Age is no barrier for these athletes

Helen Belden runs during the 5K running event.

Helen Belden runs during the 5K running event. Dozens of Long Island seniors participated in the Long Island Senior Games. The elderly-set showed off their track and field skills at Half Hollow Hills High School West in Dix Hills. (June 3, 2012) (Credit: Steve Pfost)

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These athletes prove youth has no age. The official age requirement for the Long Island Senior Games, in which 400 competitors ran, swam, jumped and danced in parks throughout Nassau and Suffolk, was 50 years and over, but most of the participants were "just kids at heart," said Tom Farrell, 80, of Holbrook.

Farrell, a father of five and grandfather to 11, spends his summer days playing softball, but at Sunday's games at Half Hollow Hills High School West in Dix Hills, he tried his hand at track-and-field events like the long jump and the hammer throw.

"I'm an amateur, just here for the fun," Farrell said. "In my softball league we have this saying: 'We should be happy we're on this side of the grass and not the other.' It's not about winning or losing, it's about enjoying the fact that we're out here."

For 14 years, the games have given senior athletes gold medals and multicolored ribbons for competing in more than a dozen sports ranging from basketball to line dancing. Many of the seniors go on to compete in other state and national competitions.

"Sometimes, seniors underestimate themselves," said Bob Kenney, 77, board president of the LI Senior Games. "They don't think they can do these sorts of activities. Our goal is to expose them to keeping an active mind and body."

Kenney, a former athletic director for the Hicksville and Herricks School districts, repeated the event's mantra: "You don't stop playing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing."

After surviving a heart attack and fighting off pancreatic cancer, Peter Vannucci, 81, of Northport, gave up filling up on fast food and turned to speedwalking and swimming instead. He now swims 30 to 45 minutes a day, and frequently walks three miles a day.

"We're living longer these days, it's essential that we can take care of our bodies," said Vannucci, after completing a 5-kilometer speedwalk in 45 minutes.

Helen Belden, 80, of Jamaica, Queens, said she is used to people doing a double take when she tells them her age. Most think she looks decades younger. Slim with toned arms, Belden says her fitness regimen of running five days a week and swimming year-round has her looking and feeling younger.

On Sunday, after running in a 5k race and swimming more than 200 yards, she proudly walked away holding five first-place medals for the 80-to-84 age group.

"Like fine wine," Belden said. "We get better with age."

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