October 09, 2023 5 min read 3 Comments
Joe Simonetta and his rented bike before the Sprint Triathlon at The National Senior Games. You can't easily see it, but the bike has a kickstand, which is not typical for triathlons. Then again, Joe was not a typical national triathlon competitor.
*Pictures at the end.
By Ray Glier
“Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they’re yours.”___Richard Bach, writer and pilot.
Joe Simonetta, 80, became a dad again at 70. Then he became a dad a third time at 72. He got a Masters of Divinity from Harvard arguing against religious doctrine. When Joe was middle-aged, and with a Masters in Architecture from the University of Colorado, he slept on a mattress in New Zealand in a tin hut and labored on a farm. This was when Simonetta was in his 40s, which is also the decade in his life he woke up one morning and decided to run for U.S. Congress. Simonetta was competitive in that race, but lost.
You listen to his story and understand how it was possible Joe could win the next race he entered 37 years later. Simonetta rented a bike, used a pair of simple running shoes, ordinary shorts—no wet suit—and entered a sprint triathlon for the first time and won a gold medal.
The bike, by the way, had a kickstand, which is not a usual accessory in triathlons of speed. The kickstand added to the magic of the day.
“It was the first race I ever entered,” Simonetta said, notwithstanding the failed Congressional race in 1986. “I was thrilled to win a gold medal.”
The reason Joe succeeded—in addition to being in superb condition—is because he showed up with no limits, as his custom. He is a legitimate non-conformist. Look at this biography and you can see a pulsating universal life, which crashes myths about age and how you should direct your life, especially when you have so much schooling (I mean an architecture degree, among a collection of sheepskins, and living as a cropper on a farm?).
It’s not that Simonetta was recklessly heroic by entering the triathlon at The National Senior Games in July with no experience. This was, after all, the all-inclusive National Senior Games, which is purposely welcoming to all skill levels. Joe has also done some swimming—he lives in Sarasota, Fla.—and routinely runs. He also knows how to ride a bike.
But Simonetta has not packaged all three in one race and Joe’s competitors were puzzled he picked a national race to get into the sport. And they had some good-natured chuckles over his kickstand-equipped bike.
The important thing is Joe knew what he was getting into at 80.
“You have to make a decision to do (a triathlon) and then you have to have perseverance and discipline and do the training those days you don’t feel like doing the training,” Simonetta said
Joe arrived before 7 a.m. at Bradys Run Park in Beaver Falls, 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, and asked simply, “Ok, what do we do now.”
When the rope dropped for older swimmers to dive in for the start, Clueless Joe waded in and swam furiously. He was exhausted after several minutes. Several of the more experienced triathletes, with an understanding of pace in the water, left him in their wake.
He backstroked, side-stroked, and breast-stroked to get through the 1/4-mile swim. His exuberance and no-limits ethos hijacked his common sense.
“I said to myself as I struggled in the water ‘You think you’re so smart that you could show up here and win’,” Simonetta said.
He came out of the water and got on the bike, the one with a kickstand that cost $200 for two days rental, and rode off figuring no way he was going to medal. No one else was in sight in front of him. Joe completed his bike leg and started running, which is his thing.
It was a 5k and halfway through, Joe came up on another runner in his age group. He passed him. Then he caught another man and passed him.
“I’m thinking ‘I can win this thing’,” Simonetta said.
Sure enough, he did win.
There was not a horde of competition in the 80-84 age group for the sprint triathlon, but at 80+, as we have said many times, the competition is mostly your own body and your own mindset. Simonetta beat just five others…and millions of others who are 80 and don’t have the conditioning, or nerve, to enter a triathlon.
“I loved those guys, they were super nice to me in my first race,” he said.
There was a synchrony to Joe’s triumph in Pittsburgh, known as the Steel City because of its history as the capital of steel works. He grew up in Bethlehem, Pa., 290 miles east of Pittsburgh, and is the son of an Italian immigrant who was a steel worker. The Simonetta home was three blocks from a blast furnace and the roar of metal being forged was all-pervading.
His father’s name was Rosario when the boat landed at Ellis Island, at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in 1910. By the time Rosario walked out of the immigration office, his name was “Russell”.
Joe says, almost proudly about his father, “He had an eighth-grade education.”
Rosario’s family would not be pinned down on the south side of the canal in Bethlehem where the immigrant families lived, nor by the eighth-grade education of the patriarch. Joe played with the other immigrant kids—all the stick and ball sports—then ended up in tennis whites one day on the north side and thrived in a self-reliant sport. Simonetta played his way on to Penn State’s varsity tennis and soccer teams. It was a household of high-achievers. One brother went to West Point and became a Colonel. Another brother became an executive at Pepsi Co.
Joe, meanwhile, went in and out of different professions, from real estate to architecture to tennis pro to military officer to entrepreneur to writer and speaker. He labels himself now as a Humanist and has an epochal goal to try and remedy the destructive capacity of man on earth.
“I remember saying to myself, rather naively, but completely serious, that ‘I am going to do something about the suffering in our world and went on to live an extremely unusual life,” Joe said. “And I got all these different tastes of the world, all these different angles.
“I was really disturbed about the state of the world and the universal and unrelenting suffering."
Joe has written books and writes and speaks about what he has seen from these different rooftops—Colorado to New Zealand to Greece to Ecuador to LA to Sarasota, among other homes—and how his experiences shaped his understanding of life and his worldview.
Where does the Triathlon fit in with all this? Joe's life is a thesis on discipline and execution and winning a triathlon requires a person, he said, "to be grounded in the realities of life, and with a steadfast discipline."
Joe’s gold medal was not potluck, just as his myriad of successful careers were not chance hits. It was digging in and being self-reliant, and escaping the limits we put on ourselves.
"There is a strong correlation between what it takes for an individual to be healthy and fit at 80 and compete in a triathlon and what it takes to sustain humanity, advance our civilization, and succeed as a species,” Joe said.
We have to understand there are no limits to helping each other survive and thrive.
Joe and the water that humbled him before he rallied for the win.
Joe and friends on the medal stand. "They were super nice to me...."
Joe's kids: Fiorella and Russell.
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