Written by Matthew Martz
Gary Weichelt may not be swinging for the fences like he used to, but while most ballplayers his age are hanging up their cleats, the 57-year old is lacing his up, in his pursuit of senior softball’s crown jewel—a world title. Decades before playing and coaching the Baker Boyz (a 55+ senior softball team) Weichelt darted around the little league diamond, later lettering in baseball at South High, before trying out for Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants as a walk-on in 1973.
“Trying out for the Giants...that’s when I learned how well guys can play ball,” said Weichelt. “So, the idea was to just come back to Bakersfield, go to work, and go out and have some fun playing softball.”
But soon Weichelt found that the competitive fire still burned, and now with a yearly schedule devoted to playing softball, he certainly shows that players of all ages can withstand the demands of being a serious ballplayer. He competes in at least one tournament a month, sometimes playing six games (42 innings in just two days), and three 12-game city league seasons, which includes teams that are much younger.
“They give me a bad time every now and then when I show them up,” he said with a smile, “and they hate it even more when we beat them.”
And although Weichelt says he and the team have taken their share of lumps, they have won their share, including bringing home a title in the over 50 Softball Winter Worlds last November in Las Vegas.
“It was very exciting and we played good ball,” said Weichelt, showing off a championship ring. “We beat out 17 teams from the U.S. and Canada.”
Stepping into the batter’s box, Weichelt sends a high fly to centerfield before scooping up a hard ground ball to short in the bottom of the inning, throwing out a base runner half his age.
“I don’t have the range that I used to; I am a better digger than a thrower,” joked the senior shortstop. “But the camaraderie, and just getting out and having fun, is why I play.”
Even though softball may not be considered an endurance activity, it’s enough to keep Weichelt active and not sedentary. He said, “Just the mental aspect of playing keeps me fresh.”
If that’s true, then Weichelt must have one of the freshest minds around. And there’s no indication that his playing habits will change anytime soon.
Far from the tranquility of Weichelt’s ball field, Metallica’s “One” blares in the background, drowning out the grunts that fill a small cinderblock room called the “Hog Pit.”
And in the middle of it all, a poster that simply reads, “Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever.”
That pretty much sums up 58-year old powerlifter Ken Wheeler, who, using unconventional methods that look more like medieval torture racks, grinds out another one of his four-day-a-week weight training sessions that would make anyone one-third his age cower.
Wheeler’s strength is apparent in his handshake. The man looks as strong as his grip feels, and after almost retiring from the sport a year ago, the Master Elite is not quite ready to drop the barbell just yet.
He said he first wants to lift a combined 1,400-plus pounds in a world qualifying event at the end of 2012.
“I have thought about giving it up,” said Wheeler, who shows off a scar from surgery to repair a torn bicep, “but I just keep going because I love it.”
Wheeler began lifting weights at the age of 12 when a family member teasingly called him a “fat little kid.”
So, with a set of cement-filled weights and a bench his parents purchased from Sears, Wheeler started lifting weights in the backyard, and by the time he was a freshman at Foothill High School, he was gleaning power lifting techniques from some old school lifters at the Bakersfield YMCA.
In his first year at Bakersfield College, the 5-foot-9, 162-pounder could out-lift most of the football team with a 400-plus pound squat and a 240-pound bench press.
But it wasn’t until Wheeler picked up a magazine that showed the results of the 1971 Pan-American Games that he thought that he could match the totals, or better the amount of weights being lifted at the time.
So, in October 1974 at the age of 22, Wheeler traveled to Fresno, taking third place out of 120 contenders in his first competitive powerlifting meet.
“From that moment on I was hooked,” said Wheeler, who, at 49, also qualified for the U.S. Powerlifting team that competed in the 2002 World Powerlifting Congress Finals in Finland, winning the gold medal in his division while setting a world record squat of 705 pounds on his opening attempt.
Today, Wheeler is still competing in both open and age group divisions, lifting against competitors a third of his age.
“The heaviest squatting attempt I have ever tried was just a few months ago at 804 pounds,” said Wheeler, who now bench presses 407 with a dead lift of 650 pounds.
“You can do this for fun, or you can lift to be very competitive,” he added. “Me, I’m a competitor, and will keep doing this as long as my body feels good and everything holds together.”
But it’s not just males in their golden years that feel that competitive spirit, and to say that Treva Cardiel has drive is an understatement.
A late-bloomer of sorts in terms of golfing, Cardiel didn’t take up the game until she was in her mid-30s when her husband insisted that she give it a try.
“I didn’t want to take it up at first because I thought golf was boring,” said Cardiel, “but the first ball I ever hit flew 200 yards, or at least I thought it did, and I was addicted.”
Today, although arthritis in her thumbs makes it difficult for her to grip the club on certain days, the 72-year old is as dedicated as ever, playing with the skills and passion of golfers a quarter of her age.
In fact, it’s hard not to find Cardiel with a putter in her hand, as she hits the links come rain or shine at least three to four days a week.
“Physically it keeps me in shape, and mentally it helps to maintain my alertness and sharpness,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “The company and social part also keeps me active.”
Like any serious golfer, Cardiel has racked up an impressive collection of hardware and titles, including the Rio Bravo Super Senior Championship title in 2006, as well as being crowned three-time women’s champion at Rio Bravo in 1985, 1998, and 2001.
But make no mistake, Cardiel isn’t ready to give up the thrill of competition, at least not just yet, as she prepares to attempt to capture another title at the 2012 Executive Cup at Pelican Hill Golf Club in Newport Beach in August.
“I feel like I have done much more than I ever anticipated I would be able do at this age,” added Cardiel. “I love golf, and I don’t know what I would do with my life without it.
“What I do know is that I will keep playing until they pry the putter from my hands.”
That same sentiment is shared by Regina Hoelscher, who has been clogging for 26 years this August, just months from her 71st birthday.
Her “addiction” as she calls it, began when she and her then six-year-old daughter, who just finished her first year of tap dancing, saw a clogging demonstration at the Bakersfield Downtown Street Fair. Her daughter wanted to try it, but there was one catch.
If she were to join the clogging class, there had to be a participating adult.
Nearly three decades later, Hoelscher is still putting on her dancing shoes at least three to four times a week, and says if there was a Clogger’s Anonymous, she would be the president.
Although giving up tap dancing at the age of 16, Hoelscher never strayed far from her love of dance, and was naturally drawn to the clickety-clack double-steel tap cadence of clog dancing.
Nearly three decades after starting, she has performed all over Kern County with three separate clogging troupes, including entertaining 2011 Kern County Fair guests with 84 dances during 11 shows in just five days.
“Oh, sure, I work up a sweat,” said Hoelscher, “but I could do an hour show and I’m not even breathless.”
And why should she be?
Hoelscher turns in a weekly practice schedule that would have made even Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers blush, putting in over 15 hours of practice, six days a week.
But it’s not just the physical aspects of clogging that Hoelscher says is beneficial. There is also the mental benefits.
“I am really not a very social person, but if you put me on stage, I am a different person,” she said with a smile. “If it wasn’t for dancing I would be at home sitting, and that would kill me.”
From performing in front of large audiences to participating in the taping of a popular television show early last year, it would seem that Hoelscher’s clogging adventures are complete.
But not so, as she has never competed.
“I’m going to as soon as I have the opportunity,” explained Hoelscher, who is already eyeballing upcoming clogging competitions in Los Angeles.
“I’m still young,” she said. “I’m going to do this as long as I can, and when the time comes, they’re going to have to bury me with my clogging shoes on.”
While the physical aspect of trying to remain young is one thing, thinking young is a state of mind, and Gredell Davis has kicked the idea of being too old right out of her mind. Literally.
At 64, she has already earned her 4th-degree green belt, just 24 months after taking up martial arts.
However, becoming a martial artist at 62 was much more an accident that has grown into a quest to achieve the traditional symbol of self-defense proficiency—a black belt.
“I really only took it up so my niece didn’t have to do it alone,” said Davis. “It was only supposed to be a six-week program, and somehow it stretched into two years.”
Over the ensuing months, Davis had worked on her strength and fitness alongside students varying in age, and degrees of sweat and fatigue—stretching, doing push-ups and sit ups three to four times a week, along with practicing her moves and technique sequences.
Davis, who credits her rough and tumble workouts with increasing her flexibility and balance, said, “I’m just having fun, and doing martial arts gives me a sense of accomplishment when I do it right.”
Davis also says that in a recent proficiency test at her school, she broke through the brown board held by her instructor as a target. Each color of board represents an increasing level of difficulty following the traditional belt rank system, brown being just under black.
“It feels really good when your hand goes through the board,” said Davis, “but not so good when it doesn’t.”
While there is much good humor during the breaks in training, in the practice sessions Davis is a serious apprentice, and pulls no punches when it comes to performance, pushing herself to get to the next level even if it takes until she is 100.
“What’s age except for discounts,” said Davis. “I haven’t finished my first childhood, so I’m definitely not ready to start on my second.”
Article appeared in our 29-1 Issue - April 2012