I will never grow old. That’s what I told myself. That’s what we all tell ourselves when we are young and limber and our bruises heal quickly. We jump over fences, dive into piles of leaves and bounce down steps on our rear ends, thump, thump, thump. In those early years, old age is like some dark stranger on a faraway street corner. Why worry about him? By the time our years add up, the world will have invented a pill to make him go away, right? Let’s have fun. Let’s spin until we’re dizzy. Let’s run and sweat. We will never grow old.

This is what we tell ourselves. And then the years pass. And here I was Tuesday afternoon, standing in a gymnasium full of grandfathers and grandmothers. They, too, were once children, convinced they would never age. But they had. They were in wheelchairs now. Some were paralyzed on one side and some were hard of hearing. Some did not even seem to notice when the lady on the microphone said, “OK, we’re going to start our relay races now!”

But they were here, nearly 100 senior citizens, from 17 nursing homes around the state. They had come to be kids again, for one day. This was the International Health Care Management Senior Olympics, an annual affair in which elderly participants square off in friendly competition: a baseball hit, a 50-foot wheelchair dash, a hockey shot, a football pass, and a team relay event. I was there to give out the medals.

“Show him how you hit, Minnie!” a volunteer said to a lovely, thin woman in a wheelchair.

“What?” she said, looking startled.

“Show him how you hit! The baseball, Minnie! Show him how you hit the baseball!”

They put a plastic bat in Minnie’s hands. They rolled her to a plastic tee, about three feet tall. From her wheelchair, she wiggled the bat slowly. She took aim. And she swung. She watched the green Nerf ball come off the tee and roll about 10 feet.

“Very good, Minnie!”

“Excellent, Minnie!”

She smiled and wiggled the bat again. There’s a youngster in there

Once, when I was a child and my grandmother was still alive, my brother and I were playing catch on the front lawn. And she came out to tell us dinner was ready. She was always telling us dinner was ready, and when we asked what it was, she would say “Achamachanepasnacha,” which didn’t mean a thing, as far as anyone knew. But we giggled and thought it was a great mystery. Anyhow, the

ball happened to roll to her feet. And she picked it up.

“Throw it!” we squealed. And she wound up and threw it and it landed smack in my glove. And I remember being so shocked that she could throw. My grandmother? “Don’t be so surprised,” she said, going back in the house. It was the first time I realized that inside every old person is a young person who has done it all.

Now, years later, I was reminded of this again. Here were old people hitting Nerf baseballs and hitting plastic golf balls into a Velcro wall and rolling their wheelchairs 50 feet to see who could go fastest.

How many of them once did these things without ever thinking it would one day be a strain? How many now spend their days in all too-quiet rooms with the TV droning and nobody calling? Once a year, a chance to play. No wonder that when I slipped the medals over their heads, they smiled and posed for photos and sucked in the applause.

“Congratulations,” I said to Charles Malin, 81, who had won the gold medal for rolling his wheelchair 50 feet in just over 10 seconds.

“Well,” he said, wiggling his feet, “I could have gone faster if I wasn’t wearing my slippers.”

I asked how he got so fast. He nodded towards a white- haired woman in a wheelchair a few feet away. “Chasing Amanda,” he said.

Amanda smiled.

“Sometimes,” Charles said, leaning in and grinning, “she lets me tie her robe in the back.” Old age allows no exceptions

All right. So I guess you ask what all this has to do with sports? And I’m not sure. Except that this will get every one of us one day, old age. It will get Jose Canseco and Darryl Strawberry and Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. It will get sports writers and radio announcers and all the TV sportscasters that seem so dipped in youth today. Too many times, the young and healthy look at the old and sick and feel pity, but no link. Hey. We might be in those wheelchairs one day — we, who would never grow old — trying to throw a Nerf football 20 feet.

When it happens, if it happens, we can only hope that we look at things the way James Beaver looks at things. He is 70 years old and not long ago he retired from his job as a car- choke manufacturer. He was all set to enjoy the rest of his life, and then he suffered a stroke that robbed him of half his body, including the use of his right hand. And he is right- handed.

So on Tuesday, James Beaver took a plastic bat in his left hand and won the gold medal in the baseball hit.

“You do what you can,” he said, touching the medal around his neck.

Earlier Tuesday morning, the International Olympic Committee chose Atlanta as the site of the 1996 Summer Games. And thousands of young, limber athletes suddenly have a city in mind. Message to them: Make the most of the experience. Savor every minute. None of you will ever get old, I know, but that’s what we all say.

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