Wearing black running shorts and a white tank top, Frank Herrelko pulls a baseball cap over his thick, white hair and takes his workout outside. The heat is stifling. The humidity smolders the pavement. The retired Air Force colonel pays the mercury no mind.
He works his way to a race walking stride around his Bowie neighborhood, arms pumping as his pace quickens to just shy of a jog. At first, Herrelko starts slowly and deliberately, displaying his technique. "You have to wiggle your butt," he tells me, leaning over and putting his hand on my shoulder. Herrelko moves nimbly and briskly. I waddle like a duck.
Minutes into our walk, Herrelko speeds up without warning. One minute he's at my side, the next he has left me behind to stare in disbelief at the back of his white tube socks.
Eighty-six years old never looked so young through a cloud of dust.
Medals for Every Occasion
"I'm doing pretty good for an old guy," says Herrelko, who celebrated another birthday June 8. "I count my blessings every day."
He also can count the medals on the kitchen wall--169 of them from the 16 years he has competed in Senior Olympic events on the state, regional, national and international levels. Herrelko proudly displays the medals placed on a wooden rack in the breakfast nook of the two-story home he and wife, Edith, have shared for nearly 35 years.
On Friday and Saturday, Herrelko will participate in bowling, race walking, shot put and discus events at the West Virginia Senior Games in Charleston. He already is registered for the Maryland Senior Olympics at Towson University, which will be held from Sept. 8 to Oct. 3. He also has entered the Summer National Senior Games set for Oct. 19-29 in Orlando, where he will compete in the shot put, discus, 100-meter dash and the 1,500- and 5,000-meter race walks.
Edie Herrelko, Frank's wife of 57 years, is his biggest fan, frequently accompanying him to events for encouragement. Although she does not compete herself, she is selective about the events her husband enters. A lively woman of 83, she cringes at the thought of her beloved attempting a pole vault and prefers he not compete in the high jump (it has been three years since he last entered that event).
"If you fall and break a leg, I can't take care of you," Edie says to her husband. "Frank has always kept in pretty good shape. We've had a good time going to the events."
The Herrelkos' daughter, Kathy Easton, believes her parents' marriage is also a secret to her father's energetic approach.
"He is really just a Renaissance man and he's fortunate to have Mother as a partner," said Easton, who teaches at Lake Braddock High School in Burke. "Having someone who loves you can make your life so much better."
Suggestion for a Self-Starter
Herrelko's interest in senior competition started with a tip from his son, David Herrelko, who is a retired Air Force brigadier general. Sixteen years ago, David told his father about a story he saw on television about an 80-year-old pole vaulter.
By then, the 70-year-old Herrelko had retired from the Air Force. He always kept in good shape during his 34-year military career and had spent his retirement bowling, golfing and fishing. David thought the Senior Olympics would fit with his father's active lifestyle, so he gathered information on Maryland area competitions and let his father do the rest.
"Dad's always been a fitness nut and it doesn't take more than a small hint to get him going," David Herrelko said. "He's always exercised on his own and had his own regimen. But I'm not surprised at all with what he's done."
At the first annual Maryland Senior Olympic Winter Games in March, Herrelko set records in the men's 85-89 age division in the 60-yard dash (14.48 seconds), shot put (19 feet 7 inches) and the triple jump (12-3 1/2).
Pretty good for an old guy.
Herrelko acknowledges most of his performances have declined as he aged, but his bowling average has improved.
"When I was younger, like when I was 75, I used to do the 1,500 [meter race walk] in 10 minutes 13 seconds. Now, I'm down to 12 minutes," Herrelko said. "Last week I bowled a 502 over three games and that's higher than my 160 average. I'm paying more attention to what I'm doing. It's all in the head, not in the arms."
"He's a very inspiring man and he's been a pretty consistent bowler," said George Kessler, who has known Herrelko for at least 10 years and bowls in the same Tuesday senior league in Crofton as Herrelko. "He's just a very vibrant person and he gets along well with people."
Herrelko exercises at least five days a week, taking two days off but never two in a row. He works out in an upstairs room of his house, riding an old, creaky, steel-seated stationary bike or using a low-impact cross-training machine that works his upper and lower body. He hones his race walking around his neighborhood or makes the short drive to Bowie High School to work out on the track. Herrelko also does 50-pound bench presses and abdominal exercises on a wooden weight bench in the garage.
"He competes in numerous events. He is so outgoing and he has written articles for newsletters," said Phil Adams, executive director of Maryland Senior Olympics. "He is a very energetic and enthusiastic man."
Competitor and Recruiter
Since taking his son's suggestion, Herrelko has become more than a competitor on the senior circuit. He is also an ambassador-at-large for the Huntsman World Senior Games, which are held annually in October in St. George, Utah. Herrelko gives his best recruiting pitch to enlist anyone who looks 50 or older about becoming involved in the Senior Olympics. He even has a few pendant-sized competition medals he wears when he goes out.
"That way, people will see them and ask me questions and then I can tell them about Senior Olympics," Herrelko said.
Sometimes Herrelko does not wait for questions. He'll ask first.
"I saw him in a restaurant go over to another table and start up a conversation with a gentleman and asked him how old he was," Easton said. "The guy said he was 46 and my father gave him his card and said in four years he should sign up."
The Herrelkos' also have two other sons--Frank Jr. and Jeffrey--and six grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and four step great-grandchildren. Frank Jr., the oldest son, is a golf professional at Highlands Golfers' Club in Chesterfield, Va., and Jeffrey, the youngest son, is a retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant who works for a copper mine in Arizona.
Herrelko maintains a busy schedule outside of senior competitions, speaking to middle and elementary schools in the Bowie area. His presentations include everything from sleight-of-hand tricks to American history lessons. Occasionally he dresses as Abraham Lincoln--full black beard and stovepipe hat included--and recites the Gettysburg Address.
"I want to get across that learning can be fun," Herrelko said.
No Diet Needed
Herrelko's "secrets" to a healthy lifestyle?
"Live a relatively clean life and have a good wife," he says, as he leans over and nuzzles Edie's cheek. "I smoked for 25 years [when in the service] and quitting smoking was the best darn thing I ever did."
Herrelko exercises faithfully, but doesn't believe in dieting. He hates spinach and has a weak spot for chocolate candy. He and Edie have a glass of wine with dinner every night--even if they are having hot dogs--and Frank Sr. usually enjoys a nightcap of brandy before bed. He also stays up past 11 p.m. and watches reruns of "Hogan's Heroes" and "M*A*S*H."
Herrelko thankfully has remained in mostly good health in the 16 years he has competed. He has had one cataract surgery and may have another cataract removed next year. His hearing is sharp--with the help of two hearing aids.
"I'm in good shape by comparison to a lot of other people my age," he said.
As long as Herrelko feels fit, the colonel has no plans to give up Senior Olympic competitions.
"I might have to slow down a little in some of the running events, but I won't stop," Herrelko said. "I'm going to compete as long as God continues to bless me."
A Typical Workout
Five days per week, 86-year-old Frank Herrelko's training regimen is usually a variation of the following, lasting a total of about a half-hour:
15 minutes on the stationary bike
15 minutes on a low-impact cross-trainer (400 repetitions)
Bench press: two sets of 12 50-pound repetitions
1.5-2.5-mile combination running and race walk
Arm curls: Two sets of 12 10-pound repetitions (each arm), palms forward. Two sets of 12 at 10 pounds (each arm) hands at side.
Abdominal exercises: Leg lifts, body lifts, body lifts with spread legs (two sets of 12 each).
CAPTION: After 34 years in the Air Force, Frank Herrelko stays sharp for Senior Olympic Games.
CAPTION: Flourishes out of the past of an active life: Frank Herrelko stands tall as the then-corporal trumpets for the Army Signal Corps in 1939. Life started to look sweeter as Herrelko climbed the chain of command: The Lt. Colonel guides Marlene Dietrich through a waltz at an officers club in Iceland in 1944. Herrelko was instructed by the star not to tread on or near her high-priced gown.