John Tatum is 94 years old. He is a swimmer. And a gold medalist.
Tatum is one of thousands of the top athletes in the U.S. who run, vault and swim for the gold in the National Senior Games. All of these seniors are over age 50, and some are over 100. And they show no signs of slowing down.
"I see no end for me," Tatum says. "I would like to just compete year after year after year. You know, I'm 94, probably could be 100, I don't know. But as long as I am healthy, I can do it."
They're the focus of a documentary called Age of Champions. Host Michel Martin speaks to Tatum and producer Keith Ochwat about the Senior Games.
John Tatum on his beginning as a swimmer with his brother Bradford
"Bradford was the better swimmer. You know, sickness overtook him. That declined his skills a little. He was in a lot of swimming teams when I wasn't. We switched back and forth on the win on certain contests. Sometimes I clipped him a lot of times. In 1928 or 1929, they had a public pool for blacks in the District of Columbia. ... I was interested, but I had other things to do. Brad really got into it. He was on the swimming team, the very first one they had."
Tatum on swimming after retirement
"I went to high school and they'd never had a team there. And in college they didn't have a swimming team. I just picked up again after I retired, because we heard about Howard University having this meet every year for seniors. And, you know, at that time I was 70, maybe 71 or 72. And I went on and I saw a couple of guys that I knew from high school who were in their 80s and they were still swimming."
Producer Keith Ochwat on the challenges Tatum and other athletes overcame
"It's really hard for us to have prepared ourselves for the story that John and Brad told us. We knew from the beginning of their contact with us that they had faced segregation, and they had overcome quite a bit to follow their love of swimming. But once we had the opportunity to meet John and Brad and their families, and see their role in the community, it really became our mission in telling their stories in the Age of Champions, that these aren't just swimmers, these aren't just seniors, they are not just athletes. These men are examples. These men are living examples. They are living examples and role models for people who are older, younger, our age. It was wonderful to get to know them."
Tatum on words of wisdom
"You never know what comes up in your life, physically, but I see no end for me. I would like to just compete year after year after year. You know, I'm 94, probably could be 100, I don't know. But as long as I am healthy, I can do it. And that's what I tell other people, you know, the guys around me. I don't have any friends from my boyhood anymore. My son's friends are my friends now. I try to keep them up with it. Get out and do something. You're physically fit. Go out and try yourself, you know. And those things help you live."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we have something new. We are going to kick off a summer song series. For the rest of the summer, from time to time, we will hear notable artists performing musical covers of some favorite American songs.
But first, if you've noticed some particularly fit travelers at your airport or on the road these past few days, then that might be because thousands of the nation's top athletes are heading to Cleveland, Ohio to run swim and jump for the gold later this month. Some have now been training for decades and that's because they are all over 50 years old. Some are even 100 and they are competing in the National Senior Games.
The games are the focus of "Age of Champions." That's a documentary that follows some of these competitors who show no sign of slowing down. I'm joined now by one of them. John Tatum is 94 years old, a swimmer and gold medalist. Thank you so much for joining us.
JOHN TATUM: Glad to be here.
MARTIN: Also with us is Keith Ochwat. He's the producer of the film. Welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.
KEITH OCHWAT: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, Keith, let me start with you. How did you hear about the Senior Games?
OCHWAT: It was very serendipitous. My film partner, Christopher Rufo, and I were at a conference for non-profits in the arts out in California, and the woman seated next to us introduced herself as the head of the National Senior Games Association. And when we asked, well, what does that mean, and she says, well, we put on the Senior Olympics every two years. It's for athletes 50 to 100 plus. They do a number of sports, from pole vaulting to swimming and diving and volleyball and basketball, and we were amazed. It was sort of a light bulb moment and we knew we had to tell the story.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you how you knew that there was a film in this.
OCHWAT: We were just amazed by the idea that there are athletes that are at that age who are competing because we think of athletes as being in - teenagers or in their twenties or maybe their thirties. We liked the idea, but once we started reaching out to athletes like John and his brother and the others - we knew we had a great story when we met the 100-year-old tennis player Roger, the 89-year-old pole vaulter from Texas.
MARTIN: Mr. Tatum, you are a swimmer.
J. TATUM: Yes, I am.
MARTIN: And you and your brother Bradford both competed in the games - have been competing in the games. I just want to play a short clip of the two of you talking about competing. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AGE OF CHAMPIONS")
BRADFORD TATUM: The idea is to compete and you don't have to win, but whenever you do win, it's a nice feeling, to feel in your age group you're pretty good.
J. TATUM: Winning is everything, Bradford. What do you mean? Good guys finish last.
B. TATUM: Last.
J. TATUM: Competing is all there is to it.
MARTIN: Pretty good rivalry between the two of you.
J. TATUM: Oh, from boyhood, yes.
MARTIN: From boyhood, really?
J. TATUM: Yes.
MARTIN: Oh, OK.
J. TATUM: Yeah, one time he was my little brother, then he became my equal brother.
MARTIN: (Laughter) So which of you - he's not here at the moment. In fact, I have to say that you actually lost him...
J. TATUM: Yes, I did.
MARTIN: ...After the film was completed...
J. TATUM: Right.
MARTIN: ...And I'm really sorry for your loss, but you can take advantage of the fact that you have the microphone to yourself. So which of you is the better swimmer?
J. TATUM: Bradford was...
MARTIN: Oh, OK.
J. TATUM: ...Until I...
MARTIN: You're going to fess up.
J. TATUM: Yeah, yeah. You know, sickness overtook him and that declined his skills a little, you know, and he was in a lot of swimming teams when I wasn't, you know. But we switched back and forth on who'd win on certain contests. Sometimes I - I clipped him a lot of times.
MARTIN: Clipped him. I know you did...
J. TATUM: Yeah.
MARTIN: ...And you got the gold to prove it. So, you know, recognizing again that you grew up in a time when a lot of African-Americans, which you are, did not have access to public swimming pools. I want to play another clip of your brother Bradford - your late brother talking about how you got your start. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AGE OF CHAMPIONS")
B. TATUM: We started swimming in the '20s and we've been swimming ever sense. We lived in a neighborhood where there wasn't a pool for blacks. Now there were pools, but we couldn't go to them.
MARTIN: How did you start swimming and how did you start competing?
J. TATUM: In 1928 or '29, they had a public pool for blacks in the District of Columbia, the first one at Francis. And I was interested, but I had other things to do. Brad really got into it. He was on the swimming team, the very first one they had, but I went on to learn how to swim there after swimming in the creek and in the Potomac River and in the Lincoln Memorial. It just progressed, really. I went to high school that never had a team there, and in college they didn't have a swimming team, either. So I just picked it up again after I retired, really.
MARTIN: You picked it up again after you retired?
J. TATUM: Right. Right, 'cause we heard about Howard University having this meet every year for seniors, and, you know, at that time, I was 70, maybe 71 or 2.
MARTIN: Spring chicken.
J. TATUM: Yeah, and I went on and I saw a couple of guys that I knew from high school who were in their eighties and they were still swimming. So Brad and I, we got into this and we used practiced one day before the meet and that was it. No coach, no instruction.
MARTIN: Keith, I wondered if before you started this film, did you know about things like this? Did you know about those kinds of stories that - some of the odds that these athletes had to confront in order to, you know, perfect their sport?
OCHWAT: It's really hard for us to have prepared ourselves for the story that John and Brad told us. We knew from the beginning of their contact with us that they had faced segregation and they had overcome quite a bit to follow their love of swimming. But once we had the opportunity to meet John and Brad and their families and see their role in the community, it really became our mission in telling their story in "Age of Champions," that these aren't just swimmers, these aren't just seniors, they're not just athletes. These men are examples. They're living examples and role models for people that are older, younger, our age. It was wonderful to get to know them.
MARTIN: It really kind of comes alive for you, like what it meant, too. I mean, you can read about that. You can read about segregation, but hearing these two gifted athletes not having the same opportunities as other athletes, it must - kind of gives it a different feeling, I would imagine.
OCHWAT: Exactly. Exactly, Michel, and, you know, I think that we wanted our film to not be about sports so much. We wanted it to be about people and the challenges that they overcame in order to be champions. In Bradford's case, it was cancer. He was battling cancer throughout the process of training for the Olympics and competing. It was segregation. And for other characters in the film, you know, a deceased spouse, you know, or other health challenges, arthritis. The things that all people face as they do get older.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, though - Mr. Tatum was just telling us that he really didn't start swimming competitively until he was already retired. Was that true for a lot of your athletes, that this is something that they came to later, that these are not retired professional athletes like, you know, Michael Jordan, you know, famously has become as competitive at golf as he was previously at basketball and then later at baseball? So is that pretty much the story, that a lot of these athletes kind of found their competitive spirit, their commitment to a team at later in life?
OCHWAT: Absolutely. That turned out to be true for a lot of senior athletes. I would say about half of the senior athletes had become competitive after their retirement years had already begun. For instance, one of the characters in our film, Roger Gentilhomme, he's a hundred-year-old tennis player and had never even picked up a tennis racket until he was 74. And...
MARTIN: (Laughing) Seventy-four?
OCHWAT: Seventy-four. There was a coupon in the newspaper. He thought he'd pick one up. Or, you know, another character in the film, Earl Bassingame, he didn't begin competing in track and field until he was 83 years old, after his wife of 64 years passed away and he decided he needed another way to connect with peers and find encouragement in the community, and the Senior Games is where he found it.
MARTIN: I want to play a clip of, you mention, Roger Gentilhomme, who was a hundred years old, competing in tennis at the time that you met him, and a lot of people called him an inspiration. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AGE OF CHAMPIONS")
ROGER GENTILHOMME: I had arthritis very bad. I had the cancer operation in '87. I've lost five inches in height. Now I'm below five foot, but whatever happens, you just have to roll with the punches.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, Mr. Tatum, could you have imagined when you were, you know, a younger man, a little bit younger, that you would be competing at this age?
J. TATUM: No, I had no idea. I didn't know this type of thing existed. You know, when I was a kid, 60 years before my birth, there was slavery, and now, 60 years ago, you look back at Martin Luther King's exploits and all. But as a kid, I had grandparents living in the house had been slaves. So I had a different idea when it came to the Civil Rights Movement.
I just looked at it and see, why, these people at that age, what do they think about what they had to go through? But, you know, by that time, my life was kind of broken through segregation and, you know, hypocrisy and things like that - not had a chance. I don't know what I could've been, had I had chances back then that these people today have.
MARTIN: When you were younger, you couldn't envision participating in something like this, and now that you're doing this, even at this age, do you think it's changed you at all? You seem pretty humble, but I don't know, maybe. A lot of the athletes I know have kind of a big head.
J. TATUM: Yeah, right.
MARTIN: Do you think you kind of have a big head about it?
J. TATUM: Yeah.
MARTIN: Do you slip it into all your conversations...
J. TATUM: Well, I think people...
MARTIN: ...I have a gold medal, by the way?
J. TATUM: Well, people think more of it - about it...
MARTIN: Use it to get dates?
J. TATUM: ...Than I do...
MARTIN: Yeah, OK.
J. TATUM: Really, really. You know, they...
MARTIN: Do you use your medal to get dates?
J. TATUM: No, not really. Not really. I try to use charm or something else. No, but - no, I don't have...
MARTIN: You don't brag on it?
J. TATUM: No, I don't have a swelled head, I don't think.
MARTIN: I might have to get some other sources about it.
J. TATUM: (Laughing) Right, exactly.
MARTIN: But do you think that it's kind of changed the way you feel about yourself or about what you're capable of, you know?
J. TATUM: Well, you know, I have to go by what other people say, really. I'd like to be like you when I'm your age, and they might be 70 and tell me that. Yeah.
MARTIN: (Laughing) How about that?
J. TATUM: Yeah.
MARTIN: Keith, I wanted to ask, you've been screening the film around the country, and a lot of times, you've been going to senior centers. And I'm interested in what the reaction is there, like, senior centers, assisted living places, senior living centers and so forth. What reaction do people in your audience have, and I'm also interested in whether younger people react differently than older people do?
OCHWAT: Well, you know, so with "Age of Champions," our goal was to hopefully encourage people to live a more active and engaged lifestyle, to embrace sort of the idea of wellness and that you don't have to be stuck in the rocking chair, is a line that John says in the film. And we thought the best way to do that is to take our film on the road at senior centers, at senior living communities, in theaters, and the reaction we've gotten has been very positive.
We just did a screening in Leesburg, Virginia, and there was a woman there who came. She was in her mid-seventies. She lives in a senior living community. It was actually screening at a public library, and she told me after the screening, I'm going to look up the Virginia State Senior Games and I'm going to sign up. I want - you know, I've seen John's story, I saw Roger's story, I saw all these different competitors, and that's exactly the impact that we were hoping our film could have.
And we don't want to give people the false impression that any senior can be a senior athlete, a senior Olympian. One of my favorite memories of the Senior Olympics, when we were filming John win gold medals, another competitor was going for gold in bowling. He was in his mid-nineties. He was using a walker, could not walk on his own, and I remember seeing him shuffle up to the front of the lane, and he drops the ball and rolls a strike and ends up winning a gold medal, and he can barely walk. That's what it's all about. It's about attitude and doing whatever you can, no matter what your capacity.
MARTIN: Speaking of attitude, some of those basketball players, I - we're talking to Mr. Tatum here, and a number of the other people we quoted from the film have been men, but I do want to point out that there are number of women featured in the film. And some of those basketball players were rough. I think they could take me. Let's hear a clip of the Tigerettes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AGE OF CHAMPIONS")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The last tournament we played in, I had a busted lip. Mary was bruised all over, be from all the pushing and shoving. Kitty had a broken finger and Nikki had a black eye, looked like she'd been in a prizefight, but we forget about that. When we get on the court, we forget that we're supposed to be - still be ladies. We're basketball players then.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you, were you surprised by just how competitive they are at this stage of life? They were not playing. Yes, they got their nails done before the matches and they got their hair done, but they were out there trying to take care of business. Were you surprised by that?
OCHWAT: (Laughing) Oh, well - and I'll tell you, yeah, they could take you. They could take me, too. I mean, there were - the competitive spirit is so strong in the games. I would say probably the thing that every athlete's looking for at the Senior Olympics is that comradery and that sort of support for their peers. But everyone wants to win, and good guys finish last. Right, John?
J. TATUM: Yeah.
MARTIN: John, you're not playing around, right?
J. TATUM: Yeah, right.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, Keith, I did want to ask whether working on this film has changed the way you think about aging. I mean, you're at a stage of life - you probably don't think very much at all about getting older, about losing some of your physical, you know, capacities. But has it changed the way you think about aging?
OCHWAT: You know, it absolutely has, and the filmmaking process changed it to one degree. Getting to know people like John and the Tigerettes and all these other competitors who have this competitive spirit that I thought was just for younger people, that changed it, but really, also this grassroots screening campaign that we're in the process of doing.
We've done over 1,500 screenings around the country, and we've had opportunity to go to many of them and speak at them and meet the seniors that are watching the movie and talk with them, and that's probably changed my perception of aging even more. We're not seeking out specific seniors. We're interacting with seniors from the community who are mobile, or maybe are not mobile, from all different walks of life. In talking to them and finding out how our film impacts them and how it changes their ideas about competition and physical fitness, that's really been more eye-opening for me.
MARTIN: You have any final words of wisdom for us, Mr. Tatum?
J. TATUM: Yeah, well, I, physically, I don't know how long I can do this, but I'm going to do it as long as I can. You never know what comes up in your life, physically, but I see no end for me. I would like to just compete year after year after year, you know. I'm 94, probably could be a hundred. I don't know, but I - as long as I'm healthy, I can do it.
And that's what I tell other people, you know, the guys around me. I don't have any friends from my boyhood anymore, but my son's friends are my friends now, and I try to keep them up and, get out and do something, and, you're physically fit, go out and try yourself, you know. And those things help you live, so I think.
MARTIN: Well, we'll be rooting for you.
J. TATUM: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: John Tatum is a gold medal-winning swimmer. He's featured in Keith Ochwat's film "Age of Champions." It will be shown on PBS on July 9th, although you'll want to check your local listings for exact times. Keith and John were kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C. If you want to find out more about the film and how you can host a local screening, go to our website NPR.org/TELLMEMORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.