For these athletes in their 60s and 70s, competitive sports is fun — and social
By Jim Flint for Ashland.news
Forget Tom Brady or Phil Mickelson. Across the country, older people are defying age stereotypes — staying fit and even engaging in competitive sports. Like Marilyn Hawkins, 71; Cori Frank, 72; and Connie Fullmer, 62.
These three Rogue Valley women “of a certain age” are among those who are proving that a desire to keep moving doesn’t have to be associated with a rocking chair.
Why would women 60-plus want to play competitive sports, especially in coed situations?
“Uh, because they can,” Hawkins cracked.
Hawkins, who plays senior coed soccer, started playing the game after moving to Seattle for graduate school. She played for 20 years before going up for a header on a cold morning and coming down without a right Achilles tendon. It took another 25 years for her to find a way back to the pitch, playing walking soccer at Ashland’s North Mountain Park every Saturday morning.
Frank’s game is pickleball. (Isn’t it everyone’s these days?) She has competed in all kinds of sports — dodgeball, table tennis, softball, volleyball, badminton and more — for as long as she can remember. Now she plays pickleball six to seven days a week with skilled men and women, teaches the sport and gives one-on-one lessons at Ashland’s Lithia Park courts.
Fullmer finds her action on the softball field. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois, home of the famed Rockford Peaches (think “A League of Their Own”). Her mom taught her the game and Fullmer has played for decades, most seriously after she joined the U.S. Air Force.
All three find plenty of benefits resulting from their competitive activities — better overall fitness, stronger bones and muscles, and improved reflexes and sense of balance. There are social benefits as well. It’s fun to meet like-minded seniors.
Who are these women and what makes them tick? Allow me to introduce them.
Cori Frank, 72, pickleball
What drives her passion and dedication to physical fitness?
“At a young age, I noticed those who played sports seemed happier and were in better physical shape,” she said. “That really planted the seeds.”
Decades of physical activity have helped her maintain her weight within 5 pounds for the past 50 years. The Ashland woman takes no prescription medication, has had no major surgeries and wakes up each morning excited and looking forward to the day.
Older athletes are well aware that the physical challenges of competing are different from when they were in their 20s or 30s.
“I stretch religiously before I play,” Frank said. “I listen to my body. Sometimes it says, ‘That’s enough — take a day off, we need a rest.’”
She said there are younger players who clearly do not want to have a game with her.
“They see a white-haired, 5-foot-tall, crazy smiling senior and try to run the other way. But once we have played together, they realize, hey, we have a game.”
She’s a newcomer to pickleball, but she’s a fast learner. She was asked by the Ashland YMCA to be their pickleball ambassador. She teaches pickleball for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Southern Oregon University (SOU) and teaches the game to youngsters at the Y.
“I started a Facebook site for Ashland picklers to update them on all things pickleball in the Ashland area,” she said. “And I developed and wrote the curriculum for the advanced-beginners pickleball class for OLLI.”
Frank also worked with her colleagues to develop the Ashland Pickleball Club.
What advice would Frank offer to other women in their later years who might hesitate to take up competitive sports or more strenuous physical activity?
“I recommend starting slowly,” she said. “First check with your medical provider for any limitations, then start a walking program.”
She advises beginners to start with 10 to 15 minutes of walking daily, then increasing the time as their stamina improves.
For her, the annual Oregon Senior Games in Corvallis are a motivating force.
“They’re not just for pickleball, but also for archery, golf, road races, swimming and more. Those women are my inspiration. They’re fearless,” she said.
Frank was introduced to pickleball at the end of 2018 while visiting her daughter and family in Camarillo, California.
“A neighbor had a pickleball court, and they invited us over to teach us the game. We were instantly hooked,” she said.
Since then, a favorite memory is when she was playing pickleball in Apache Junction, Arizona, with a 90-plus-year-old named Wheeler.
“A couple of young tennis players, new to pickleball, came on the court and asked us to play a game with them. They were laughing and joking, saying the game would probably last 5 minutes. Wheeler said, ‘Let’s school them.’”
The challengers were power hitters, young, agile and strong.
“I think they got 3 points. Fun game.”
Connie Fullmer, 62, softball
Fullmer plays softball because she enjoys it, but an overriding factor is a desire to stay healthy and fit as she looks forward to an active retirement that includes the travel adventures she’s always dreamed about.
“Even though I have played for more than 35 years, I can always keep improving,” she said. “Playing coed ball does that for me.”
She’s enjoyed an active lifestyle, but there have been hiccups along the way. One of them was a knee replacement.
“With that, and just getting older, I am slower,” she said. “But I have adjusted the way I play defense, no longer diving for balls. I play a more conservative, protective game in defense these days.”
She plays in the RVSoftball.Org league, a coed organization that offers games at different skill levels.
“So, everyone can come out and have a great time. And the people I play with are some of the nicest folks you will ever meet,” she said.
Fullmer’s first year in the league was marked by her receiving the coach’s award for “most inspirational player.”
Her biggest inspiration early on was her mother.
“She was an awesome shortstop in her day,” she said. “She taught me how to play the game when I was young. The people who inspire me now are all the folks in their 80s and 90s who continue to compete in sports.”
She joined a military base softball team when she was in the Air Force, competing in leagues off base as well as in military tournaments.
“I competed with some of the best women in the Air Force,” she said. “When I retired, I moved to softball in California where I took up residence in the downtown leagues.”
She said softball has enriched her life by helping her learn the value of teamwork, both on the field and off.
“As both a player and a coach, I learned how to see both sides of an issue and to respect the individual,” she said.
Marilyn Hawkins, 71, soccer
The informal, 60-minute senior soccer games Hawkins plays at North Mountain Park attract 12 to 18 energetic men and women every Saturday, ranging in age from the low 60s to the low 80s.
“Walking” soccer means keeping at least one foot on the ground at any time.
“It’s much faster than it sounds,” she said. “You’d be surprised how fast people can scoot along. And it sure beats the heck out of going to the gym.”
Hawkins said she was a bit of a chubby kid through high school, but always loved playing sports, and was good at them.
“When I got to college and started swimming regularly, I found my ideal weight range,” she said. “These days I want to stay fit, but find going to the gym pretty boring. So, engaging in an activity that requires exertion and involves competition is perfect.”
The competitive activity has improved her stamina and balance, and has helped her maintain a healthy weight.
“And there’s nothing like finishing a good match, high-fiving your teammates — and your opponents — and smiling all the way home.”
She played No. 1 singles in tennis as a youngster and in community college, earning a varsity letter and being named “most inspirational.”
“Sadly, they don’t award letters to us seniors for recreational sports, but maybe I could buy one and add it to my moth-nibbled sweater in the back of my closet.”
In addition to playing competitive soccer, she also hikes and bikes.
“And I try to walk at least 45 minutes several times a week, sometimes kicking a soccer ball along,” she said.
The North Mountain Park Saturday soccer games for men and women 55 and over start at 8:10 a.m. The field is smaller than regulation soccer layouts and there are no offsides.
“We usually play six-on-six for two 30-minute games,’ she said.
She urges other women in her age group interested in upping their physical activity by trying a competitive sport to “just do it.”
“You’ll discover the joy of youthful exuberance and teamwork far beyond what you can experience doing almost anything else.”
Reach writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.