These 80-and-active Chattanooga locals prove that you can still be sporty at any age

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Marilyn Beckner poses with her medals at the Downtown YMCA.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Marilyn Beckner poses with her medals at the Downtown YMCA.

These days, it seems that 80 is the new 40. People are living longer and staying active well into their "golden age." But just because someone's getting up in years doesn't stop them from getting up early in the morning to go to the gym every day. Or from competing in a swim meet or a triathlon or a run. Here are two Chattanoogans who prove that age really is just a number.

Going off the Deep End: Marilyn Beckner

Marilyn Beckner is 84, spunky and more active and adventurous than some people half her age. She regularly plays pickleball with her 83-year-old husband. She went hang-gliding with her daughter-in-law last September. When she was 65, she went deep-sea scuba diving and surfing. Skydiving is on her bucket list. And she's a champion competitive swimmer.

It all started about 14 years ago when Beckner's husband found a flier for the Senior Olympics and challenged Marilyn to sign up for the swimming events. She came home from that meet with six gold medals and also qualified for the state competition. It was the first time she'd ever swum competitively. She was 71.

At the state meet, Beckner won again, qualifying for nationals.

But then, at the age of 72, she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer and underwent a double-mastectomy. Yet even that couldn't stop her.

"I kept asking my doctor, 'When can I get in the water?' I had nationals coming up," she says.

Six weeks before nationals, she competed again, winning ribbons in two breaststroke races.

"My doctor about went crazy when he saw the ribbons," she says. "He said, "You won the breaststroke, and you don't have any breasts. How do you do that?'"

Beckner is what some people in the sports world would call an "adult-onset swimmer." Though she learned to swim when she was very young (she says she fell into the water as a baby and just swam), she never spent hours doing laps in the pool or competed until seven decades later.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Marilyn Beckner swims in the lap pool at the downtown YMCA.


Now, Beckner trains three days a week at the pool, usually putting in approximately 3,000 yards (about 1.7 miles) each time. "I say goggles are my accessories, and chlorine is my perfume," she explains.

She says that she swims for the fun of it and to stay healthy enough to stick around for her grandsons, who are now 8 and 6. She also wants "to show older people that they can still enjoy life."

In fact, it turns out that Beckner is actually still a youngster among active older adults. "I had a friend who swam with me here in Tennessee right up until she was 100," she says. "She was a gold medalist all the way through."

Beckner continues to compete in the Senior Olympics, always winning multiple medals or ribbons, and says that she's qualified for every nationals meet since she started competing. She has no intentions of slowing down anytime soon and plans to keep on swimming as long as she's able. "As long as the good Lord says that my body's gonna hold up," she says. "People think I'm a little bit wacko, but it keeps me healthy, so that's OK."

Tri, Tri Again: Larry Nelson

Larry Nelson just turned 80 in January and is excited that that puts him at the bottom of a new 10-year age group, making him the youngest — and presumably, the fastest — of his peers. This is because Nelson travels all over the world to compete in athletic events – triathlons, swim meets, the Senior Olympics, swim-bike ("aqua-bike") races, open-water swims. And he likes to win.

Nelson recently won the national championships in the mid-distance aqua-bike event, qualifying him to go to the upcoming world championships in Australia. "The competition is getting hard," he says. "These old guys aren't dying fast enough."

Nelson competes almost every weekend in various locations, turning his athletic endeavors into "athleti-cations" by visiting the sights in between races. He's competed in Hamburg. Ibiza. Other places in Spain. Morocco. With a stopover in Greece.

Last fall, he completed a six-week walk along the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route from Lisbon, Portugal, to Pontevedra, Spain — a distance of nearly 373 miles, he says. And he takes part in the State Parks Running Tour every Saturday between October and March. That's a competition with two races each weekend, at a different state park each week, he explains.

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Larry Nelson works out at the Downtown YMCA.


Nelson claims that he's good at nothing but OK at everything. "I can't swim. I can't bike. And I can't run," he says. "But if you put them together, I can beat most everybody."

He travels as much as six months out of the year, with each competitive journey usually ranging from six weeks to two months while he travels from race to race, with time for sightseeing in between. "The race determines where I go," he says.

"It's fun to do these trips," he continues. "I plan them all myself. I take a ton of pictures – I've got like 150,000 pictures and albums." Most are photos of what he's seen and experienced, not of himself, he says — "I know what I look like" — with the exception of a picture he has of himself skinny-dipping in the river.

To train, Nelson goes to the gym five or six times a week, keeping a routine that incorporates a variety of activities: swimming a mile, running on the treadmill, doing weights, joining a group exercise class, riding a bike... He first got into endurance athletic events because he has diabetes, and his doctor told him he'd need to diet and exercise more to stay healthy. So he made the best of it and found something he could enjoy. "I'm gonna die anyway. So what the heck? Might as well enjoy life," Nelson says.

Although he's 80, he says that competing keeps him young. "More people need to do this," he says. "It keeps you alive. It's like being in high school again."

Upcoming Events