Spend any amount of time at the Pasadena Senior Center and you’ll quickly learn that the motto there is “Age Well.” It’s on their T-shirts, windows and doors, as well as on the flyer for the 27th annual Pasadena Senior Games.
“It really is at the heart of our social wellness programming,” said Charmaine Nelson, associated director of marketing and communications at the senior center.
The games will run from Saturday, April 27 to July 14. Participants can demonstrate their athletic skills in any of the nearly 30 events that range from shuffle boarding to powerlifting. The games are open to individuals who are at least 50 years old and no competition experience is required. With this in mind, the Senior Center is anticipating at least 1,200 athletes to participate this year.
“Every year the Pasadena Senior Games promotes healthy lifestyles for older adults through education, fitness and the spirited competition of sports,” said Akila Gibbs, executive director of the Pasadena Senior Center, in a press release. “These remarkable athletes are shining examples of the benefits of an active lifestyle that embraces health and vitality.”
One shining example of the Senior Center and the games’ “Age Well” philosophy is Pasadena resident Don Leis. At age 87, Leis is one of the top 25 athletes worldwide in his age group in track and field and competes in the USA Masters Division. His passion for athletics started at young age.
“I’ve been running since I was 7 years old,” Leis said. “My older brother would take me out and teach me how to high jump and run.”
He said he was born into athletics and recalls sneaking into the Rose Bowl Game as a kid with his friend before getting caught by security and getting thrown out by their shirt collars. He still has his first ticket to the Rose Bowl, given to him by his father when it only cost $3.75 in 1948, and has gone to every single game since then.
When he was at John Muir High School, he won the Pentathlon in 1950, and as a student at Pasadena City College, he was a two-time Golden Glove Champion in 1952 and 1953, winning 16 out of 17 fights, which helped him earn a boxing scholarship for Idaho State.
“All of those people take those blows to the head, and it doesn’t do them any good. If I had to do that over, I wouldn’t do boxing, I would just stay in track and field,” he said. “Or butterfly catching.”
Leis started competing at the Pasadena Senior Games in the late 1990s, which is what led to him becoming a senior world champion. He estimates he has earned at least 500 medals, trophies and plaques from different competitions. It has gotten to the point where he has more medals than he can reasonably keep now that he’s trying to downsize and has begun donating them.
He recently gave some to the Senior Center and plans to visit the Naval Hospital near Camp Pendleton to give the soldiers medals with his friend, Terry Fitzhugh, a former USA track and field official and an ex-sergeant major in the Marines who grew up in Pasadena.
“People would say, ‘Why would they want that?’ And my buddy would say, ‘They know they didn’t win that, but they won a lot more than that. It just gives them something,’” Leis said.
He still keeps about 250 medals displayed on a board in his den that includes some of the first he ever won, like the one from the pentathlon.
His dedication to track and field hasn’t wavered, and he can usually be found training all year long, but the last two months has seen him out of commission as a result of Achilles tendonitis, a common injury among runners. However, he’s not letting that stop him from competing at this year’s games and plans to use it as a test to see if he can continue with the competition season afterward. After all, he has a Masters Division title to defend.
“[Competing] does something for me. There’s a lot of camaraderie between people,” he said.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Annie Laskey, director of events at the Pasadena Senior Center and manager of the Pasadena Senior Games.
“While hoping to take the gold themselves, competitors cheer each other on,” Laskey said. “It’s inspiring to see them encourage all of their fellow athletes to reach for their personal bests.”
Another test Leis has to see if he can still compete ties back to the Rose Bowl Game. After it’s over, he starts fast-walking up the hill that leads to Washington Boulevard, zig-zagging around people who stop to take breaks. If he can’t make it to the top without stopping, which he says is about a half-mile long, he won’t compete in track and field anymore.
Although his time to retire hasn’t come yet, Leis has gained perspective in the last few years.
“When I first started competing at the Pasadena Senior Games in track and field, all I wanted to do was win a medal. It didn’t have to be gold. It didn’t have to be silver, but at least bronze,” he said. “Then I said, ‘Now I want a gold medal.’ I was never satisfied. I then wanted the Senior All American status, which I got so many times, I can’t count them. Then I wanted to be a National Champion.
“Then all of a sudden, in the last couple of years, I started thinking the whole world is not built around gold medals and national championships. I feel fortunate to having been able to do it, but I don’t like going around and advertising it,” he said in a phone interview. “My wife just chimed in and said, ‘You do, too,’” he laughed.
Leis is looking forward to the Senior Games, where he will participate in several events: the high jump, the long jump, the triple jump and the 100 and 200 meters. Aside from that, he is looking forward to seeing his fellow competitors and teammates during the rest of the competition season.
“[Aging well] means exactly what I did; I aged well,” Leis said.