‘The spirit is undaunted’: Portraits showcase strength of senior athletes

Posted at 7:13 AM, Jun 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-29 09:13:25-04

After her first knee replacement surgery, Kathy Meares was told that she could never run again. She was 36 years old and an avid runner. Meares was devastated.

“I said, OK, well my life is over, there’s nothing to do,” Meares said.

But then her doctor said she could try walking a 23-minute mile — no faster, or she would risk injury.

“It was so boring, so I started walking faster and faster,” Meares said. Four total knee replacement surgeries later, Meares brought down her time to 11 and a half minutes per mile and has competed in over 30 different 5K, 10K and half-marathon power walking races.

Meares is now 72 years old and most recently won a gold medal in the 70-to-74 age group of the 1,500-meter power walking event at the 2019 National Senior Games, the largest multi-sport competition in the world for men and women age 50 and older.

Over 13,700 athletes participated in the 2019 National Senior Games, a record high in its 32 year history. The National Senior Games Association is a nonprofit multi-sport council member of the US Olympic Committee and hosts the competition every two years.

This year’s event in Albuquerque, New Mexico, finished this week after athletes competed in 20 events including cycling, swimming, badminton, basketball, horseshoe, tennis, powerwalking, triathlon relay, and track and field. Athletes in each sport competed in their designated five-year age brackets, ranging from 50 to 100 years old.

Eleven athletes, ages 52 to 97, were selected and honored as Humana Game Changers, people who “exemplify healthy aging and provide encouragement, motivation and inspiration for all to age actively,” according to Jennifer Bazante, the senior vice president of marketing at Humana, a health insurance company that has sponsored the National Senior Games since 2007.

Meares, one of this year’s recipients, said she couldn’t believe the news. “I don’t really consider myself as a role model, I more consider myself as an encourager,” she said.

Another game changer is Kamal Chaudhari, a skin and prostate cancer survivor, who, at 84 years old, competed in badminton at the National Senior Games. But he doesn’t just compete against seniors. Back home in Tampa Bay, Florida, Chaudhari plays badminton against college students at the University of South Florida. He works as a structural engineer and takes college classes in history and gerontology, the science of aging, to keep his mind engaged.

“We’re just trying to inspire the next person — doesn’t matter what their age or their ability is — to start living a healthy lifestyle,” Bazante said. “We wanted to celebrate these incredible people in a new way this year that showcased not only their competitive spirit, but also depicts the whole person.”

To capture the athlete’s spirits, Humana hired photographer Tim Tadder, who’s known for “heroic and artistic” photographs of elite athletes.

Tadder first took photographs of senior athletes at the 2003 San Diego Senior Games, images which he said got him noticed when he had “no credibility to his craft.” Sixteen years later, he had the opportunity to revisit the subject that launched his career.

“I try to portray [subjects] in a way in which I feel to me represents their power and strength, whether it’s an 89-year-old marathon runner or is a 22-year-old NFL MVP … I don’t approach them any different,” Tadder said. “While the shell might be aged, the spirit is undaunted.”

For example, there’s Carol Klenfner, a 74-year-old athlete from New York who lost her husband, job and home in 2009. After watching a documentary about ping-pong, Klenfner entered a table tennis tournament and eventually found her way to the National Senior Games.

“Carol was one those people that truly embodied the ‘I am not going to let anything stop me,’ ” Tadder said. “It comes across from the image that she is just a beat of passion for what she’s doing.”

Aging isn’t “stereotypically seen as powerful and strong,” Tadder said, and that’s a challenge he embraced. With these images, he said he couldn’t help but feel inspired to take better care of himself.

At her first senior games, Meares didn’t expect to win. Her goal was to compete to the best of her ability and make some friends along the way.

“It was the most exhilarating and overwhelming feeling when I crossed the finish line,” she said.

But Meares isn’t dwelling on her accolades for too long. She’s planning to compete at the Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah this October.

“If I can inspire one person to get out there and walk, then I’ve done a good job,” Meares said. “Age is just a number. It’s what you carry inside of you and your desire that makes you who you are.”