July 16, 2022 4 min read 3 Comments
By Ray Glier
Don Phillips drove 250 miles to a school reunion recently. He putzes around the yard doing small jobs. He can reach up to snatch something off a high shelf in his kitchen. Don can grocery shop. He can go on an 11-mile bike ride and he can jog on the backstreets of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He is going deer hunting in November.
The list of things we don’t know is longer than the things we do know, but one of the things we know is that exercise matters.
Phillips exercises. He is 91 years old and his daily life is made full because he can do everyday, generic tasks. His career as a large animal veterinarian certainly kept him on his feet and active, but he has also exercised routinely since he was 55 years old.
Phillips lifts weights twice a week. He walks or jogs 2-3 miles several times a week and in the bluster of a South Dakota winter he can rely on a treadmill in the house, or a senior center in town.
You are probably waiting for me to zing you with a lightning bolt about Don Phillips, the athlete? Something extraordinary? In a moment.
Phillips is extraordinary for reasons that have nothing to do with his sport of track & field. According to census data, 80.8 percent of people in their 90s not living in a nursing home have one or more disabilities. They are infirm at home, unable to do errands by themselves and have a general lack of mobility. That is a disheartening percentage of people at home struggling.
What is key here is that Phillips turns up his intensity and that’s one of the reasons why we stay mobile. He told me he might walk less these days, but he makes an effort to go at a faster pace. This Mayo Clinic study has been out five years, but it needs to be hammered home that increasing intensity of a workout can reverse some cellular aspects of aging.
So here is the lightning bolt I promised on Don Phillips, 91. Two of them.
He went to The National Senior Games in May and entered 13 events in the 90-94 cohort. He won eight gold medals. Don wasn’t just running against himself and wind. He had competition in those events. Phillips also set a National Senior Games record in the 200 for Men 90-94. What’s remarkable is it was the first time Don competed in the field events at the National Senior Games. He added as he got older. He didn’t subtract.
The sprints are his sweet spot. He had been a middle distance runner, but in the 2015 National Senior Games in Minneapolis, Phillips, who was 85 years old, shucked the 1500 and won five gold medals (50, 100, 200, 400, 800), and another gold as part of a 4x100 relay team.
“I had never been to a track meet, I had never seen a track meet,” Don said. “I started doing this for health reasons.”
Let me fill you in about one of those health reasons. It was jarring to Phillips. It's another lightning bolt.
Don was 55 when he walked out of his house one day to greet his neighbor who was coming home from the doctor. Phillips was alarmed. The man was in his mid-60s and his knees were no good, he was overweight, had a heart problem, and was diabetic and, generally, in poor health. Being overweight can be the first and worst symptom of poor health.
“The doctor told him to get more exercise, but he was never going to follow that advice, it was too late for him,” Phillips said. “I thought right then ‘Maybe a person should start with the exercise when you are capable of doing it, don’t wait until it’s too late, like my neighbor’.”
Phillips started walking two-three miles a day. He subscribed to Runners World magazine to get some information on training. Phillips started paying closer attention to his nutrition.
Don turns 92 on July 23 and he has been at it 37 years.
His neighbor, meanwhile, died when he was about 73, Phillips said.
“Too young,” I said.
“Too young,” Don said back to me.
Just two more things on Don Phillips.
I signed up with another gym today and I told the nice lady behind the desk about Don and she said, “Some people just have great genes.”
It’s not just the genes. It’s not. It’s part nature, to be sure, but it’s also nurture. Phillips worked to fit into the jeans he wore every day to do his vet work. He was accustomed to being on his feet.
But it was work he did 70 years ago, work that earned him another “Vet” moniker, that prompted a lifetime of moving. Don was in the Army during the Korean War and, after basic infantry training, he was assigned a desk job in Japan as part of a counterintelligence unit. Don stayed glued to that desk, he said, for 13 months.
“I vowed I was never going to spend the rest of my life behind a desk,” Phillips said. “Being a vet(ernarian) was quite physical and you were moving most of the time.”
Being a vet gave him a foundation for The National Senior Games and track & field events. His legs and heart were sturdy. Choices did the rest.
People in Don’s generation seldom trumpet their success and preach about how others should live their lives. He wasn’t about to find a soapbox and start sermonizing about the benefits of exercise in later life after he got back from the National Senior Games with those eight gold medals. He didn’t have to. A local TV station found him and did a piece on his gold medal bonanza for the local news.
That’s what Geezer Jocks do. They spread the faith in a humble kind of way and hope people hear the message before it’s midnight.
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