There’s no shortage of PBS documentaries about exceptional species of life on this planet, like big cats, dolphins, owls, apes, octopi and even slime molds. Another fascinating breed — rare, but whose numbers are increasing — are medal winning athletes between the ages of 50 and 100 plus. They're the subject of a PBS documentary that airs Tuesday night called “Age of Champions” (check your local listings for times).
The documentary, directed by Chris Rufo, focuses on five individual athletes — plus a women’s basketball team — as they hone their skills to compete in the 2011 National Senior Games, which took place in Houston. Stick around to the end to see who went home with the gold. No fast-forwarding, though. Their personal stories are too good to miss.
The National Senior Games, a 14-day event held every two years, gets under way July 19 in Cleveland. More than 11,000 U.S. athletes over the age of 50 will be competing in 19 categories, including archery, golf and triathlon. Yearlong state and local competitions lead up to the nationals.
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The film, careful to avoid cutesy stereotypes, takes a straightforward, unsentimental look at its subjects. There is no voice-over or anyone on screen asking the athletes or their families scripted questions. They just talk to the camera as if it were an intimate friend.
"I understand the fellow I'm playing today is only 94 years old," says centenarian tennis player Roger Gentilhomme, "so I'm playing a youngster again."
In the case of swimmers John and Bradford Tatum, who are brothers, we get a look at true human adversity. John was 88 and Bradford was 90 when the film was shot. They recall their childhoods in Washington, D.C., where, because they were black, public pools were off limits. Instead, they practiced their strokes as youngsters in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool and in a Georgetown canal.
The gold medal for the most colorful cast member in this film has to go to Adolph Hoffman, an 86-year-old Texas cattle rancher with the strength of a Longhorn. He competes in pole vaulting, javelin, discus and shot put, setting one world record after another. “Most people my age are six feet in the ground and not trying to pole vault six feet in the air,” he says dryly.
Hoffman’s competitive streak pales, however, to the Tigerettes, a women’s basketball team from Louisiana. All six members are over 66 and grandmothers. We see these elderly Southern belles at their local beauty shop getting their hair styled and sprayed. Then we see them on the court where they could give the Harlem Globetrotters a run for their money — oh, wait, they did, losing to them by just 1 point in a recent scrimmage. For the Tigerettes, going home with broken bones and black eyes is a fair price to pay for another gold medal. They're going for their eighth in Cleveland.
I recently spoke by phone to Rufo about the 72-minute documentary, which is also being released Tuesday on iTunes and Amazon. (For the record, he and the film’s producer, Keith Ochwat, are a mere 28.)
What do these athletes have that younger ones don’t?
I think their success is in three parts: First, their drive, passion, resiliency and tenacity in becoming really good athletes. They take their training seriously and really work hard at it.
Second, they have good family support. Their families are rooting for them and their communities are invested in them. They feel like they’re role models.
Third, they play to their strengths. When Keith and I played tennis against Roger and his 85-year-old doubles partner during one of the shooting breaks, they were able to beat us. These athletes may not be faster or stronger or more agile than a younger person, but they compete in a smarter way. They’ve figured out little ways and tricks to adapt their sport to overcome some of their limitations. It’s really fun to see how they approach sports that are very technical, like pole vaulting and basketball.
Another thing: At the end of the day they don’t take themselves too seriously. They're just trying to have fun.
They don’t come off as being super-human. They seem like ordinary people who are attempting the extraordinary.
Absolutely. Roger didn’t start playing tennis until he was 75. He had a lot of medical troubles throughout his life. Bradford was going through cancer and chemotherapy during the swimming competitions. I think they would all say they’re not exceptional physical specimens or genetically perfect people. But I think what they all have in common is their attitudes and determination.
They’re positive thinkers?
Every single one of them. When some people get older they look to the past. They either reminisce or take a kind of nostalgic attitude. They’re resistant to the present and the future, whereas these people could care less what happened in the past. They’re looking forward to that next competition or that next record or improving upon something they’ve done. I think that it’s pretty remarkable to be in your 80s or 90s and have these forward-looking goals.
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Have any of the athletes you profiled died?
Both Roger and Bradford. Roger died at 102. I expected him to live forever. Although Bradford had recovered from his cancer, he eventually died of other complications. I’m having lunch with his brother, John, tomorrow.
What about Adolph?
He’ll be competing in Cleveland.
And how about the Tigerettes? What are they up to besides practicing for another gold medal this month?
Their stated goal is to have a reality show about them, if you know of anyone who’s interested.