Sunday 20 January 2019

Sinead Kissane: Master athletes not allowing age become barrier to love of their sport

Jim O’Shea will compete tomorrow. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile
Jim O’Shea will compete tomorrow. Picture credit: Barry Cregg / Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Jim O'Shea doesn't go along with the norm when it comes to the high jump and trying to clear new heights.

The most popular style for high jumpers is the Fosbury Flop which was named after Dick Fosbury following his gold medal-winning performance in the 1968 Olympics. But Jim prefers the straddle style of jumping.

After he does his run-up, he jumps off his leg closest to the mat, floats into the air face-down and hopes to avoid the sting of knocking over the bar. It's an unconventional style of high-jumping but it works for him.

Jim started running when he was a kid growing up in the village of Firies, Co Kerry but took up the high jump in his late 30s. Last weekend he competed in the British Masters in Birmingham.

"Do you still get nervous, Jim?"

"Yes, I would. Last Saturday night in Birmingham, with the high jump on the Sunday, I had broken sleep. I would still get worked-up about it," he says. After winning the long jump in his age category, he won the high jump the following day with a height of one metre 26cms.

Jim doesn't go along with the norm when it comes to his approach to age. He turned 75 in May but the kick he gets out of competition hasn't faded.

He's retired from his job, enjoys gardening and doing meals-on-wheels in the local community but he still trains four times a week - on Mondays he usually practises high-jumping, long-jumping and sprinting at the An Ríocht track in Castleisland, he does a session of light weights another day and the two other sessions involve stretching and mobility exercises at home.

He reckons he's been the same weight for the past 50 years.

There can be a one-eyed approach about pastimes in Ireland - a belief they should have a shelf-life in our lives but, time and health-allowing, the value of having a pastime and doing an activity becomes even more important the older we get.

"There would be a void in my life if I gave up," Jim adds. "People would say, 'Isn't it time you gave up?' I often thought about it but I would certainly miss it.

"It's one of those things that I look forward to doing - one of those four training sessions during the week. I hope, fingers crossed, that I might be able to continue for another year or two".

Jim will compete in the Over-75s long jump, high jump and 100m for Farranfore/Maine Valley AC at the National Masters Championships in Tullamore tomorrow.

The Masters starts at Over-35 and goes in five-year increments, ie O-40, O-45 etc. In some other sports, competing when you're O-50, for example, might not be catered for but the Masters events crush notions that competition and competing belong exclusively to young people and elite sport.

Masters athletics isn't just about competition but also camaraderie. Jim looks forward to catching up with friends from all around the country and meeting people he's known for years.

"It's an appreciation of getting older and realising that we're very, very thankful for being able to get out there and be mobile either in running or jumping or throwing," he says.

The women's age category tomorrow goes up to Over-70 and the men's is Over-85.

Age and anti-ageing, for women in particular, can be such a suffocating and pressurised aspect of our society that it must feel pretty good for those competitors to not care about others knowing their age and just take part with a knowledge that you can do what you want at any age of your life.

Michael O'Beirne, of Dundrum AC in Co Tipperary, will be one of the oldest competitors in action tomorrow. He's due to take part in four events: the shot putt, the javelin, the discus and the 35lb distance.

Michael is 85 and has been taking part in athletics since 1952. For the past few years he's needed crutches to walk with as a result of knee injuries. But it hasn't stopped him from taking part in field events.

At the recent Munster Masters in Cork, he was helped to the throwing position.

"You could say I got a bit of help from my friends and I was able to get in my throws," Michael smiles. "I have to throw with my right hand with the javelin and the discus as I'm not able to throw with my left."

In the past year, two of Michael's friends from athletics have passed away and he will feel their absence tomorrow. But he still looks forward to meeting people he shares a love of the sport with.

"Do you still get a buzz out of it Michael?"

"Oh, I do. There's great friendship. There's all the different counties and we make great friends, you know. There's a bit of sadness now seeing that those two have passed on," Michael admits.

Masters athletics isn't about reclaiming youth or lost days, it seems. Multiple European and World Masters champion Joe Gough says he's not trying to relive memories but create new ones.

"It's all about the present and looking into the future. The past is gone. It's what I can do now. I'll be 65 in January so it opens up a whole new world for me again," Gough says.

Gough was one of eight Masters athletes who got invited by IAAF president Seb Coe to showcase Masters athletics at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Oregon, USA last year.

He warmed up in the same area as the rest of the athletes and it struck him that he was doing the exact same exercises as everyone else irrespective of the age difference. Their 800m race got a standing ovation when Gough was just pipped on the line for first place.

"The beauty of the Masters category is that you can come back," Gough says. "The opportunity is there to compete with your age.

"You start at 35s and there are world records for Over-100. So there's nearly 70 years of a sporting lifespan if you wanted it. 70 years! Where would you get that!"

When Jim O'Shea prepares to do the high jump tomorrow a few thoughts will go through his head. "You stand before the bar, you concentrate on the jump and you eliminate other distractions. And you try your damnedest to get over a height".

Maybe clearing the bar is easier when age isn't the barrier.

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