The Trouble with Old People

Trouble With Old People | Staying Competitive

by Steve Van Auken

I get out of my car and I see that my workout today will not begin in the cardio room. It begins here, in the parking lot. A young woman, yoga bag on her shoulder, is approaching the gym building from another direction. If I hustle I can get to the door before she does.

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s were trained that a man holds a door for a woman. It was a sign of respect. There were no qualifiers. It didn’t matter if the woman was strong enough to lift the front end of a Studebaker and the man was recovering from pinworms. A rule was a rule.

At the last moment she glances up, notices me. Effortlessly she increases her pace, arrives first, flings the door open smoothly… and steps aside. “Good morning, sir,” she says with a warm smile. 

How has this happened? At what point did I become a “Sir,” a man who needs to have doors opened? I want a rematch! 

Success! You're on the list.

Competition burns bright in young athletes. It pushes them to get the most from their abilities. If you happen to be young, you might assume that women and men of advanced years have outgrown this sort of thing. You might assume we pass our days in a sort of golden glow, content at last just to be as we are, accepting our physical decline.

You would be wrong. If you need evidence, consider that our next presidential election will pit against each other two warriors in their mid-seventies. They will have heard the advice of doctors, to get plenty of rest, eat bland food, take the dog for a nice walk and avoid anything more stressful than a visit to the DMV. 

They will ignore all this and go at each other like Tyson and Holyfield. They will get as much sleep as a couple of ultra-marathoners. They will trash-talk each other like adolescents on the basketball court. Old age may have forced its way in, but competitiveness has definitely not left the building.

In the gym, we aging athletes spend a lot of time chatting. Surrounded by hard-exercising young people, we appear casual about our workouts. But look closer and you will find that the competitive fires still burn.

Did I just finish using the Nautilus machine on the sedate 30-pound setting? Before I move on, I will be sure to move the selector to 190 pounds. Just to give the next user something to think about. 

Have I been casually pedaling the recumbent bike while talking sports with the older guy beside me? Note the dramatic change in our pedaling when a man in colorful, well-fitting gear sits down at the next bike.

It is not for nothing that gyms have heart defibrillators posted where the older members can see them. Competition can kill.

And yet some senior athletes feel called to test their powers at the highest level. They willingly enter the most unforgiving environment of all. Yes, they get on an airplane.

The wheels have just left the ground and it is time for me to go to the bathroom. My wife, who I am reliably informed does not have a prostate, enlarged or otherwise, is perplexed.

“Didn’t you just go right before we got on the plane? After I had to pretend to accidentally drop my bag and spill my clothes all over so they wouldn’t close the gate before you got back from the bathroom?”

“Yes.  What’s your point?”

I struggle out of my seat and into the aisle. Then I spot him: My opponent. He is easing his way to the aisle, two seats in front of me. We make eye contact. He quickly looks away. But we both know. It’s on.

He is about my age, a big guy and quicker than he looks. I decide to let him play through. We stagger toward the bathroom at the rear of the plane. The name of the game is to lean on as few seats as possible. This takes leg strength, balance, confidence. I move with quiet focus. Suddenly the plane hits a rough patch. I lurch, grabbing for the nearest stable object. Which is the top of the head of a bald man who turns out to be a sound sleeper. But my opponent has glanced over his shoulder and seen me stumble. He smiles smugly.

He arrives at the toilet, finds it occupied. We wait, facing each other. I’m behind on points. I will need a knockout to win. I decide to go for it. I take my hands off the seat-backs on both sides. At 30,000 feet, I ride the wind.

The other guy knows it’s win or go home. He lifts his hands from the seat-backs. He sways but compensates and stays upright. Well played. But then it happens: The trap of over-confidence. It has brought down so many fine athletes. He can’t resist. He puts his hands in his pockets!

This is an old-guy airplane surfing move that only the most skilled can pull-off. I once happened to be on a flight with Ted Williams toward the end of his life. I swear he stood at the bathroom door with his hands in his pockets for a solid 10 minutes. That’s once-in-a-lifetime athleticism.

This guy wasn’t bad, but he was no Ted Williams. I pretended to talk over his shoulder: “Ma’am, could I have some of those little pretzels?”

The lure of pretzels is strong in my demographic. We associate them with beer. My opponent glanced back, which was his first mistake. His second was to reflexively suck in his gut to make himself more attractive to flight attendants bearing pretzels. He swayed, then over-compensated. Frantically he grabbed for a seat-back but it was too late. With a gasp he pitched headlong — toward the lap of a young man who had been blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding above him.  He was watching a movie, checking his phone and opening a pack of chocolate-cranberry trail mix — until the moment a gray-haired man wearing a sweater that appeared to have been a gift from Christmas thirty years ago appeared above his lap, flailing his arms in a last-ditch attempt to land his hand on an armrest instead of a body part belonging to her.

He made a sound. Think about the sound a person makes if he opens his suitcase and finds a spider which immediately runs somewhere inside his clothing seeking deep cover. It was that sound. The good news was that he eventually changed his mind and agreed it might not be necessary to divert the plane to the nearest airport or military base so that his assailant could be taken into custody. 

When I finally returned to my seat, my wife asked, “What was all that noise?” She is not much into competitive sports. I knew she wouldn’t care about the details.

“That,” I told her, “was the sound of victory.”