If you want proof that age is nothing but a number, check out some other pertinent numbers: His batting average. Her record time. Their personal bests.
“We all have an image of Grandma,” says renowned photojournalist David Burnett. But after witnessing the Granny Basketball League in action in Iowa, you may want to reconsider that. “Does Grandma know how to dribble? Yes, she dribbles and she shoots and she plays D.”
From 2017 to 2019, Burnett crisscrossed the country, photographing active seniors surfing, boxing, pole vaulting, weightlifting, running the 50-yard dash, and more. He sought to document their spirit and dedication — and in the process, challenge our notions of aging and athleticism.
“You start to think of age as a very arbitrary way of measuring our lives when you see the way these senior athletes attack sports,” Burnett says, recalling his time spent watching these individuals and teams. “They’re in it to prove something to themselves — but they’re really proving something to all of us. It’s inspiring, it’s exciting, and it’s a lot of fun.”
He titled the collection Fourth Quarter: Senior Athletes, Their Indomitable Spirit. But he almost chose a different name.
“I met a 95-year-old woman who rowed sculls in San Francisco; she had just had hip-replacement surgery and was already back on a rowing machine,” Burnett remembers. “I asked her, ‘When did you have the operation?’ And she said, ‘About two weeks ago.’ And I said, ‘Gee, should you already be going full blast on a rowing machine?’ and she said, ‘Well, nobody told me not to.’ That almost became the title, because I thought, Those are good words to live by.”
Burnett himself had just turned 70 when he won the $30,000 Greenfield Prize — and the commission — from the Hermitage Artist Retreat in Florida. The project offered a surprising new lens through which to view his subjects.
“As you age, you start to feel more of a kindred spirit with the older folk around you,” he remembers. “I began talking to these senior athletes and they’d say, ‘I’m 75,’ or 80, or even 90, and I felt like, These are my people.”
Burnett himself remains active, globe-trotting with his cameras in hand on assignment for Contact Press Images. Over the years, he’s covered the Vietnam War, photographed every president since JFK and every Olympics since 1984, authored a book of photos chronicling the life of Bob Marley, and published images in Life, Time, and National Geographic, among many others.
“I’ve worked on a lot of projects over the years, but this one’s special,” he says. “Every time I turn around, there’s some amazing 80-year-old person who blows me away. My new friends have reminded me of how much life has to offer. I’m going to tie on my old skates and go play hockey.” — Michael Dregni
Colorado’s Still Diggin’ It squad competes at the 2018 Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, along with more than 50 women’s volleyball teams from around the country. From left, here is Becky Nufer, Ingrid Shea, Patt Kamm, Leni Vaughn, Diane Lask, Snow Lopez, and Glenna Parkinson. “The games have all the intensity of a college or Olympics game,” Burnett says. “Except the players are 50, 60, and 70 years old.”
Real-estate agent David King, 67, makes his way down to the Pacific Ocean at Santa Cruz, Calif., to launch his surfboard or standup paddleboard and catch the first waves of the day. He’s one of many accomplished senior watermen and waterwomen emblematic of California’s surfing culture and its long history.
Runners burst from the blocks at the 2017 National Senior Games in Birmingham, Ala. The biennial, two-week event is the world’s largest multisport competition for seniors, drawing more than 12,000 athletes from all 50 states and 10 foreign countries. It features a wide variety of sports, including track and field, shuffleboard, horseshoes, volleyball, bowling, archery, and cycling.
“The Olympics are the epitome of sports: It’s the very best, most accomplished athletes making superhuman efforts,” says Burnett. “But you get the same kind of superhuman efforts on a smaller scale at the Senior Games. It’s amazing to see these athletes — and their effort is always 101 percent.”
Age and experience add up to strength for Lois Hall of Tampa, Fla. She deadlifts in the age 70–74 category at the 2019 Polk Senior Games in Lakeland, Fla. “They were straining and giving it everything they had,” Burnett explains. “As they start adding more and more weight and people drop out, then it gets really competitive.”
Retired banker John Anagnost, 87, gets ready to hit the ice with his Gray Wolves team in the senior hockey league of Skaneateles, N.Y. He’s one of the grayest of the Gray Wolves; most of his teammates are in their 60s and 70s. In 2018, Anagnost also fulfilled a lifelong baseball dream: He donned a St. Louis Cardinals uniform and joined the team’s fantasy camp.
Senior women’s basketball leagues continue to grow nationwide: There are currently 400 players on 33 teams in nine states. “You have to be 60 years old and be able to breathe, and that’s about it,” one Iowa Granny Basketball player explains. But that’s being humble about the level of play, Burnett says. “There’s even some 80-year-olds trash talking.”
The taped hands of a women’s senior volleyballer after several rounds at the 2018 Huntsman World Senior Games. “She was proud to show them off to me,” Burnett says.
A senior athlete makes his leap during the 2018 Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah. Other popular track-and-field events include the hammer throw, javelin toss, high jump, and pole vault. “They’re doing it,” Burnett says.
Skateboard tricks aren’t just for kids. At 59, Judi Oyama is four decades older than most ’boarders doing aerials at the Santa Cruz, Calif., skate park. When she drops in, she often elicits blatant stares from the teens, says Burnett. “But when they see her get going, it’s an eye opener.”
Oyama started skating at 13. In her first downhill race, the inaugural Capitola Classic, in 1977, she was the sole female entrant. She went on to win the Slalom World Championships in 2003 at age 43, and she was later inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame in 2018.
Love of the game can be a lifelong affair — and may never diminish. For Joe Murray, 52, the ideal way to keep that passion alive is playing in the Vintage Base Ball Association. The league follows the “rules and customs” of the 1860s; among other things, fielders do not use gloves — they had not been invented at the time — and catch the hardball barehanded. Murray is third baseman for the Neshanock Base Ball Club of Flemington, N.J.
Members of a senior softball team stretch out prior to a game at the 2017 National Senior Games in Birmingham, Ala.
At the 2017 National Senior Games, Baker Shannon, 94, of Houston, competes in freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke events. A retired Texas A&M University physics professor, he has set several national and world records for his age group over the years, winning more than 300 swimming awards.
“Many of the senior athletes display either a joyous smile or intense focus, but I think inside they’re happy to be there, to be competing,” Burnett says. “We have these sort of bromide expectations of senior athletes — Oh, it’s nice they can get in the pool and swim laps back and forth — but the Senior Games are so far beyond that.”
On his 95th birthday, Marsh Webster (in the Chiefs jersey celebrating the film Slapshot) scored a goal during a game with his team the Gray Wolves in the senior hockey league in Skaneateles, N.Y. “This of course set everyone on both teams smacking the boards madly with their hockey sticks. It was just so great,” says Burnett. “Later I talked to the goalie and asked, ‘Marsh’s goal, did you kind of give him a break there?’ He said, ‘You know, I love Marsh but no one scores on me unless they score on me. He put that puck right over my shoulder and I couldn’t get to it.’” Marsh plays center and is the grayest Gray Wolf; the rest of the team are in their 60s and 70s (they’re better known as “the teenagers”), except former banker John Anagnost, 87 (front). In 2018, Anagnost also fulfilled a lifelong baseball dream: He donned a St. Louis Cardinals uniform and joined the team’s fantasy camp at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Sting Like a Bee
Delivering sermons is 68-year-old Presbyterian minister Howard Major’s calling, but his pastime is boxing. Here, he delivers a jab and cross to the heavy bag at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.