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Eric's Heroes: Senior athletes put Father Time in his place

Don Kane and Chuck Milliman race. (Photo: KOMO News)

We're all fighting against time. And we all know who's going to win.

But it's a fight that's important. And at the Washington State Senior Games, the fight is a thing of wonder.

They were held this year at North Thurston High School, and it was quite a scene. There was a guy playing the national anthem on trumpet on a beautiful summer day. Three guys stepped up to the microphone and shouted, "Let the games begin!"

There weren't a lot of spectators, mostly the children of the athletes, helping them get from event to event. But everywhere you looked, all over the track, there were little human dramas playing out quietly... good natured little knock-down drag-out fights against the effects of time, and the looming reality of mortality.

Lisbeth Naber is 89 years old. She lives in Lacey. There is a slight Danish accent when she tells us sweetly, "Oh, I like to compete."

She has short gray hair and a Gilligan hat to go along with her cheerful smile. Her husband, Davem sits next to her on a bench next to the track and reminds her that they've been coming to the Senior Games since 1989.

"You always try to beat the others," he says, "but you always try to improve, try to get a little bit farther each year."

Lisbeth was entered in the discus throw, and after she picked out the object she would throw she smiled and said, "I just saw how many I compete against."

"How many?" we asked.

"None!" she said, and tilted her head back in laughter.

It's true, the 85-89 year old bracket for the women's discus event was sparse, to say the least. When it was time, she walked up gingerly and took her place in the circle. With both hands around the discus she rocked back and forth a few times, and then gave the thing a mighty heave.

It fluttered out of her hands and landed a few feet away.

When they told her that she'd thrown it 23'-8" she was pleased.

"Oh, that's better than I normally get, so that was a good throw!"

Good enough for gold.

The Shot Heard Round the Track

George Roswell knows North Thurston High School well. He was the track and field coach there. And the first football coach the school ever had. Before that he played football for Washington State. There is a picture of him posing as if he's rushing the quarterback, and he looks big and young and fearless, with a shock of black hair.

Now he is 100 years old, and is confined, for the most part, to a wheelchair. A century has taken its toll on a big, strong athlete, but here he is, ready to compete in the 100-and over shot put event.

"I feel good," he says, "I'm 100 years old." He pauses for a moment and then continues, "But my legs just don't work. They just don't work."

Like Lisbeth, George is the only competitor in his age group. His son wheels him into the circle.

They hand him the shot. Somebody yells out, "Here we go, George, first throw!"

George accepts the steel ball and transfers it to his right hand. Without hesitating he throws it as far as he can.

"Mark it!" shouts an official.

A few moments later they announce that it went 4-feet, 5-inches.

When he is asked if he wants another throw, George shakes his head and the official yells, "OK, George is the winner!"

Good enough for gold.

A Rivalry for the Ages

The body is just a thing. But the spirit... the spirit is a force.

85-year old Chuck Milliman is all over the field, running to one event after another. He is sun-tanned and still handsome in his yellow tank top.

He competes in the long jump and the high jump and the pole vault. And when he slows down long enough to talk to us, he is bubbling over with enthusiasm.

"It's marvelous that we come out here and do this together, to compete. I like to compete. They say I'm not competitive. Watch me!" And then he laughs a laugh that is pure joy.

You could do worse than to be as vital as Chuck Milliman when you are 85!

But lurking in the 50-meter sprint was Chuck's nemesis, 84-year-old Don Kane. Don Kane is a thin man with a distance runner's build. And when the starting shot rings through the air, he bolts upright with choppy, mincing steps and his arms pumping at his side.

Chuck is matching him stride for stride, chugging hard with his arms swinging side to side.

At the 30-meter mark, the superior form of Don Kane pulled him into the lead and he won by about 5-feet.

The two have raced a number of times over the years, and it always seems to end the same. Don walks over to shake Chuck's hand. Chuck smiles shyly and puts his arm around Don's shoulders. They're both breathing hard.

As athletic as he is, Chuck can never beat Don. His only chance might be to outlive him.

And then across the way, cruising around the track in the men's 800 meters, like some kind of apparition, it was Father Time himself! He had long white hair and a snow white beard and skinny legs with a smooth, easy gait.

Father Time seemed to be gaining on all of them. The hair bounced and the legs kept that steady, easy pace, and for a moment as he headed down the stretch it was obvious that none of us can outrace Time. He's just too strong.

But as he crossed the finish line he appeared winded, and he bent over at the waist to catch his breath, and suddenly the spell was broken and you realized that it wasn't Father Time at all. Just a man. A competitor at these Senior Games.

His name is Bob Brown, he's 81, and when we asked him about the Games and the fight, he offered this: "I get pretty competitive when I get here, but not so competitive that I downgrade someone else. I don't do that. I do the best I can and really cheer for the others to do the best they can."

In the end, of course, Father Time always wins.

Bodies break down. But the body is just a thing.

The spirit though... the spirit is a force.

And on this glorious afternoon in the sun, at the Washington State Senior Games, it was a force to be reckoned with.

Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to heroes@komonews.com.

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