Active Aging: “We Are the Champions, My Friend”

After four attempts, at age 64 swimmer Diana Nyad finally forged the 110 treacherous miles from Cuba to the Florida coast in early September – the first ever to achieve the feat. Besides her persistence and her poignant message “You’re never too old to chase your dreams,” Nyad’s swim illustrated yet again the key ingredient to healthy aging.

Exercise.

Ample evidence to support this is provided by two 20-something documentary filmmakers whose film ‘Age of Champions‘ spotlights five athletes training for the Senior Olympics, an event held every two years that plays host to 12,000 athletes 50 and over.

“One of the things I was most surprised about was the high quality of life with all the seniors we got to know,” says Sacramento-based producer Keith Ochwat. “They lead great lives despite their age and the challenges that come with it.”

Ochwat admits one of the attractions to making the film was his “inherent misconceptions about aging” – that most older adults sat in rocking chairs and simply recycled memories.

But he found these athletes far different.

In the film, pole-vaulter Adolph Hoffman, 86, hires a young coach to help him break the Senior Olympics world record of eight feet for his age group. The Tatum brothers – 88 and 90 – continue to pursue their lifelong love of swimming – as one surpasses the other in ability as they age. And 100 year-old tennis player Roger Gentilhomme keeps fit with regular bike rides and other exercise.

Most entertaining is the gutty rivalry between two women’s basketball teams, whose antipathy towards one another approaches legendary rivalries such as the Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics.

Before the Olympics, five-time gold medalists the Celadrin Tigerettes are seen as amiable grandmas having their hair done while laughing in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, salon. On the court, however, these ferocious ladies muscle up with highly physical play that stops just short of two words that are on the lips of some opponents – “dirty play.”

In an interview, Tigerettes team captain Mavis Albin simply laughs off the accusation.

“We don’t apologize for that. We play a hard, physical game,” says Albin, who turned 77 in August. She compares the team’s play to the far rougher professionals of the WNBA. “We are super nice women off the court. But when we get on the court, we play to win.”

Ochwat says the Tigerettes push past the perception of the genteel senior athlete.

“Some people would say, ‘Oh well, that’s not what senior sports are all about,’” he says. “The Tigerettes really raise the bar for their competitors.”

Yet what Ochwat admires most about the older adult athletes profiled in the film is profound.

They are making new memories, not relying on old ones.

“You see a great divide between seniors who are active, and seniors who are not,” observes Ochwat. “Not just physical skills, but cognitive ability. Those two are very intertwined.”

Ochwat, along with business partner and director Christopher Rufo, both balance their own busy lives with physical exercise. Ochwat participates in triathlons, and most recently joined a team to run the Hood to Coast 195-mile relay in Oregon. Rufo practices yoga and CrossFit.

For a project that began five years ago, the two filmmakers are finally reaping the rewards with media exposure ranging from interviews with CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta to Fox News, NPR and other national outlets.

With help from AARP, the filmmakers have packaged the film with an educational Screening Kit to support active aging. Organizations that plan to show the film pay anywhere from $59 for the complete set (public libraries, K-12 schools) up to $240 (universities) for the DVD and kit. The DVD alone is available for $25 to individuals, with an exercise guide, poster and other items available at additional cost.

Although the young filmmaking team’s first documentary effort – about a 20 year-old’s love for baseball in a remote Chinese province – remains unfinished, the filmmaking pair next discovered this largely untapped market for documentarians they hoped would be as lucrative financially as artistically.

The end result: an inspirational family film, and an important addition to the tale of older adults and active aging.

Ochwat insists that none of the older adults depicted in the film was given the gift of vibrant health or happiness. Like athletes two generations younger, their hard-earned lesson remains the same: no pain, no gain.

“As we got to know the characters, that was really reinforced,” he says. “All the senior athletes have the aches and pains to go with it.”

So like Diana Nyad’s swim mantra – “Never, ever give up” – Ochwat offers these three words of advice to anyone planning a healthy old age.

“You have to earn it.”

Editor’s note: Formally called the National Senior Games, 300,000 older adults compete to qualify for the games every two years in age groups divided by five-year intervals.

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