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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016 12:05 am

Athletes of distinction

Gym rats find community and vitality at the Y

Randy Held rises at 4:30 a.m. to complete his workouts at the YMCA, and he feels energized for the rest of the day.


Walk through the doors at either of our Springfield YMCA locations and take a look around. You’ll see people from all walks of life interacting, sipping water or coffee, waving hello and rehashing their workouts. Many of these gym bums are over 50, an age when research shows an increased risk of a host of ailments from heart disease to diabetes to loneliness and depression.

But aging doesn’t have to be that way, says Randy Held, 54, YMCA regular and father to Springfield’s own 2016 Olympic superstar, Ryan Held. “Age is just a number,” Randy says. “How you feel and how you take care of yourself is what matters.”

A two-time Ironman, among many other feats of fitness, Randy knows a thing or two about healthy aging. “It’s not easy,” he says, to get yourself up for an early workout when you don’t feel like it or to limit junk food when you’re craving a big piece of chocolate cake. The key, Randy says, is finding strength in friends.

Teaming up
Mark Vassmer, 61, says about 14 years ago he started having some health problems, and he knew he needed to exercise. He was invited by a friend to play racquetball at the Downtown YMCA. As he learned the sport, he met more and more people at the Y.

“That was important to me to have some contacts outside of family as I’m getting older and family is leaving home,” Mark says.

Mark Vassmer says there are about 100 active participants in YMCA racquetball, some of whom have been playing since the 1960s, but they’re always open to newcomers.
Another benefit of the social connections he made was that those relationships helped Mark make racquetball a habit. “It’s fun,” Mark says. “I would finish a game and feel great. I’d look forward to it.”

Linda and Leonard Shanklin, 53 and 63, parents of professional basketball player and hometown hero Andre Iguodala, do cardio and weights together at the Y three days per week, and then they follow up their side-by-side gym time with a 3.5-mile walk.

Walking, Linda says, gives them extra time to connect. “We love to be silly and laugh. It’s also a chance to talk about our stressors.”

Thanks to all that exercising, Linda and Leonard are able to keep up with other special people in their lives, whether that means traveling to see Andre play in San Francisco or dance with their grandchildren at birthday parties. “We’re right in the middle of it,” Linda says.

Motivating one another
Linda says the friendly family atmosphere at the Y is what initially attracted her decades ago when her children were young, and it’s still what keeps her there today. “It can be 5 a.m., and someone is always smiling and saying ‘good morning,’” she says. “I love that crowd.”

Nick Merrill has been swimming since his sophmore year of high school. Now in his 50s, he’s more committed than ever.


Those happy faces also help when Linda feels her resolve to live a healthy lifestyle slip a bit. When she starts to lose motivation, she grabs a friend to talk about it, and she feels committed again.

Randy says the people you surround yourself with can help you get over mental roadblocks to achieving any goal at any age. “A lot of people don’t believe they can do it,” Randy says. “You can do it. You have to stay positive, stay motivated. If you get sidetracked, work with a friend. That’s something the Y offers that others don’t. It’s all about interaction.”

Nick Merrill, 59, has headed the Y’s Masters Swimming since 1983, and he says it’s amazing to see how social connections built on swimming grow over time. “It’s like a nomadic tribe,” Nick says. “They come in, they leave, they come back.” And the door is always open.

Focusing on health
Regular exercise, though daunting for some at first, can become something that actually feels good. “I feel bad when I don’t come here to work out,” Mark says.

Linda takes advantage of group classes that incorporate strength training with cardio intervals, as well as the Y’s Biggest Loser and Ramp It Up journeys. Though weight control is important, she says, it’s not about quick fixes. “Stay healthy,” Linda advises. “No crash diets.”

Linda and Leonard Shanklin stay fit together so they can be the “coolest grandparents ever” and travel nationwide to see their son, Andre Iguodala, play basketball.


Nick’s swim relay team won the National Masters Championship in 2013, and though he loves the race dimension of the sport, he says the health benefits take priority. In his family, the men have had heart issues, and he hopes that continuing to swim as he gets older will help him avoid trouble.

“Swimming is less stressful on joints,” Nick says. “You set the pace. It’s a nice way to work in cardio.”

Take a chance
Randy says he knows a lot of different exercise communities because his training consists of experimenting with a little bit of everything. “I swim a little, bike a little, do the stairs, do some classes,” he says. “Mixing it up is good for both mind and body.”

Mark encourages first-timers or people new to the gym to try exercise – and specifically racquetball – just for fun. “Just come once,” he says. “That’s the first step. Don’t look at the whole long-term goal as insurmountable.”

Elizabeth Watson is an independent media consultant in Springfield. She stays active keeping up with her three kids and hopes to someday be as fit as the people she met working on this story.


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