In his own words, Manny Hershkowitz is part of a new generation of active senior citizens. The 70-year-old Reston resident enjoys skiing, skating, softball, tennis, golf and running, among other sports. And Hershkowitz not just participates in the sports, he excels in them.

Next week, Hershkowitz and more than 160 other athletes from Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia will compete in the first U.S. National Senior Olympics in St. Louis. More than 2,500 athletes in all, 55 and older, will represent about 40 states in 11 sports.

"The image of seniors is that they're decrepit, old . . . waiting for death to come and pick them up," Hershkowitz said. "It's just the opposite. We're extremely active, mentally and physically."

The 5-foot-6 athlete won five gold medals, two for tennis and three for track, in the Virginia Senior Olympics last month to qualify for the national competition. He will compete in track events in St. Louis -- the 100-, 200-, 400-meter dashes and the running long jump.

When he began senior competition, he ran only the 50-yard dash, and was concerned when he discovered he would have to run longer distances in the national competition. To get in shape, he practiced with the South Lakes High School track team. His training paid off as he won all his races in the state competition.

Another runner, Harold Niebel, is looking forward to turning 75. Now 73, the Kensington resident sees the upper age group as easier competition than the 70-74 division. Niebel met his wife, 63-year-old Hazel Niebel, at the local senior citizens center and convinced her she also should get in shape. Now they'll both compete in St. Louis in track and field.

"I used to be very excited before the meets," Harold Niebel said. "The awards don't mean much . . . what means much is breaking your own record time. You want to beat your personal best. I like to do better than I've ever done before."

The same ambition drives Mimi Lee of Silver Spring. An all-America masters swimmer in 1986, Lee will compete in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle, 200-meter individual medley and 100-meter breaststroke in the national competition.

"There's a pleasant mix of people and competition," she said. "It's not at all a frustrating thing. You're usually trying to beat your own record. Everyone is real supportive and there's no tension."

Anne Walker, 71, watched her three grandchildren play sports for years. Now, they watch her. "They're all for me. I used to go and root for them, now it's their turn to root for grandma." The Arlington resident has long enjoyed golf, but when she heard about the senior sports program, she decided to again try her childhood passion -- swimming.

Most of the seniors entered in the competition that will be held every two years are paying their own way to St. Louis. Their only financial break will come in the form of reduced room and board at Washington University.

"I want to compete at a world level. You feel great, that's the advantage," Harold Niebel said. "Cost is of little consequence. It's worth it because you're with a group you have something in common with."