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Age No Deterrent For Retired Doctor Turned Triathlete

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Dr. Margaret Phillips-Steinam participated in her first triathlon as a senior athlete at age 60. Photo: Stacey Williams
Dr. Margaret Phillips-Steinam participated in her first triathlon at age 60. Photo: Stacey Williams

Retired internist Dr. Margaret Phillips-Steinam participated in her first triathlon as a senior athlete at age 60, and that was over 25 years ago. Now nearly 86, Dr. Phillips-Steinam (called “Speed” by her closest friends, and “Grandma Sproutie” by the youngsters in her life) is training for her 28th triathlon, the Trek Womens Triathlon Series in Pleasant Prairie, Wisc., which will take place on July 12, 2009. The race includes a half-mile open-water swim, 12-mile bike race and 3.1-mile run to the finish. After that, Grandma Sproutie will squeeze in one more triathlon event before the close of her season in September.

Last year, Dr. Phillips-Steinam wrote to the organizers of the Danskin Women’s Triathlon, a favorite event for her, requesting that they add another age group: over 80. (The event currently rounds out its age groups with the all encompassing “over 70.”) In her letter, she noted that she would sooon be 90 years of age, and it was “hardly fair that I should be competing with athletes 20 years my junior.” The organizers agreed, and in 2008, Dr. Phillips-Steinam (admittedly, having no rivals) was the resounding winner of the first-ever “Over 80” age group competition.

Born in 1923, Dr. Phillips-Steinam is a gold medalist for triathlon, which she won at the National Senior Olympic Games in Orlando, Florida in 1999, when she was 76 years old (the age of eligibility is 50). On the Senior Olympic experience: “It is so nice to be around a bunch of old people who are not talking about their next doctor’s appointment.”

Dr. Phillips-Steinam says that she loves triathlon because it is a sport that demands total commitment. “On many a cool inclement evening I have felt that I wouldn’t really want to go out and run,” she says. “But with a goal in mind, you leave yourself no choice.” Her weekly training regimen includes six days of one hour of aerobic exercise, three days of muscle-building activity, and two music-throbbing spin classes. She plans to start complementing it all with yoga, an activity she enjoyed in the 1970s and wishes to rediscover.

In a 2002 essay on the subject of athleticism, Dr. Phillips-Steinam wrote, “At age 79, I have not yet realized my full athletic potential,” and indeed she was right. This year she claims to be a better runner and more confident swimmer than ever before, despite her advanced age. When asked about her finishing times, “Speed” waves a casual hand. “I don’t really pay attention to my finishing times,” she says ruefully. “I do everything in slow motion. I’m always dead last.” But she always finishes, no matter what. Even when the race is over, and the organizers are packing up the equipment, and shutting down the timers. On one such occasion, she found herself alone and unsure how to return to the finish line, so she followed another cyclist, a young man. “Eventually I figured out that his bicycle had a basket full of groceries on it, and he turned into his own driveway.” But even then, she managed to finish the race by patiently asking for directions in a local quick-mart.