Facing up to aging as an athlete — but not giving up

Our elliptical machine talks to me all the time.
It just doesn’t sit in the corner of the family room while I do my best to ignore it.
“I’m here,” the elliptical tells me. “I’m waiting. It’s only a matter of time. You’ll see. It will be you and me and tai chi.”
I try not to listen. I turn up the TV and dream about being 24 years old, when as a left back no wing could beat me down the right side of the soccer pitch.
Well, at least that’s the way I remember it 40 years later, now that I click on articles with headlines like, “When is the best time to start collecting Social Security?” and ask Google when I should sign up for Medicare (it’s next spring, BTW).
As for that insistent elliptical, it’s not that I haven’t used it. I do — usually when recovering from injury and can’t do more fun stuff. But I know it’s only a matter of time before I have to heed its call on a more regular basis.
After all, in August I went to have my left knee checked, the one I first twisted running on the beach when I was 16, the one from which Dr. Benz removed cartilage in 2003. It’s always been cranky, and it was barking at me this summer during my current exercise program, indoor noontime soccer three times a week at Middlebury College.
I had to switch to soccer from noontime basketball a couple years back because of a small shoulder labrum tear. That injury lets me do anything except play hoop regularly.
Basketball, pickup in the town and college gyms and the old Middlebury Basketball league, had become my favorite, but not my best, sport. I’ve also played on softball, baseball, volleyball and hockey teams over the years, and dabbled in tennis and golf. Now I’m down to slow-motion soccer, cornhole and fantasy baseball, and the latter two don’t burn many calories.
At the orthopedics office Trina, the always-helpful physician’s assistant (I’ve seen her so often over the years for my shoulder we’re on a first-name basis — you know you’re aging when) ordered x-rays of my knees, looked them over, and said I would be OK.
But probably just for a few more years. Then, Trina said, swelling in the knee, not to mention the arthritis the x-rays revealed as well as missing cartilage, would probably let me know I would have to quit playing sports involving cutting, stopping and starting, jumping. Basically all the fun stuff.
And that’s the dilemma for the aging team sport athlete.
Many people love working out and running or jogging for it’s own sake. They tell me running gets easier after the first couple miles, and science insists endorphins kick in to produce the “runner’s high.”
I’ll never know. I’m with the late Joan Rivers, who once said, “The first time I see a jogger smiling, I’ll consider it.”
ANDY KIRKALDY, SECOND from left, reveled with his Woody’s teammates in a Middlebury Basketball league championship three decades ago. As he grows older, he is learning to live with age-imposed limitations on playing team sports.
A couple years ago during a weeklong vacation in Massachusetts my older daughter said I should play in her Boston pick-up soccer game with her during the second weekend. I said sure, but I didn’t want to play after a week of doing nothing. So I ran a mile some days, and stretched it to two miles one day to prepare.
It was literally the hardest thing I’d done in years. Probably since I got snookered into running a “fun” 5K 15 years ago and got smoked by parents pushing toddlers in strollers. Even in high school I was last running laps on the soccer team, and that was 48 years and 25 pounds ago.
A member of the Vergennes high school cross-country team told me recently that running is mostly mental. I told her it was easy to say for a fit 17-year-old.
But it is true many of us will run if we are motivated. In prehistoric times humans had to run to catch food or to avoid becoming food. Eventually the Greeks turned running into sport, although it is interesting to note according to legend the original runner from Marathon to Athens died when he delivered his message of victory. I can relate.
Then ball sports were invented. Hitting, kicking, throwing and catching balls has proven to be endlessly fascinating for many humans. I often compare myself to a Labrador retriever. Like a Lab I love to sleep and especially to eat, but am also happy to get up and chase balls for hours. Well, OK, 45 minutes or so before it’s time to quit or call for a medic.
The other beauty of most ball sports lies in the teamwork. For many aging team sport athletes — in the noon soccer game there are several regular attendees older than I — the joy of working together, of successful strategy and cooperation, remains central to our athletic identities.
All of us who are still playing against younger athletes — who routinely sprint past us for loose balls and race around us while attacking the goal — relish moments like making a smart pass, slipping into an open space to allow a teammate to move the ball, or anticipating an opponent’s action to break up a play.
That’s the team-sport equivalent of the runner’s high. Typically we enjoy setting up a teammate for a goal just as much as scoring one.
And those of us past a certain age also get to compare our nicks and bruises. Calf injuries are popular right now among my age peers, and I have to stretch out a lingering groin pull before I touch a ball. A typical response from one of us when asked how the game went today is, “No new injuries. A good day.”
And every one of those days gives us valuable exercise, camaraderie and fun.
Yes, I can hear the elliptical calling. But it can wait a little longer.
As long as possible, in fact.

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