Gold Medals for the Golden Years

America, land of the 24-hour gym and the quick-fix face-lift, is not a country given to growing old gracefully. The only benefit most of us see in seniority is discount movie tickets. But the athletes of the 2000 Houston Senior Olympics have a different concept of aging: They compete in handball, cycling, basketball, squash and volleyball. As the event's promoter Bunny Radoff says, "This is no old people's potato-sack race."

Competition in the games can be stiff, even for swimmer Bob Bailie, now 65, who frequently sets records in his age group. "There's a fellow about two years younger than me Š and whatever records I get, he takes away when he enters the age group." But Bailie doesn't feel too bad, since his rival was on the 1960 U.S. Olympic Team. "This is the only thing I know of where you Š look forward to getting older because every time we age up, you're the kid again." Age groups start at 50 and move in five-year increments up to the 95-99 category.

At 99 years old, Mel Lyda is the games' most senior athlete, which creates its own problems, such as finding competitors in the same age bracket for the 1500 meter race/walk. "One time there was two women in my age group -- I was only ninetysomething then -- but they cancelled, so [the official] told me, 'Congratulations, you've already won the gold,' before I even got out there." Lyda did the walk anyway. But she isn't greedy. "I guess I could have gotten into that high jump, because I bet if I could just get off the ground, I'd get the gold."

Bailie boasts that his strict training regimen has kept him healthy. "I haven't got any time for bugs to show up. I'm up at five-thirty in the morning and go to the pool to train." Lyda, who keeps a similar schedule, sees a noticeable difference between herself and the more sedentary residents at what she describes as her "nursing home without the nurses." "You ought to see some of them around here who weigh 300 pounds, and then some that don't weigh 100 Š all they want to do is play 42 and bridge all the time. I tell them if they play baseball, I'd get into that."

When she was less secure about her body, Lyda used to wear pants -- until an official made her roll up her pants legs because of a rule requiring exposed knees. Unfortunately her legs swelled because of a lack of circulation. "It took two little girls to get my pants down," Lyda says. She caused quite a stir the following year when she showed up in black metallic hot pants, looking as fit as ever. "I don't think [my legs] are too bad to look at now," Lyda says. Someone even commented to her preacher about how nice her legs looked. "Well, I didn't notice," her preacher said, though Lyda's skeptical. "That's all he could say, being a preacher."

Before the Olympics, Lyda kept in shape by hunting coons back in North Carolina and plugging the occasional groundhog. "I liked that," she says. "I was the only lady, though. The others couldn't take it." Bailie has also stayed in shape most his life -- well, with the exception of that 25-year holiday between the age of 23 and 48. An outspoken advocate of sports for life, he is promoting the idea of a retirement community for senior Olympians. "We can change the way we age Š [and] cut the costs of long-term care," he says.

Lyda and Bailie seem to be proof. Bailie set his lifetime best in the 100 freestyle at the age of 53, and Lyda's times continue to improve. "Those young ones would walk [a mile] in 13 and 14 minutes. I was never that good, but I have walked it out here at the mall in less than 15." So in our youth-obsessed culture, is it possible to make those golden years "golden"?

With these folk, it's possible not only to perform after 50, but also to pick up speed once they're over the hill.

The 2000 Houston Senior Olympics begin Friday, March 31, and continue through Sunday, April 9, at various locations. The throwing events are Friday, March 31, at 11 a.m., at the Post Oak YMCA; the two-mile walk is Monday, April 3, at 11 a.m., at Memorial Park; basketball is Wednesday, April 5, at 9 a.m., at the Fonde Recreation Center; swimming is Thursday, April 6, at 10 a.m., at Lamar High School; track and field is Sunday, April 9, at 8 a.m., at Rice University. For more information, call (713)551-7250.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dylan Otto Krider