Age just a number in sports

Baseball’s All-Star break is full of age references. From the hopeful determination exhibited in the Futures Game to the sentimental reminiscing of the Old-Timers, the Mid-Summer Classic pays tribute to generations of its sports stars.

The four 21-or-younger all-stars selected to this year’s game have to look like babies to 70-year-old Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson, serving on the National League coaching staff.

Even though U.S. life expectancies have increased by almost 20 years since 1960, the sports world continues to put a perceived shelf life on its participants.

In gymnastics, a female athlete is considered past her prime by the time she can get a driver’s license.

In tennis, the Champions Tour is open to players who’ve celebrated just their 30th birthday.

Coaches involved in a myriad of sports who stick around for decades are few and far between; the likes of Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno literally answered questions for decades about their plans to retire from football. Johnson has received similar inquiries about his baseball career.

So, as we expect to live longer, shouldn’t we also expect to be more active later in life? Why should a calendar or our number of birthday candles dictate how long we work, or what we can accomplish?

Over the weekend, 71-year old Morgan Shepherd became the oldest driver to start a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. Granted, driving a race car is not the same as running up and down a basketball court or a soccer field, but stamina and reflexes are imperative in racing, and Shepherd did himself proud among a much younger field, including that 50-year old whipper-snapper Mark Martin.

“I’m here to encourage people to get off the couch and do something with their life,” Shepherd said.

The benefits of exercise as we age have been well documented, from disease prevention and pain management to improving mental acuity.

While the world of professional sports may lean overwhelmingly toward the young, there is something to be said for experience, and much to be enjoyed beyond what society dictates as someone’s prime.

There are those athletes and coaches who seem to defy the aging process. Nolan Ryan pitched for 27 years in the major leagues, retiring at the age of 46; 30-something gymnasts Oksana Chusovitina and Jordan Jovtchev both competed in last summer’s Olympic games against athletes half their age; and 31-year-old’s Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both ranked among the best tennis players in the world, show no signs of fading.

While professional athletes do battle with their expiration dates, we can draw inspiration from those athletes, and from the real people around us who won’t let a number define them.

Charlie Brown creator, Charles M. Schultz said of aging: “Just remember, when you’re over the hill, you begin to pick up speed.”

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.