- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

“It’s never too late,” is one of those irritating, false-sounding platitudes. Except when it comes from John Tatum’s lips.

The 90-year old competitive athlete started swimming a couple of decades ago. Now, he’s one of the best in the nation in his (admittedly small) 90-94 age group, as he showed Monday at the 26th Annual DC Golden Olympics which ends Friday and features dozens of events, including track and field as well as basketball and archery for hundreds of area seniors.

Wearing a long, tight black swimsuit - a la Michael Phelps - he clocked 21.10 seconds in his 25-yard freestyle event at the Takoma Aquatic Center.

He had no competition.

“I always wanted to swim competitively,” Mr. Tatum, of Northeast Washington, says. “But we didn’t have any swim teams.”

When he says “we,” he means the city’s black population back in the 1930s and ‘40s, when he attended high school and college.

“In 1928 there was just one pool for black people,” he says. “It was in Georgetown.”

But, in Mr. Tatum’s own words, “It’s never too late,” and now he’s on a swim team - the Water Wizards - and swims at least three times a week.

Many senior athletes didn’t start competing in their sport until after retiring - when they finally had the time.

Take Suzie Barnes, 82, also of Northeast. She’s competed all over the world in track events, winning dozens of medals. For example, in 2007 she won two gold medals in Riccione, Italy at the World Master Athletics Championships.

She didn’t start until she was 65 years old. Now she works out every day, using the track at nearby schools such as Coolidge High School and Howard University.

“It’s part of my personality. It’s in my blood,” says Ms. Barnes.

This summer her athleticism will bring her to Lahti, Finland, for the World Master Championships, where she will compete in several sprint distances, including the 100-meter dash, which she ran in 16.9 seconds (beat that!) a few years ago in Miyasaki, Japan.

While only a few can be like Ms. Barnes and Mr. Tatum - becoming among the best in their age group nationally and internationally - Clarence Brown, director of the District of Columbia Office on Aging (a sponsor of the DC Golden Olympics) hopes that other seniors will be inspired by their stories and exercise just a little bit to improve their own health.

“Exercise and nutrition are key to disease prevention,” Mr. Brown says. “If we can get people exercising, they will live not just longer but better and more independently.”

For District seniors there are plenty of free alternatives, including area recreation and wellness centers that provide everything from swimming pools to nutrition guidance.

“Money or lack of money is no excuse,” he says, adding that his office also provides free transportation if needed.

His office also provides free meals and health screens to seniors (the fastest growing segment - especially those 75 and over - of the local population).

“If we can get them exercising, it’s beneficial for everyone,” he says. “And even if they’re not winning gold medals, they’re winners.”

Mr. Tatum, though, and his “baby brother” Brad Tatum, 88, (also a senior swimmer) may just take a few golds at the National Senior Games in San Francisco, the first week of August.

“I need to work on keeping my head down,” Mr. Tatum says between heats at the Takoma Aquatic Centers.

“My coach is always telling me that. ‘Keep your head down,’ ” he says and smiles with his whole face.

He also plans to hit the gym to improve his strength, overall fitness and, by extension, speed.

He’s wearing a brown towel over his slight frame - a frame that sports less body fat than most 20-year olds.

At 90, he’s as motivated as ever to compete and to stay in shape - but hasn’t he earned the right after years of working and raising children just to rest?

Mr. Tatum looks curiously at the question. In his mind, if anything, he’s earned the right to exercise and pursue a passion.

Then there is that wonderful reward at the end:

“Sometimes I don’t feel like coming here,” Mr. Tatum says of the aquatic center. “But afterwards … There’s nothing that beats the feeling of euphoria. ”

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