Older adults push themselves to sports success

Dave Petzel of Westland, Mich., has won several medals at skating competitions. (Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/MBR)

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Dave Petzel of Westland, Mich., has won several medals at skating competitions. (Regina H. Boone/Detroit Free Press/MBR)

He had jumped out of airplanes before, fulfilling a dream of learning how to skydive. But this was different.

"I always say, 'If you're not falling, you're not learning,'" Dave Petzel of Westland, Mich., said with a laugh.

This story was originally published in 2011 by the Detroit Free Press. 

He was talking about the day more than 15 years ago when he learned how to figure skate - the day he waddled onto the ice looking like "the Michelin guy" in his armor of knee, hip and elbow pads.

Petzel, who was in his late 40s at the time, had been watching figure skating on TV with his wife during the Winter Olympics when he was struck by an urge to not only try a new sport, but attempt to be good enough at it to be competitive.

Last year in Minneapolis, Petzel did just that and more: He won his third national masters title for his level and age group at the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships.

Representing the Westland Figure Skating Club, he wore a costume accessorized with a red and black cummerbund, and his gold-medal-winning performance to "Mask of Zorro" included spins, spirals and three combination jumps.

Petzel, by the way, is 64.

He is part of a generation of older adults whose passion for maintaining an active lifestyle includes choosing the thrill of competition - taking participation to the next level.

The 5-foot-7, 145-pounder didn't try to defend his national title this year because of, oddly enough, lack of competition in his age group. But in June he won the bronze medal at the Meijer State Games in Grand Rapids, Mich. The winner was in her 20s.

"I'll do it next year because I want to prove something to myself," he said of nationals. "Competition to me is like a point on a pencil. It sharpens your wit; it places you on a new ground of being. The enemy of good is better, and I'm going to keep trying to get better."

Petzel and others choose sports for the social benefits. They do it because they know it's good for their physical, mental and emotional health.

Mostly, though, they do it because it's fun. And there's no age limit for that.

"When I'm out there, we're having so much fun that you don't even think you're exercising," said soccer player Addie Bauer, 60, of Clarkston, Mich.

Organized competition for older adults has a long history. The Michigan Senior Olympics, for instance, has held annual sports-related events and activities since the 1970s. The nonprofit organization has 2,000 registered members, 500 of whom participated in its annual summer games in May at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

Bauer and Rosanna Norwood, 61, of Milford, Mich., found their "competition fix" in soccer through area leagues. They're members of the Motor City Classics, a senior women's team. Norwood also plays on two other teams.

The Classics often travel the country competing in tournaments against other top senior teams. Because there aren't many senior women's teams in the Detroit area, the Classics sometimes play athletes half their age.

That happened two weeks ago, where the Classics played a team of women mostly in their 30s.

In the opening minutes of the game, an opposing player crashed into Norwood, accidentally breaking her nose.

Norwood was determined to play the rest of the game. She added another goal and two assists before driving herself to the emergency room after the shutout victory.

Married for 41 years, a mother of two adult daughters and grandmother of seven, Norwood said with a laugh: "The last thing my husband always says before I go out to play is, 'Don't get yourself hurt.'"

Norwood and Bauer, a retired physical education teacher, didn't play organized sports in high school because it was before the 1972 passage of Title IX, which resulted in more high school athletics for girls.

Bauer said she started playing soccer at age 48 when she was invited to be a guest player on a team. Her youngest child was then 17.

"One of the best things about competing in a sport is that we have to work out to stay in shape on the field," she said. "I think my competitiveness is a mindset."

Norwood started playing competitive soccer and softball when she was 35.

"I started doing it for the social aspect of it and to stay in shape," she said. "It feels good. It's a high. To know I'm 60 and can still compete and push myself is a thrill. Trying to anticipate what someone is going to do - it keeps you aware."

A former smoker, Norwood said playing sports helped her lose more than 20 pounds from her 5-foot-5-inch frame. She weighs 127.

"I've been really blessed with my health," she said. "My knees and ankles are good, no surgeries."

Paul Groffsky of West Bloomfield, Mich., was a highly competitive athlete in his younger years: He was a three-year starting center/forward on the University of Michigan basketball team from 1952-55.

In 2000, he was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation Hall of Fame.

Now 77, Groffsky competes in triathlons around the country. He started running in his early 40s to lose weight. That led Groffsky to his next challenge: the 1984 Free Press Marathon. He finished the race in 4 hours, 10 minutes.

He entered his first triathlon in 2001, and these days, he is one of the top age-group triathletes in the country.

But his activities are on hold at the moment.

Last month, Groffsky broke his leg in a biking accident the day before he was to compete in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in San Francisco.

"Overall, I feel as good as I did 10 years ago," Groffsky said. "My goals are personal ones; beating other people doesn't matter to me. I have a competitive nature in that I set a time goal. Even when I go to work out, I have a goal. Sometimes it's just to bike 45 minutes at a leisurely pace.

"The thing I've learned is stick-to-itiveness is all you need. Begin by setting an easy goal. Once you reach it, then you'll go onto the next one."

Maybe even all the way to the finish line.


People 65 or older represented 12.4 percent of the U.S. population in 2000; that number is projected to grow to 19 percent by 2030.

Nearly 40 percent of people over the age of 55 report no leisure-time physical activity. Studies show that the older people become, the more they need regular exercise.

Successful aging is largely determined by individual lifestyle choices and not by genetic factors. Regular physical activity is important for the primary and secondary prevention of many chronic diseases and disabling conditions.

Studies show that increased levels of physical activity associated with exercise can help prevent bone loss, reducing the risk of fractures. Exercise increases muscle strength and improves balance and coordination. It also increases the ability to handle daily living activities, making it easier to carry grocery bags, get up from a chair, take care of household chores and other tasks.


Want to take your fitness to the next level? Opportunities abound for older adults who want to participate in a competitive sport. A good place to look is your area's parks and recreation department or senior center. Many hospitals also have exercise and wellness programs that can steer you in the right direction.

(c) 2011, Detroit Free Press.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.