Northern Virginia Senior Olympics aren’t for the idle


Josephine Stewart wearing the medals she won at the Virginia Senior Games in May. (sarah lane)
August 13, 2012

The 2012 Summer Olympics are winding up in London, but athletes across Northern Virginia are preparing to compete in an event of their own.

Josephine Stewart just hopes she has some competition in her age division. The 87-year-old Manassas native plans to run the 100- and 200-meter races and compete in shot put and discus at the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics from Sept. 15 to 26.

She competed in the same events at the Virginia Senior Games in Richmond this year and came home with medals in each.

Stewart has been competing in the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics, as well as the state and national games, since she retired from IBM 25 years ago. She has more than 500 medals displayed throughout her house, most of them gold.

She has always been athletic and competitive by nature, said her youngest daughter, Faye Stark. The Senior Olympics are her passion, Stark said.

Herb Levitan, 73, of Arlington County shares Stewart’s enthusiasm. The retired neuroscientist has been competing in the Senior Olympics since 2005 and is a member of the Senior Olympics executive committee.

This year, he plans to swim in four events and compete in race walking, track, long jump, cycling, basketball free throw and pickle ball (singles and doubles), to name just a few. Last year, he competed in 22 events.

“I like to challenge myself,” he said. “Just about anything I can fit in, I do.”

His specialty is swimming, and he prefers long distance. “It’s very meditative,” he said.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics, which are open to people 50 and older who live in one of the sponsoring jurisdictions. Events include track and field, swimming, volleyball, table tennis, golf, bocce, Wii bowling and duplicate bridge and will take place at 18 locations across Northern Virginia.

One reason Levitan competes in so many events is to meet people as he moves from sport to sport. Growing up as a “city boy” in New York, Levitan never competed in high school or college sports. For him, “sports were street games.”

When he retired from the National Science Foundation, he decided to try new things. “I wanted to try to reinvent myself,” he said.

His wife of 48 years, Karen, saw an ad for the Senior Olympics and suggested he enter. ”I just fell in love with it,” he said.

Stewart grew up in Manassas when it was mostly farm land and segregated. She attended Manassas Industrial School, played softball and kickball and was always outside.

“I just liked to play sports,” she said.

Stark said her mother has natural talent. “I’ve been running all my life,” Stewart said.

She hasn’t slowed down since then. Stewart walks every morning and rides her bike. “I don’t like to be idle,” she said. “I guess God made me that way.”

She first learned of the Senior Olympics when she went to a senior center with her mother-in-law. She has been competing ever since, with her husband of 62 years, Henry, cheering her on.

After her first experience at the national games, Stewart worked with a personal trainer to improve her performance. “She wants to win,” Stark said.

This year, she wonders whether she’ll have any competition. “If they’re younger, that’s fine with me,” she said.

Levitan, who has also competed in the state and national games, was drawn to the Senior Olympics more for camaraderie than competition. He said that, in many events, he’s not competitive at all.

“I measure myself against myself,” he said.

But, he admits that as he’s gotten older and there are fewer people to compete against, “you become naturally more competitive.” Moving into the older age brackets has its advantages with fewer competitors.

“It makes me look forward to getting older,” he said.

Their love for athletics has been passed down to their children and grandchildren. Stewart’s eight grandchildren all play sports. Levitan’s grandchildren swim competitively. “I’m interested in their swimming, and they’re interested in mine,” he said.

Levitan’s goal is to make the Senior Olympics a family event. When his daughter is 50 and he’s 80, “we’ll compete in the Senior Olympics together.”

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