Bernie Stamm felt a pop of excruciating pain in his groin when warming up for a 50-meter sprint one morning in May.
“I went to the starting blocks and as the gun went off, something told me, don’t go,” Stamm recalled.
It was a good thing he didn’t. At 72, Stamm knew it was unwise to muscle through a pulled groin.
A couple of hours and a couple of ice packs later, with his wife cheerleading on the sidelines, Stamm took the gold in two subsequent events — the shot put and his signature event, the javelin throw, in the 2011 Virginia Senior Games in May.
“Mind over matter,” Stamm said of the turnaround. “But after that, I was done, and the air went out of me.”
Stamm, who lives with his second wife, Carol, 66, in Potomac Green, an active adult community center in Ashburn, plans to compete in the Northern Virginia Senior Games in September to beat the regional standing and running long jump records for his age category. (He said he missed them “by a hair” the previous year.)
The senior games, held every year at various locations in Northern Virginia, are open to residents age 50 and older. Participants compete in a variety of events, including track and field, swimming, basketball, chess, Scrabble and tennis. This year’s events will be held Sept. 17 to 28.
Stamm started training actively for the games earlier this month. He lifts weights, plays tennis two times a week with his wife and sometimes joins her in her power water aerobics exercises.
“Don’t underestimate it — it’s strenuous and very good, impossible to get hurt” Stamm said.
Born in Thayngen, a village of 2,500 in Switzerland, Stamm was always active in his youth. His father, a former gymnast, stressed the importance of a healthy lifestyle, and Stamm grew up with plenty of tennis, swimming and running.
“The Swiss are some of the healthiest people. Participation is key,” Stamm said. “Winning and being a star is sort of secondary.”
But Stamm takes a studious, almost academic, approach to improving his technique. Before he picked up skiing, he bought a book on ski techniques, memorized it and then went to the slopes to practice.
“I was sort of a self-taught athlete,” he said.
As he does not have a coach, Stamm makes do with Google.
“I just went online and typed ‘shot put’ and found the 10 greatest shot putters that ever lived, so I just wanted those things over and over and over,” Stamm said. “I also read up a little bit on techniques.”
When he trained for the 2010 regional and 2011 state games, Stamm asked his wife to take photos and videos of his jumps and throws at Broad Run High School in Ashburn where he practiced, so he could analyze his form.
“He knows not to overdo it; he’s smart that way,” Carol Stamm said. “My biggest job is feeding him right, because he’s one of those people who will lose weight if I don’t constantly pump him with the right food.”
Nicknamed “flash” for his speed, Stamm joined the fraternity KTV (Kantonsschulturnverein Schaffhausen) when he was in his late teens at his college preparatory school. His fraternity would train for track and field meets twice a week after school, often topping off Friday’s workout with beers at a local restaurant called the Little Ostrich Feather, Stamm recalled.
Stamm led his fraternity team to place third at the National Turnfest in
Basel in 1959 — a Swiss tradition that brings together gymnastic and track and field clubs across the country for “friendly competition and celebration.”
Stamm graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology with a degree in architecture in 1966 and then received a scholarship to study city and regional planning at Ohio State University in Columbus. After receiving his master’s, Stamm worked with the state’s development department to help build a Honda plant in central Ohio.
He then spent two years with an American company in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s developing zoning and subdivision controls for a city at the western end of the oil pipeline between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Shortly after returning to the United States, his first wife died, leaving him with a 3-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
He met his second wife, Carol, then a guidance counselor at a high school near Columbus, in 1996. They married in 1999 and recently moved east to be closer to their grandchildren in Bethesda.
Stamm is contemplating a shot at the 2013 summer national senior games in Cleveland.
“It’ll be a chance to go back to Ohio,” Stamm mused. “And I’m in very good shape!”