ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. More than 10,000 athletes are meeting in Cleveland for the National Senior Games. Adults over the age of 55 and some older than 90 are running track, riding bikes, playing basketball and competing in many other sports that you would see at a summer Olympics. In fact, a few of the competitors were once Olympic athletes. NPR's Ina Jaffe spoke with one of them, a swimmer named Graham Johnston who is still racing in his 80s.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Nothing like watching a race with an expert who really knows the sport.
GRAHAM JOHNSTON: Took a breath on the turn. He shouldn't have done that.
JAFFE: While Graham Johnston's waiting to race, he sits in the bleachers and checks out how the other swimmers are doing.
G. JOHNSTON: Great race. Great race.
JAFFE: Johnston knows a great race when he sees one. He's been swimming since the age of two.
G. JOHNSTON: My father was a manager of a swimming pool.
JAFFE: And Johnston says there wasn't much else going on in the small South African town where he grew up. Over the decades, he set world records in various age groups for older swimmers. He's in several national and international swimming halls of fame. And back in 1952, he represented South Africa in the Olympics. But as an Olympian, he describes himself as an also-ran.
G. JOHNSTON: Unfortunately, when I had to train for the Olympics, I didn't have much money and I couldn't eat very well and I probably only had one half-decent meal a day. And I think I had some malnourishment. I never got in a final. I missed a final by one position.
JAFFE: Johnston came to the United States on a swimming scholarship from the University of Oklahoma. That's where he met his wife, Janice.
G. JOHNSTON: When we were freshmen.
JANICE JOHNSTON: And he just didn't swim fast enough to get away.
JAFFE: Janice goes to every one of her husband's races.
J. JOHNSTON: I love being his cheerleader.
JAFFE: And you have another name for her?
G. JOHNSTON: Yes. She's my athletic supporter.
JAFFE: She's not only at the races, she's at every practice, which is a lot of togetherness.
G. JOHNSTON: I swim five days a week and sometimes six. But I used to swim twice a day, training in the morning and evening, but I haven't done that now for the last four years because I find I'm too tired. So I'm only working out once a day for about two hours a day.
JAFFE: That regimen began 40 years ago when he discovered Masters Swimming, which organizes competitions for adults. As with the Senior Games here in Cleveland, competitors are grouped by age in five-year increments. And more recently, Johnston has taken up open-water swimming: making the trip across the Straits of Gibraltar; swimming from the Hawaiian island of Lanai to Maui.
G. JOHNSTON: A 20-foot tiger shark in Maui one year, but it wasn't hungry.
JAFFE: But Johnston knows that no amount of competition and rigorous training can defeat the toll of age.
G. JOHNSTON: As the body ages, all of your physical equipment deteriorates. Yeah, I feel a lot older and I'm getting a lot slower, but so is everybody else. And a lot of my competition's dead already, but I'm still here.
JAFFE: His living competition is in the pool, where he joins them for the 200-meter freestyle. Johnston holds the Senior Games record in this event for his age group. He doesn't beat it, but he beats the guy who comes in after him by 41 seconds. So, Graham Johnston got another gold medal. But he says medals have never motivated him.
In fact, he's given pounds of them away to kids he's coached. He's in it for the camaraderie at the pool, he says, and for the thrill of the race.
G. JOHNSTON: That's what makes life exciting. You've got to get that adrenaline high.
JAFFE: And that's something that doesn't change for athletes, no matter what their age. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Cleveland.