ST. PAUL – The oldest javelin throwers in the country gathered on a field of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul this week and sized each other up as they prepared to hurl their spears at the National Senior Games.

“How old are you?” Frederick Winter asked another competitor, Howard Hall.

“95,” said Hall, of Kentucky.

“Oh, you’re a kid,” said Winter.

At least compared with Winter, who is 100. Winter, in turn, is junior to another competitor, South Dakotan John Zilverberg, who will be 102 next month.

Age is relative at the National Senior Games, frequently described as the Senior Olympics, the largest multi-sport qualified competition event in the world for men and women 50 and older.

The event, continuing through Thursday, has brought nearly 10,000 senior athletes from around the country to compete in 26 sports ranging from judo to pole vaulting in venues throughout the Twin Cities.

The oldest athlete of them all is Zilverberg, a retired rancher from South Dakota, who was scheduled to participate in the hammer throw, javelin, discus, shot put and bowling.

The veteran jocks compete against each other in five-year age groups.

At the track and field events being held at the University of St. Thomas, Zilverberg wore a T-shirt labeled “Oh to be 100 again.” He would have been competing in a class of his own in the javelin except for Winter, a retired teacher and World War II Navy veteran from Holland, Mich.

Winter, who describes himself as 100.1 years old, said he was planning to compete in the shot put, discus, javelin, and the 50- and 100-meter dashes.

“I was going to run the 200-meter, but I didn’t know if I could finish it in under a day,” Winter said.

He said he trains with aerobics and 100 push ups a day. But he sat in a wheelchair as he waited for the javelin event to start. He said his grandkids wanted him to use it to save his legs for the competition. Zilverberg brought a cane with him.

But they left those behind when they threw the javelin.

Zilverberg simply walked up to the line and heaved it. Winter launched his spear with a short trot and a grunt of effort.

After four throws, Winter prevailed in the over-100 division of the competition with a best effort of just over 8 meters, or more than 26 feet. Zilverberg took the silver at just under 5 meters.

“I want to compare my capabilities with guys my age,” said Winter of his motivation for competing.

“You want to be competitive with your peers. That’s what it’s all about,” said David Rider, 85, who was competing in the high jump, pole vault, long jump and triple jump.

Several competitors at the track and field events, including Rider, are retired high school or college coaches or physical education teachers. They spent their careers yelling at kids to move their butts.

Now, they’re practicing what they preached.

“I’m doing now as a retiree what I was teaching all these years,” said Dudley Bell, 83, a former college physical education instructor and coach. He said he plans to compete in about two dozen events at the National Senior Games.

“This is a way of life. I’m a competitive athlete,” Bell said.

“Use it or lose it,” Rider said.

The athletes here often are competing with the help of pacemakers or in spite of injuries.

“I’ve torn each of my Achilles. Right now, I have tendinitis in my knees,” said Mary Robinson, a 73-year-old sprinter from Ohio.

‘you don’t look 85’

But there are medals - and glory - on the line.

Don Isett, a 76-year-old pole vaulter from Anna, Texas, set a world record for his age group this week at the track and field meet at St. Thomas. He cleared 3.01 meters, or nearly 10 feet.

“There’s nobody in the world any older that’s jumped any higher,” said another pole vaulter in a different age group, Joe Johnston, 71, of Apopka, Fla. “When you think about it, that’s pretty neat.”

“Other pole vaulters understand completely,” Isett said. “Everybody else thinks I’m nuts.”

Isett pole vaulted in high school in the days of stiff steel poles and sawdust landing pits. When he took up the sport again about 10 years ago, he had to get used to a new generation of fiberglass poles.

According to a recently released study of the athletes who qualified for this year’s National Senior Games, exercise seems to be keeping them young. The survey of more than 4,200 of the athletes showed that their “fitness age” averaged at 43 years, even though they had an average chronological age of 68.

Rider said people tell him, “You don’t look 85. I think they mean it sometimes.”

Winter, the 100-year-old athlete, said he avoids fried foods, beef and soda.

“I subscribe to six different medical journals,” he said.

“I live like a Spartan,” said track and field athlete Cecil Henry, 85, of Michigan. “I eat simple foods, a lot of raw vegetables.”

He said it’s part of his strategy to beat his competition by outliving them.

Ken Kessinger, a former Augustana College baseball coach from Sioux Falls, S.D., is at the games to compete in javelin, discus, shot put and hammer throw.

He’s 90, but he said, “Really, I feel like I’m 65 years old. I don’t feel old at all.”

If you go

Attendance at all National Senior Games competitions is free and open to the public. For a complete schedule of events, go to NSGA.com.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts