vegetables. It sounds serious, but Vazmina says he wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't fun.
"Once you have that competitive spirit and passion, you never lose it, no matter how old you get," he adds. "I plan to compete in Pittsburgh in 2023. My wife used to work there; I'm looking forward to going back."
By continuing to train and compete, seniors break the stigma that you must be a certain age in order to play sports. Sports, both recreational and competitive, are for everyone. Staying active can also lower risk of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes; improve strength and balance; prevent injuries; and improve mental and cognitive health.
"Always practice with someone better than you. It keeps you sharp," Myers advises.
"There is a lot of respect in archery, for people of all levels," says Alex Donetelli, 85, another archer. "If more sports were like this, I think we'd all have a better time."