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Interview With a 99-Year-Old Athlete

Urban Primalist

He'll be 100 in January

A friend at my gym introduced me to Paul, tournament tennis player and WWII vet. Paul's incredible lean strength proves that advancing age does not mean decripitude.

One of the most intriguing things about Paul is his genuine interest in other people. Rare among people of any age, but notably common among sharp older people. Paul destroys the senior stereotype of complaints of infirmity and obsession with medical care. Whenever I see him the first thing he does is ask me detailed questions about my training. That may be Paul's most important lesson.

Recently I ran into him after a set of presses while my camera was still rolling and I compiled this transcript of our conversation.


P: I go to bed at 10:30 and get up at 4. 4:30, I have my breakfast.  There’s a Vietnamese bakery that’s open 24 hours a day.  They have everything.  Every pastry, every muffin, every scone, every donut, every coffee cake.  They must have a hundred varieties.  And I go there and I pig out.  Twice a week.  Monday and Saturday.

T: I would have thought you had the most perfect diet in the world.  But no…!

P: I’ve got the worst diet in the world!  I like comfort food.  And comfort food is the worst thing you could eat!  I mean hamburgers, and french fries… I eat the worst diet.  But I’m happy.  The thing is, I always played competitive sports.  So I exercise every day, but I don’t realize it, because I play football, baseball, basketball, hockey… I play every sport, it depends on what season.  You’re there for two, three hours, and you’re getting your workout.  You don’t have to come here [to the gym], you don’t have to go on a bike, you’re running all day!  So I did that since I was seven years old.

T:  No kidding.  So did you learn that from your parents?  How did you learn to do that?

P:  I grew up in Brooklyn in a neighborhood where they had maybe forty guys and forty girls, about your age (I'm 37 -T).  They always had a game in the street, always competing against one another.  Most kids were afraid to compete, but we had to compete from the very beginning.  And I didn’t realize it but I was exercising.  And at sixty I went to tournament tennis, senior tennis, there’s a different group every five years.

T: So some people must have told you, oh, you can’t do that, you’re sixty.

P: No, in fact… my [inaudible] said I would catch consumption.  Consumption is what they called tuberculosis.  I was running around so much, I’d get consumption!  But in all my life, I always competed in some sport.  And this here [the gym] I did just to augment my ability in tennis.  I started tennis when I was about 50, and I went into tournaments when I was 60.  And I quit when I was 84.  Because the knee wouldn’t take the pressure, the way I played tennis.  So I came back here [to the gym].

T: So you’ve still got your shoulders and your hips?

P: Yeah… the hips.  Don’t want to lose my hips.  Once you lose your hips, you’re in trouble, it’s worse than the knee.  Because everybody I know has lost their hips.  It’s really dangerous.

T: So what should I do now to be healthy when I’m your age?

P: What you’re doing now… you see, everybody’s different.  You’re doing this [lifting].  It gets the blood flowing.  It gets the endorphins.  You’re feeling good.  This is your sport.  Stick with this the rest of your life.  Maybe you don’t use the heavy weights, but you just use enough weight to make yourself feel like you’re still getting a workout.  Everybody has their… I can’t tell another person what to do.  Everybody’s got to listen to that speaker inside their system.  It’s in here [points to chest] and you speak through it.  It’s yours.  You’re different than everybody else in this world.  And you gotta know what makes you tick.  Not what makes the other guy tick.  The other guy will tell you, do this and do that, because it’s good for him.  But it might not be good for you!  You follow your own… tick, whatever it is.  You stick with that the rest of your life.  The way you’re working now, you can’t beat it, because you love it!  It’s a labor of love.  Why does every guy go and say, oh, you should play… tiddlywinks.  Or golf or something, go into golf.  You just do what you’re doing and you’ll be feeling good for the rest of your life.  You gotta be in touch with yourself or you’re a lost soul.  And if you’re a lost soul nobody can tell you how to get back on track.

Now I want to chin about five times.  Where’s the step?

 I placed the step-stool for Paul and held his hand as he stepped on to it.  He grasped the chin bar with a wide overhand grip and did five pull-ups, revealing incredible muscular definition.  Then he held my hand again as he stepped down with exquisite care like the centenarian he almost is.

Paul explained with a twinge of disappointment that he was still working back up to ten.

All text copyright © 2010-2013 Timothy Williams