How fast can you run? How high can you jump? How far can you throw? A former college track athlete-turned-photojournalist, Angela Jimenez knows that track and field is a sport defined by concrete measurements. She also knows that people are living longer, and older track and field athletes are setting records. So she wondered, what distances and speeds is a body capable of at age 85 vs. 45?
Intrigued by the question, Jimenez set out to photograph senior athletes competing on the Masters Track & Field circuit. What she learned transcends “how long” and “how fast,” and informs her award-winning documentary photo project “Racing Age,” which shows athletes from age 65 to 95 competing in events that include sprinting, shot put, discus, long jump, javelin, high jump, even pole vaulting.
Jimenez spoke to Senior Planet by phone from her home in Minneapolis about the athletes and what she discovered by photographing them.
What was your goal with “Racing Age”?
I went into it thinking, this will be cool and recreational – and it is, but these are very serious athletes. So ultimately my goal was to show these older bodies doing things at the same intensity and with the same mission that a younger athlete does them. Here are people who are doing something that might challenge a stereotype or disrupt the way we think.
“This photo of a long jumper at the peak of his jump really surprises people. It’s startling to see an older body leaping through the air. You just don’t see that too often. You can see all the striations of his muscles.”
What did you learn by watching these athletes?
One insight was that a person’s ability to do this kind of thing late into life definitely has something to do with genetics. Some people are 90 and able to do things like this and other people just aren’t, through no fault of their own.
A lot of the people I met are really active, healthy people, both psychologically and physically. If you’re a positive person and you’re making good life decisions about eating, drinking and whatever other vices we all have, that does seem to make a difference.
This sport is also a community, a subculture, and that’s something that’s really, really important. Especially as people get older, their activities need to connect them with like-minded people. Having a positive community of people to do things with, especially those who are of different age groups and who can put your stuff in perspective, is very good.
Any big surprises?
Initially I was mystified by the degree of their competitiveness! I was a sports kid from the time I was six. In college I was very serious about sports and I still love sports – but I don’t want to win so badly any more and I was shocked by how intense the older people were.
I realized that they’re competing against the idea of what a person is capable of at their particular age. An 80-year-old is competing against his or her peers in their age group – but also against the standards that people their age have been able to meet before. That was the surprising aspect of it for me.
“This is Seymour Duckman, 88, of Daytona Beach, Florida. He had survived several rounds of cancer. And he was out there with such focus and ferocity. He has since passed away, but his grandson requested a print of this photo to use at his funeral. I was very honored.”
Any favorite stories from the photo sessions?
One of my favorite people is a woman named Johnnye Valien, who is pictured holding a shot put over her head. She has such an amazing story: She’s a woman, and a black woman, so her opportunities to compete and be an athlete when she was a kid were limited and different than my own. I just loved her spirit.
One of the things that is important for me to try to communicate through this project is that sometimes watching people who are at this life stage do something so physical can be a little bit scary.
I was watching one woman, Louise, run a long distance race on the track. She was the only person competing in her age division and she collapsed on the track. They wanted her to stop running, and she wouldn’t stop. She got up, kept going and collapsed again – finally they took her off the track. I never had the experience more vividly of feeling this person was willing to go out this way. “I’m not going to just sit in a chair and wait for it to come.” I can’t put words in her mouth, but you got this feeling watching her that she would make that choice. And that’s scary to watch.
“These guys are running at top speed in the short, all-out sprint race. One difference in older athletes is a more limited range of motion and, of course, they’re slower relative to younger people. But they are competing against people of their own age cohort. Everyone in a sprint race is moving their legs as fast as they possibly can.”
What does the “Aging with Attitude” mean to you?
I don’t know yet what it means for me, but I do think that approaching life with attitude means not letting other people set your limitations – that’s what I’ve taken from working on this project and from knowing these athletes.
“This is Helen Beauchamp, 87, of Memphis, Tennessee. I remember Helen really well because she explained she did not dance because of her religion. So she found this other way to move and express herself. She looks like such a typical grandmother from the back, but there she is throwing a javelin. I just love that.”
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All photos: Angela Jimenez