When the 2015 National Senior Games ended in Minnesota earlier this month, one woman stood alone as the new record holder in both the 800 and 1500-meter races: Susan Rollins of Johnson City, Tenn.
Perhaps it was the unusually hot temperatures on the campus of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, but Rollins felt as comfortable running among the lakes of Minnesota as she does in the hills of Tennessee.
Her 1500-meter time of 5:23.68 eclipsed the previous record by 14.5 seconds. In a fast field (the second and third place finishers also beat the previous record) Rollins held on after taking the lead at the one-quarter mark. “I knew someone was on my back because people were yelling my competitor’s name,” she says. “My husband said I pulled away from her with about 150 meters to go.”
In the 800-meter race, the heat was mitigated by a breeze, but that turned out to be a mixed blessing. “It was a very strong headwind, so I kept a slow pace for the first 300 meters,” Rollins says. “No one would take the bait, though and everyone stayed behind each other, presumably to have the wind blocked.”
Rollins picked up the pace at the 400-meter mark and again at 600 meters, leaving all but two other runners behind. The three competitors kicked to the finish, with Rollins crossing the line first at 2:45.46. The previous record was 2:46.5.
Surprisingly, Rollins says she doesn’t consider either of those races to be her biggest success of the meet. “I did not pack my spikes in my running bag for the 400 meter prelims,” she says. “A competitor had some extra shoes and I ended up wearing her trainers for my prelim race. That was really nice of her, and I felt a little bit bad when I beat her in the finals. If she had not given me those shoes, I would not have qualified for the finals.” As it was, only an hour after setting the new 1500-meter record, Rollins ran a personal best time of 1:09.17 to take second place in the 400.
Rollins also finished fifth in the 200-meter race and competed in the 100-meters, but did not qualify for the finals. Also, she competed in the pole vault. “I did not ship a pole to Minnesota because of the expense,” she says, “so I showed up at the event without a pole. An 83-year-old man who was vaulting (as was his son) let me use a pole of his.”
By the time the pole vault competition ended, though, Rollins was second guessing her decision not to ship her own pole. “Nothing went well,” she says. “I was trying to vault with an unfamiliar pole that was too heavy. It was not a pretty sight. Let me say it was laughable – but fun.”
Rollins says she has no set fitness program to keep in shape to compete at the national level. “I squeeze in what I can do based on work, weather and family.”
What she “squeezes in,” however, would keep most people busy on a full-time basis. “I do weight/strength/flexibility two or three days a week with a trainer. He keeps me from getting injured and that allows me to participate in various sports. I also run two or three days a week. I try to mountain bike or road bike one or two days a week, use the ElliptiGo one day, and in season, pole vault. Until this spring I swam with the masters program at Freedom Hall.”
She’s not alone locally in having the dedication to prepare for the National Senior Games. Rollins had a good bit of company from the region when she made the trip to Minnesota. Karen Seiferth also participated in track events, as did Barbara Bogart from Elizabethton, who also cycled. Rosemary Sexton swam, and Eleanor Pendergraft, who is in her 80s and has had both knees replaced, participated in both track and field and road racing. “I know there are others who went from the Tri-Cities,” Rollins says. “I just don’t know who all of them are.”
The next National Senior Games are two years away, but if you’re interested in participating, the road to the finals starts this fall with the First District Tennessee Senior Olympics. Those games will be held in Johnson City and Kingsport Sept. 9-19. Fields of competition will include basketball, bowling, golf, horseshoes, pickleball, shuffleboard, swimming, table tennis and track and field.
Qualifiers from those games will be eligible to move on to the Tennessee Senior Olympics in Williamson County in June 2016, which is the final qualifier for the 2017 National Senior Games in Birmingham, Ala. The National Senior Games include several events not being contested at the First District Tennessee Senior Olympics, including archery, badminton, cycling, disc golf, judo, racquetball, road racing (5k and 10k), softball, tennis, triathlon and volleyball. Competitors wishing to make the 2017 National Senior Games in those events can move straight to the Tennessee Senior Olympics to qualify.
“Having to start with the first district games and then go to state games and then to nationals develops a camaraderie between participants,” Rollins says. “You get to meet people at districts and then when going to state, you have automatic friends and a cheering section for you. When you go to Nationals, then the others from your state cheer you on.”
“Until I participated in the first district games,” she says, “I had no idea that others in the community were swimming, doing track and field events, golfing, and more in a low stress, amiable and supportive, competitive manner. Seeing folks in their 80s and 90s participating in athletics and smiling and laughing and just having a good time with others has been inspirational to me.”
“When I meet someone with bilateral knee replacements running around the track or a person who has difficultly walking get in a swimming pool and swim a race, it motivates me to stay active, flexible and strong. I see determination in the people participating in the Senior Games to take their health into their own hands.”