Playbook for Life – 6 Life Lessons from Masters Athletes


Last Updated on January 9, 2024

It’s no secret that organized sports are full of life lessons. For athletes of all ages, sports bring so much value beyond simply trying to win a medal or a trophy. It’s about staying active, staying engaged, making new friends, increasing your healthspan and, of course, having fun.

Older adults have so much wisdom to share with the world, especially when it comes to moments of inspiration gathered on the track, in the pool or any of the more than 20 sports played at the National Senior Games. Here are a few of our favorite life lessons we learned from athletes over the age of 50: 

1. Everybody Starts Somewhere 

Karen Panker is a 77-year-old swimmer from The Villages, Florida, who has won dozens of medals for her work in the pool, including 5 medals at the National Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale. She believes any one of us can get in the game, no matter our age or skill level. 

“You don’t have to be a superstar. Just take it one day at a time and do it step by step. People look at us and think ‘I could never do that.’ Just start with 50 yards, start slow and build up.”  – Karen Panker, 77 

Karen Panker

2. Embrace a Positive Attitude 

At 95-years-old, Pittsburgh native Jack Eckenrode has countless reasons to be happy. He is in great shape, rides his bike every day, still volunteers at Meals on Wheels, and is beloved by his 12 children, 41 grandchildren and 61 great-grandchildren. At the 2023 National Senior Games in his hometown of Pittsburgh, he set a record as the oldest competitor to ever finish the 20K cycling event! Jack believes the secret to a long and healthy life is to embrace a positive attitude. 

“When you’re happy, you feel good, you want to do more, and you want to get more out of the day. You don’t want to be socializing with anybody that’s negative and, if they are negative, help them to get over that problem because you’ve got to be positive about everything you do to continue to be healthy. I’m convinced that if you have everything positive on your mind all during the day, you’re going to feel good all the time and you’re going to live longer.” – Jack Eckenrode, 95 

3. “Quit Bitching

Alice Tym is enshrined in several halls of fame for her career as a tennis coach, player, writer and ambassador. But these days, she’s traded in her racket for a pickleball paddle, where she has since won gold medals and world championships. Her message to others is to stop making excuses and just get into the game.  

“Quit bitching and do something! There’s just way too much of people yapping about this and that. Get out there and do it.” – Alice Tym, 80 

4. Competition Brings You Community 

Rowdy Gaines is not your average masters athlete. He is a three-time Olympic gold medalist, hall of fame swimmer who broke 10 world records between 1978 and 1988, and he holds several masters records today. Despite the accolades, if you think Gaines is in it for the glory, you’d be mistaken. For him, swimming is all about the community he is still a part of.

“I don’t do it for the wins and losses. I do it because it makes me feel better, and a lot of it is the camaraderie too, the feeling you have. We all have different reasons why we do these activities, but what brings us together is the love of what we’re doing.” – Rowdy Gaines, 64 

5. You Are Stronger Than You Think 

Madonna Hanna is a Washington state champion sprinter in the 100m and 50m events. She didn’t get started running until 2011 when, at 57, her late husband began coaching her and entered her into the senior games. After his death, Madonna kept running and found a new coach, Marcus Chambers, who has shown her the strength of self-belief in the pursuit of her goals. 

“You are stronger than you think. When I’m out there, I’m thinking about that. I can push myself a little more and try to meet the times that [my coach] has for me. Sometimes, there’s that little voice that says, ‘Oh no, now look what we have to do.’ But I’m not listening to that little voice. I changed my attitude so now it’s, ‘Yay I get something new to do!’”  – Madonna Hanna, 70 

6. Masters Athletes Are Making An Impact On The Future 

George Freeman is one of two athletes to participate in every single National Senior Games competition. Since his start at the 1987 games, Freeman has competed in track and field, golf, and shuffleboard over the years, but now his focus is on bowling. He believes he is proof that younger generations are witnessing the example that masters athletes are setting, leaving a lasting impact on society. 

“Most 90-year-olds aren’t like I am. The beautiful part is my great grandchildren, they think it’s super! Now they’re all involved in athletics. They can see that I’m setting a good example for them, which is to do something in life.”   – George Freeman, 91 

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