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‘I will continue to do this forever’: Athletes thrive on US senior circuit | Athletics

TThe story of Kathy Bergen’s decorated athletic career began in the pages of AARP magazine, which is another way of saying it didn’t start until after she turned 50. In the years that followed, Bergen cemented his legendary status in the world of masters track and field, which is open to competitors aged 35 and over. She was inducted into the United States Masters Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2008 and was named the 2015 Best Female Masters Athlete. Earlier this month, at a ceremony in Orlando, Fla. Bergen received its highest honor, since it was named the best. USATF Master Athlete of the Year.

Honors are deserved for someone who has broken so many world records that she loses count. “Heads up, I think 24, 28. I’m not really sure,” Bergen said in a phone interview. (It’s 28, but who matters?)

“In the last 12 years, I’ve broken so many records, it’s crazy,” she added.

Bergen, who turns 82 on Christmas Eve, set five more world records last year. She set three indoor records in an event in Houston, posting times of 10.02 in the 60m and 35.66 in the 200m, as well as a record of 1.2m in the high jump. Months later, at an event in Marble Falls, TX, Bergen was there again, setting a pair of outdoor world records in the 100m with a time of 16.62 seconds and in the jump. height with a jump of 1.15 meters. She broke two more outdoor world records this year at an event in Santa Ana, Calif. In June, improving her time in the 100m to 16.26 and setting a new mark in the 200m with a time of 35.34. Bergen has seen many of her previous world records drop, but she still holds the best indoor times in the 60m (9.21) and 200m (31.86) for the 70-74 age group, which it established in 2010 and 2012, respectively. His world indoor high jump record for the 75-79 age group, 1.25 meters, has been held for more than five years.

Whether Bergen was able to compete with the 2020 pandemic was something of his own. She thanks her husband Bert, with whom she has five children and 13 grandchildren, for finding the two events amid all the disruption.

It was Bert who played a similar role almost 30 years ago, when he helped guide Kathy to her first meeting. She was 54 and Bert was 56 – or, as Kathy puts it, “that old age when you start getting AARP magazine.” Bert, who was a high school high jumper, came across an article promoting the California Senior Games, which were to be held near Occidental College.. “He said, ‘Why don’t you try? Anyone can run, ”recalls Kathy.

Until then, Kathy’s athletic experience was limited. She tried her hand at intramural basketball and volleyball while growing up in Brooklyn, but her athletic endeavors stopped after high school. And although Bergen said she was always fast as a child, and that she became a successful tennis player after she and Bert moved to California in 1972, her background didn’t exactly bode well for a future in the world. Hall of fame. It also didn’t give her a reason to expect immediate success when she took her first steps on the Occidental track.

Bergen won the 50m and 100m races that day – from a standing start and in a pair of sneakers, no less – and from there she was gone. “It was like, oh boy, I found a new love,” Bergen said.

She learned to use starting blocks and bought a pair of sprint spikes, as she and Bert looked for other competitions in California. Kathy eventually demonstrated her dominance in other events, adding the 200m, high jump and javelin to her repertoire.

There are late sportsmen – Ian Wright played Sunday League football until he was 21, Hakeem Olajuwon started basketball at 15 – and then there are athletes like Bergen, who started collecting gold medals when most of their peers counted gray hair. “When I was 70, I was spinning my wheels,” she said. “I was fine. I would win quite a bit, but I wasn’t that good. Not content with just placing first, Bergen enlisted the help of a track coach named Eric Dixon. “I have to admit I thought she was crazy at first because when we first met she told me she wanted to set world records,” Dixon said. “But I’m always up for a challenge. Besides, I saw that she had the right attitude. He developed a training program for Bergen, who said the new diet had helped make it world-class. Dixon coaches other masters record holders and some notable collegiate athletes, but he said few rivals Bergen. “Kathy is at the top of my list,” he said.

There are other top athletes out there who unlocked their elite abilities into adulthood. Brian Hankerson discovered his hidden athletic prowess when trying to help his children discover theirs. Driven by a father’s impulse to lead by example, Hankerson, 45 at the time, began training with his son and daughter as they competed in track and field. “I would run with them and cheer them on. “Hey, if I can do it, so can you,” Hankerson said.

Attending a regional meetup in the Miami area around this time, Hankerson noted some contemporaries who were not there as spectators. “We called them ‘masters’. I had never heard of it, but listening to the age groups, I was like, ‘Wow these guys are my age,’ he said. “I was out there running with my kids and I was like, ‘I bet I could do what they’re doing.'”

He tried it the following year by participating in the high jump and the sprint. During a meeting in Clermont, Fla., Another contestant admitted that Hankerson was a rough diamond. “He asked me if I had ever tried the long jump,” Hankerson said. “I told him no, and he said that with my jumping ability and my speed, I could be great in the long jump.”

Hankerson, now 62, has established himself as one of the senior long and high jumpers on the senior circuit. He will compete at the Masters World Championships in Finland next summer and intends to set his first world records in the coming year. Hankerson is currently on the cusp of breaking the long jump (6.07 meters) and high jump (1.78 meters) records for the 60-64 age group. “These records are definitely doable,” he said.

Hankerson set a number of senior National Games records, billed as “the world’s largest multi-sport event for seniors.” The 2022 games, postponed for a year due to the pandemic, will take place in Hankerson’s hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Where he and Bergen will be joined by thousands of other athletes over 50 competing in 20 different sports.

Philipp Djang will be there. He has missed only one edition of the senior games since 2005, racking up more than 20 event records in swimming races in four age groups. Djang, 67, swam as a child in New Mexico, where he still lives, and had what he described as a “mediocre” college career in the pool at a small Oregon college. He remained in shape throughout his 35-year career as a scientist in the United States Army, playing racquetball and competing in triathlons and marathons, but had largely given up swimming until 1999, when he was 45 years old and a friend persuaded him to participate in a competition. held in Long Beach, California. “I got in the pool, swam a race and accidentally broke a world record,” said Djang, modestly referring to his time of 1: 03.39 in the 100m backstroke. “I had no expectation at all of doing something like this.”

This performance was the springboard for a swimming career marked by 10 individual world records and 15 American masters records. The success gave Djang a rosy view of the natural aging process. Every five offers a new age group to conquer – and new records to target. “I can’t wait to grow old,” he said. This is why Djang was particularly disgusted to miss a year of competition in 2020, his 65th birthday falling shortly before the pandemic. “I would have done really well, but it all stopped,” Djang said. “You are only 65 once.”

Bergen admits her record breaking days are likely over in the 80-84 age group, but that doesn’t mean she’s done making history. Just last month, Julia Hawkins, 105, set a world record in the 100m with a time of 1: 02.95, perhaps offering a glimpse of what awaits Bergen, who swears she will “will continue to do this forever.”

But Bergen’s career prompts an obvious question: Does she ever wonder what might have been if she had realized her abilities earlier in life? After all, a high jump trainer once told her that if she had started in high school, she might have been an Olympian. “I am very flattered by his estimate,” she said. “But if I had, I wouldn’t be doing it now.”