BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JULY 17, 2000 ISSUE
COVER STORY

Surf's Up, Gramps
Seniors are refusing to let age slow down their sporting pursuits

More and more seniors are shunning golf clubs and walking shoes for heartier sports, from heli-skiing to surfing, and even triathlons. These very active over-55s say that participating in a sport that sparks an adrenaline rush keeps them physically fit--and makes them mentally younger, too.

Experts say the focus on strenuous sports will increase as baby boomers near retirement. ''The whole concept of age is definitely changing,'' says Harold LeCrone, a clinical psychologist specializing in aging issues at the Lake Shore Center for Psychological Services in Waco, Tex. When the first baby boomers turn 55 next year, he notes, they'll be ''more active and healthy'' than any preceding group of that age.

Even before the boomers arrive on the scene, the Senior Olympics is attracting 250,000 entrants to annual statewide competitions, and almost 15,000 to a national event held every other year. Participation in the latter has increased more than 50% in the past five years. And it now has more entrants than the Olympic Games, notes David Hull, the organization's president and chief executive for 10 years. Initially, Hull says, he was skeptical of a direct link between a fit physique and a healthy mind. But now he's convinced they're related.

Certainly, many seniors are in tip-top condition. ''Our national participants are incredible athletes'' from age 50 to 102, he says. They tend to be well read, higher-income individuals who've opted to keep fit through competition. Martin Rothenberg, 67-year-old former chief executive of Syracuse Language Systems, certainly fills the bill. He competed in the Empire State Senior Games triathlon this June. Or consider Tom Morrison, who traded his golf bag for a parachute when he was 39. Today, the 76-year-old owner of a New Jersey specialty advertising agency skydives almost every weekend. The World War II veteran jumped with fellow vet George Bush Sr. in Houston last June. Why risk his life this way? ''It's fun,'' says Morrison.

Many sports promote healthy aging. That's one of the main points of Surfing For Life, a documentary about senior surfers released last year. Producer David Brown featured 10 over-65 surfers from the hundreds who are active. Ranging from retired school teachers to former computer pros, they all have one thing in common: ''They refuse to be curtailed,'' says Brown.

Looking for an adrenaline rush of your own? The Web site aarp.org has a guide to adventure vacations from sea kayaking in Belize, to whitewater rafting in the Upper Yangtze, and climbing in Ecuador. Or try a more extreme version of a standard sport. About 10% of clients of High Mountain Heli-Skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyo., are over 55, says owner Jon Schick. The firm flies fit skiiers to untracked slopes in the Tetons. The sport isn't for the faint of heart, nor--at about $500 a day--for the light of pocket. But heli-skiing isn't just for experts. ''Basically you have to be strong enough and fit enough to get yourself down the mountain,'' says Schick.

Extreme sports participants are often managers, executives, and owners of companies, says Steve Matthiesen, director of technical underwriting at Hartford Life, which insures people with risky hobbies. They share one quality, he notes: ''They've got an air of invulnerability.''

The new emphasis on keep-fit for seniors is spawning some surprising results. Last year, the retirement community of Sun City, Tex., published Aged Beef: Men in their Prime, a calendar featuring pinup shots of male residents. Sales were so brisk that the publishers couldn't keep up with orders. This year, Sun City plans a women's version. With participation in demanding sports on the rise, there ought to be plenty of models to choose from. The challenge will be getting them to hold still.

By HEATHER TIMMONS

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