Debbie Hightower was thrilled when she heard two new people were joining the SPARC — Sports, Arts and Recreation of Chattanooga — team she co-founded. The group, whose members range in age from about 7 years old up to the 60s, has helped hundreds of disabled people take part in competitive and recreational activities in an integrated setting since 1991, and Hightower was eager for its newest members to get started.
What she didn't expect was that those two members would be well into their golden years.
Bryan Knight is 91; Wendy Williams turns 86 next week.
"They're just gung-ho," Hightower said. "I'm glad they're motivated to get out and exercise."
Knight joined SPARC to ride his recumbent bike despite having vertigo, and Williams joined to help her be competitive in the 40th anniversary of the Tennessee State Parks Running Tour despite a bad hip and hearing loss.
And while age may have slowed them, they don't want stop doing what they enjoy.
"I do it [running] just naturally. I like the competition. I like to push myself as hard as I can go," Williams said. " It's just to stay healthy, I guess, but it's something I can do, or try to do."
Williams began a more active lifestyle decades ago when her daughter started swimming competitively. The two lived in Oak Ridge, where Williams worked as a physicist after a career as a professor in London, New Orleans and at the University of Tennessee. She swam for six years before competing in a 10-kilometer run in 1978.
"I discovered it was much nicer than swimming in the pool with my face in the water," Williams said. "My daughter is a natural swimmer. I'm not."
She ran actively until about three years ago. Her hip had gotten to the point she couldn't run on her own. She tried a racing wheelchair but was too slow to do events, she said. She thought her competitive days might be behind her.
But, SPARC volunteers knew they could help her remain active, so they introduced her to a hand cycle. The three-wheeled recumbent bike allowed her to use her arms to spin the bike wheels and improve her time. She purchased one of her own and plans to compete in the Tennessee State Park Running Tour starting next month. Williams will be the oldest competitor and hopes to complete five races, which would make her eligible for awards.
For Knight, joining SPARC was a way for him to continue riding his bike while interacting with other handicapped individuals.
"I read a notice on one of the recumbent tricycle forums about it," he said. "That such an organization was in existence, held meetings every fortnight and helped with the handicapped. Being half handicapped myself, it seemed like a logical thing to do."
The former British Royal Air Force sergeant came to the United States in 1954 to work on formerly classified projects in the U.S. He helped design parts of the 747 plane, B-70 bomber and the redesign of the B-52, he said.
"I had an interesting career," he said. "It wasn't all me, but we had a good hand in it."
After retirement, Knight and his wife bought a house boat and began traveling the Tennessee River and other inland watersheds. The boating life came to an abrupt end, however, when he had a major vertigo attack attributed to the loss of hearing he suffered in one ear during World War II. The couple bought an RV but eventually decided they wanted to settle in one area. They landed on Walden's Ridge above Spring City because of the beauty of the area.
Knight enjoyed cycling for exercise. He didn't want to give that up and transitioned to a recumbent bike, which he rides every other day.
The veteran has found SPARC to be as much about community as it is his health. The group helps him continue his active lifestyle in a friendly, laid-back setting.
"For me, it's a way to get exercise and keeping myself tolerably healthy," he said. " I find even though I can't walk 50 yards, I can cycle relatively long distances."