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Sports

Age is Just a Number

A clutch of advanced-age athletes from the Flathead Valley brought home a raft of medals from the Senior Olympic Games in Missoula last month

By Micah Drew
Runner and cyclist Dick Anderson pictured in Kalispell on July 7, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Dick Anderson was upset with the weather. The Kalispell resident was in Missoula for the third day of competition at the Montana Senior Olympics and it looked like the event he was most looking forward to, the javelin, was going to be canceled by a storm. 

On June 16, 82-year-old Anderson competed in the 5-kilometer road race, followed by a 5-kilometer road cycling time trial the next day, finishing both as the fastest in his five-year age bracket. 

“The running was tough. I run up to 5k in training, but there was a lot of walking involved this time,” Anderson said.  “The bike was really lovely on the bike path near Lolo, but I was really looking forward to the javelin.”

Throwing an eight-foot-long spear might not seem like a common hobby to adopt later in life, but the event routinely sees a dozen or more competitors at the senior games. 

“I borrowed a javelin a long time ago and threw it a few times, just for fun,” Anderson said. “The first time I competed in the Senior Olympics in Polson, I borrowed one and threw it and it wasn’t spectacular, but I was competitive with the other guys my age.”

“So, then I just bought a javelin and now I’m throwing it whenever I want,” he continued. “I can throw it in my backyard without worrying about sticking it in the neighbor’s yard, because I can’t throw it over the fence.”

Anderson said he keeps his javelin by the front door of his house and whenever he’s got five free minutes and some nice weather, he’ll pop outside and get in a couple of tosses. To learn some technique, he used to meet up with Stuart Levitt, a state-champion javelin coach for Glacier High School, a few times a week at the gym. 

“I was getting pretty excited about continuing with the javelin,” Anderson said. “It’s not just throwing a stick down the road, there’s a whole lot of things that go into making a good throw.”

Unfortunately, the javelin throw at the Senior Olympics was called off for a storm before Anderson got to make his first toss, and Anderson had to settle for his podium-performances in his other two events.

Anderson was one of several older athletes from the Flathead Valley, known informally as the “Flathead Fossils,” that competed at the Games, each athlete showing up their competition to bring home a horde of top-three medals. 

Golfer Steve Neal, pictured in Kalispell on July 7, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

 Steve Neal, 64, of Bigfork, went down to compete in a 40-kilometer cycling race — off “zero cycling training” — and three different golfing disciplines, winning gold in the round of golf and longest drive, and taking the silver medal on the putting green. 

“I didn’t really have a sporting history for most of my life,” Neal said. “It wasn’t until much later in life that I started backpacking and hiking and that morphed into trying the sports I never got around to trying — I played on a softball team, picking up road biking and mountain biking and did a triathlon.”

Neal just started golfing in the last decade and says that as far as sports go, golf has an extra mental edge that he believes his demeanor is well suited for. 

“I was a middle school teacher and the pressure of having to be ready to teach when the bell rings was pretty good preparation,” Neal said. “At the Olympics you’ve only got a few shots and there’s a lot of people watching you. When the appointed moment comes, you’ve got to step up and how well you do just depends on how well you can manage the mental game.”

For the long drive competition, Neal, along with fellow Bigfork golfer Doug Coats, had to deal with the early edges of the storm that manifested as a 20-mph headwind whipping down the driving range. While Neal maintains that Coats is a better driver on any given day, as the defending event champion Neal certainly had a mental edge and shot 267 yards straight down the center of the fairway. 

“It’s just nice to be down there with a friend so we can support each other,” Neal said. “We wished each other all the best, and when it came time to compete we did the best we could to beat each other and to help each other out.”

In addition to Neal, Coats, and Anderson, the “Flathead Fossils” includes track and field athlete Kate McMahon, who won gold, silver and bronze medals in the jumping events, as well as Coats’ wife, Cindy, a cycling medalist who is the driving force behind the group. 

“For all of us Fossils, it’s really good for the mental side to have the group together. If there’s an event coming up we have something to look forward to, and we get to meet up down there and support each other,” Neal said. “Cindy is just great at rallying the troops and giving us folks a great opportunity to.”

“I’ve got to say, whether it’s like last year when I played pickleball with a local team or this year where I was golfing and cycling, it’s just nice to be a Flathead Valley resident with some Flathead friends,” he added. “It might sound corny, but that’s what’s important.”

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