An interview with Mike Fishman
This interview was published in Seeds in 1997,1 after Mike's remarkable triathalon performance in the 1996 Senior Olympics at the age of 83. The highlights of Mike's subsequent stellar career at the Senior Olympics are described in the postscript to this article. After Mike's death in 2008, Seeds felt that the enthusiasm with which he had lived his 95 years was a real gift to be shared as widely as possible.
Michael Fishman was born in 1913 of a Polish mother and a Russian father who had arrived in America about 1907. In 1918 his mother died of the flu, and young Mike was sent to an orphanage where he lived until he was 13. This marked the end of his formal education-he was in 8th grade. At that time, the shoe industry was a thriving business in the towns north of Boston. His father and brothers worked there for several years, and Mike eventually opened his own successful tannery.
Upon his retirement, he and his wife Hermine moved to Cape Cod and, at the age of 79, he began training for the Senior Olympics. Ron Fishman, Mike's son, conducted this interview in Cape Cod in the summer of 1996.
You participate in sports events for seniors. Can you tell us something about this? What sports do you practice?
Originally, I played golf most of the time after I retired. Eventually I bought a bike for the first time in my life, so then most of my activities revolved around biking and golf.
How did you get interested in bicycling?
A neighbor of mine bought a bike-he went to Sears Roebuck and got one. He asked me to go along with him, so I went to Sears and bought a bike, too. I'm the kind of guy who likes to try something new, and that sounded new to me. The funny thing is, I don't remember ever going biking with him again. I found some friends of mine who had bikes and we formed a small group and started biking. This was about 10 years ago.
And how old are you now?
I'll be 83 on October 10.
So at 73 you started bicycling?
Yes, for the first time. Since the original group was formed, it has grown to about 50 people. There are lots of husbands and wives, and about 90 percent of the group is retired. These are people who like to get out and do things. They're not couch potatoes, and it was a pleasure to meet these kinds of people.
So what was in part a social event also turned out to be good exercise?
But you also took it a step farther. You went into competition.
Yes. When I was about 78 or 79 years old, a friend of mine was looking for a tennis partner. I had played some tennis before, but I wasn't very good at it. This was great, I thought, because it was so different from golf. Tennis is really exciting. You can go out on the court at 9 o'clock and by 10:30 you've had a very good workout.
And you got some lessons, didn't you?
Yes, that was the first thing I did, and this is good advice for anyone. I started getting lessons, because there is one thing that I found out-bad habits have a way of sticking with you. Getting good habits is very, very important, and the only way to get good habits is to get an expert to show you what good habits are.
You weren't very active before tennis and biking. Did you find that trying these activities inspired you to do more things?
Yes, I noticed how much better I felt. So I tried more and more things.
You've been a swimmer for a good part of your life, too.
That's right. I didn't get much schooling in my life, but I did join the YMCA, and eventually made the YMCA swimming team. It is my favorite sport, because swimming is a sport that utilizes your whole body. There is not so much strength in it, but there is a kind of rhythm to it. I find I even start singing a song as I get into the rhythm, and it is very relaxing.
Do you find a kind of silence in swimming?
Yes, indeed. You are there swimming, all alone really, where no one can interfere with your thoughts. It's peaceful.
There is one other sport that is a fairly recent addition to your sports repertoire, and that is running.
Right. I had never done any running in my life except on a tennis court. Then a friend of mine asked me to be his tennis partner in the Senior Olympics. It was to take place down in Springfield, Massachusetts, and that seemed like a long way to go for just a couple of sets of tennis-it's more than a 100 miles. So I asked him what else they had in the Senior Olympics. When he showed me the list, I couldn't believe it. They have practically everything that they have in the regular Olympics. When I saw the triathalon, I said, "Gee, this appeals to me. This is a challenge."
What is the triathalon event?
It consists of a quarter of a mile swim, a 12.4-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run.
Wasn't that a lot to take on at 79 years old-training for such a competition?
I just don't think in those terms. I never seem to be able to feel I am any particular age. The only feeling I ever have is what I think I could do. And I thought I could do it. So I chose to swim, to play tennis competitively, to run. I sought out a running coach to teach me how to run.
How do you find coaches?
Ask around! Actually, I had a small problem with my heart-it would skip a beat. So I went to my heart doctor and found out he was a marathon runner and a triathaloner. He is sort of a mentor for me. I still call him for advice. He gave me the names of some good coaches. In fact, he has a video of me when I was on Boston and Cape Cod television, and he uses it in his lectures. He told me he is going to use me as a role model, whatever that means!
Well, you are definitely a role model, for many people of all ages. Tell us more about how you got involved in the Senior Olympics. What was it like? What did you do?
Well, I got some training on running and swimming. Swimming is altogether different today from the days I used to swim at the YMCA. The scientists took over, the coaches began to use very scientific instruments to find out the most efficient way to swim. I actually had to almost learn how to swim all over again, because it is so completely different from the old method of swimming. I saw a running coach, too, and I talked to my heart doctor about it. I told him that my wife was very, very worried that I was going to go out and kill myself. So my heart doctor asked me, "Are you enjoying it?" and I said, "Yes, very much," and he said, "Well if you die, you die!"
My running coach said pretty much the same thing. I asked him, "What do you think of a guy my age trying to run three miles (without stopping, if possible!)?" and he said, "You know, you are going to spend a hell of a long time inside that casket. If you enjoy it, do it." And he said I looked physically able to do it. So I got the coaching I needed. I even got coaching on my bike recently-I got a new bike, a real racing bike.
So you feel having good equipment is a real benefit?
Good equipment, depending how serious you are, that is, if you really want to do it. The bug has bitten me. I want to do the triathalon when I'm 83, when I'm 84, when I'm 85. Good equipment is very important.
The first time I did the event, I did the triathalon in an hour and 49 minutes, and the second time I beat that time by six minutes. My big incentive today is to beat myself. At my age, I don't get too much competition. Not many people my age are doing this event. This year I beat every mark that I did before, even in swimming: the 50 meter, 100 meter, the 200 meter, and in singles and doubles tennis.
How do you find training? Is it better for you to train alone, or with other people?
Oh, I've done it both ways, but I much prefer doing it with other people. In our bicycle group, for example, we have grown to about 50 people. Every other week or so one couple invites the rest of us over for brunch, then we bike together and have a great time.
Did you find it difficult to get in shape for competition?
Yes, first of all, you cannot start in competing right away. You've got to build yourself up for competition. I'm the enthusiastic type, and as my running coach told me, I could hurt myself by forcing too much. As a starter, you've got to do little by little, stage by stage, until you reach the level where you are able to compete. If you go too fast, you can hurt yourself, you can pull a muscle or have a problem with your hamstring. So you've got to do it intelligently, and get the right kind of advice.
Did you ever find that you did push yourself too much, or did you always follow your doctor's advice?
My doctor told me, "You are the kind of guy who will have to learn from experience." And it was true. I was too excited and I did get some muscle strain because I was too anxious to get ahead as fast as I could do. You've got to do it intelligently.
Was it difficult to get back in training after being laid up for awhile?
Definitely. You need a schedule, and when you get off your schedule, it takes some time to get back into it. Also, I'm not a morning-type person. Most people get up early and are in the swimming pool by 6:30, but I like to sleep late and then read the funny papers. So I've been able to incorporate this into my schedule and my way of life.
So you've found a nice balance, being able to get the discipline you needed without making it forced?
That's right. And it took about a year of training before I got any kind of confidence that I could compete. The word Olympics always kind of scared me. I thought everyone there would be these great athletes. But I wanted to try. And I found out they were pretty much like me. They weren't that far superior to my abilities. Of course, my biggest competitor is myself. I am always trying to beat my own marks.
I'm always talking Olympics to my friends, and sometimes I think I should use another term, because they feel they're not competent enough to do it too. They think they are too old. But I didn't start until after I was 70, and it's hard to convey my feelings to these people. If only you would try it! There is such a camaraderie with my competitors, I look forward to seeing them, and it's a friendship that is special. Everyone is friendly and helpful, they will give you advice to help you compete and maybe beat them. They are nice, nice people, and it's worthwhile just to get to know these people.
I know I'm not going to break any records in these events, but the experience-not only competing, but sharing the experience with others-has made me feel so much better, so much younger. I don't do anything I don't want to do, I enjoy it all. And I'm not looking to live longer. I'm looking to live better.
Do you think you discovered something in yourself you didn't know was there?
Well, let's see. What's the word I want? It's a challenge. And challenge always spells excitement. And if you have fun doing it, I tell you, there is no better way to retire.
What kind of advice would you give to seniors? Is it a matter of getting physical exercise or of getting into competition?
Feeling good physically is what is important. If competition is not your cup of tea, of course you don't want to get into it. Physical exercise is what is important. It's a matter of your mind and body. Your mind can be affected by your body.
This advice is for people of all ages: see a doctor, get advice, and stick to it. There was a time I weighed 170 lbs. and I'm 5 foot 6. I weigh 130 lbs. now. At that time, my cholesterol was close to 200. Now it's down to 151. And it is practically all due to my exercise. I'm not aware that I changed my diet that much, but I must have a little bit due to the incentive of the exercise, but I'm sure it was the exercise that made the difference.
What are the ages of the participants in the Senior Olympics?
Fifty and up. The largest group is between the ages of 60 and 70. You compete only with people within increments of 5 years. If you are 80, you compete with people between 80 and 85.
How many compete at that level?
Very few, very few. When I played tennis, I only had three competitors. When I swam, it was also three competitors. For the triathalon, I was the only one.
I know that it was a very emotional time for our family (and your grandchildren) when we all watched you at the Senior Olympics in June of '96. Everyone receiving awards there was more than 10 years younger than you. They received their awards first, starting with the gold, silver and bronze medals, and when they announced your gold medal, there was a standing ovation. A very long, sustained standing ovation. Everyone else got polite applause for theirs. How did you feel?
The applause surprised me because I don't think in terms of age. I always think, "Hey, I'm like these other guys. I'm no different." But what pleased me the most was seeing my family, my kids and my grandkids, and their wives. I could see they were proud of the old man. In fact, my grandson always called me Poppi or Grandfather, but now he calls me Mike. He puts me in the same category as himself. I find that a supreme compliment, coming from a teenager.
That's for sure! So you were surprised by the standing ovation?
I sure was. I was amazed at the length of applause. It didn't stop until I got off the stage.
It's really inspiring for people to see someone willing to make the effort.
That's what I got out of it. Some of my competitors came and told me, "Hey, maybe I could do the triathalon when I'm your age." They look at me and they see that I don't seem that unusual.
You are not resting now, either. You plan to participate in the nationals?
Yes, in Tucson, Arizona, about 10,000 people will be competing in May of 1997, and I look forward to that, meeting people from all over the country there.
What have you learned from competing in the Senior Olympics?
If I could pick one word, it would be "exciting." You've got to find something that excites you. After you play bridge for awhile, it might not do that. If you can plan ahead to do something that excites you, it will make you years and years younger. I've enjoyed it so much. I advise all those couch potatoes out there to change their lifestyle. It doesn't have to be the Olympics-just get out there and meet people and find something fun to do.
When I interviewed my father for Seeds more than 12 years ago, he was four years into his life as a "Senior Olympian." He had already made his mark on the track and in the pool not only as the oldest competitor, but as one of the most game. This was only the start of what turned out to be a 15-year adventure of preparing for and participating in these events.
In 1997, I joined Mike in Tucson, Arizona where he participated in the National Senior Olympics. Ten thousand of the country's top senior athletes converged in the desert to compete and have a good time. Mike signed up for the triathlon, joining only 76 others who stepped up to take on the most challenging event offered. The race began at 6:00 am due to the heat. After only a few hours of sleep and a bottle of Jolt, Mike got a fast start and never looked back. Contrary to his statement in the interview before the competition that he wouldn't be breaking any records, he smashed the national record by over 20 minutes in the 80-84 year old age group. He also beat 25 contestants younger than himself! He attributed this feat to being at the peak of his biorhythm.
His career as a senior athlete extended to almost yearly regional appearances at the re-named Senior Games. He also made a journey to Utah at 91 to participate in the World Games. His balance had since abandoned him, making bike riding impossible, so very reluctantly he gave up the triathlon. However, his passion for tennis grew more every year and provided an ever-expanding place in which to channel his enthusiasm, hone his skills and make new friends-which he always did! When neither I nor my brother was available to play with him, he would hike a mile and a half to a tennis court with a racquet and a bag full of balls. If there was nobody there to play with, he would practice hitting the balls for hours. He often found a kind soul to drive him home afterwards, often after getting lost.
At 93, he tore his hamstring two-thirds through the 200 meter dash and slumped to the ground in pain. Seeing that he was almost at the end, however, he picked himself up and dragged himself to the finish line as the onlookers jumped to their feet and cheered him on. He was back at the Games in 2008, at 94, and with his granddaughter at his side as his trainer, Mike breezed through the 100 and 200 meter dashes. He wanted to then run over to the pool to compete in the 100 meter freestyle, but we held him back. Mike had developed aortic valve stenosis over the last few years that restricted the blood flowing from the heart. The cardiologist had warned that at any time, especially while exercising, the valve would close up and his heart would stop beating. Although we had adopted Mike's "if I die, I die" attitude towards his ongoing exploits, we weren't going to push it.
A month after that competition, when Mike and his wife Hermine of 69 years were finishing a walk on a beautiful summer afternoon, he had a heart attack and died instantly. He had been enthusiastically planning his next big "event" in October, the celebration of his 95th birthday.
Over the years, Mike had become a kind of rock star at the Senior Games, on the tennis courts and where he lived. People always approached him, thanking him for being such an inspiration to them. He represented an alternative to old age that was fun and energetic and displayed an attitude that had no giving up in it. He never used old age as an excuse to slow down, even after dementia had become part of the equation. He was, and will continue to be, a bright example how to approach life as an exciting challenge until the very end.
Ron Fishman, 2008
1. Originally published in Seeds of Unfolding, Vol. XIV, No.1, 1997.