This article originally posted on Better After 50.
I had a big surprise the other week on the tennis court that has turned out to be quite the gift. On a blizzard-y Boston morning, my partner Lea Anne and I agreed to brave the weather and show up to play our scheduled tennis match. Our willing competitors had a rough commute as well -- so when we all met court side, we were equally pumped to play, sheltered from the storm in our warm tennis bubble.
We politely introduced ourselves with no notice of anything alarmingly unusual. The partners had a pretty good age-spread, one was quite a bit older than the other, perhaps late 40s. Age is not necessarily a weakness in tennis as "seasoned" players can be tricky, skilled and fierce competitors. We warmed up and analyzed their weaknesses. Our analysis was on their game -- nothing else.
After the first set, one of our opponents asked for water and I happily agreed to walk her to a nearby fountain, which was not near our court. As we walked and talked she asked me if I worked -- I happily told her I published "Better After 50." She chuckled and said, "How about Better After 80?" "What?"... I said, as my gaze narrowed in on her. Indeed she was not a mid-lifer, she was clearly a decade or two older -- but almost three decades older? -- Impossible! We had quite the chat and when we returned to the court, my partner looked concerned (we'd been gone quite awhile). "Hey, are you ok? Are you ready to get back in and take this?" I told her that I had learned something on my walk to the fountain and I was NOT going to share it with her until after the match.
Needless to say, I was totally distracted during the next set. I was secretly routing for my opponent and was nervous to hit it fiercely her way. Her running, precision and focus fascinated me. She had become my new hero! After the match, we won (I'm not so proud of that), I shared the news with my partner who was totally amazed and appreciated that I had kept this quiet until we'd finished. We both fired questions at her about the secrets to aging and staying fit. I was thrilled when Mercy agreed to talk to me off-court for an interview.
Her story could be a road map for many of us to follow as we strategize about staying athletic and fit for decades to come. Here's what I learned from Mercy Wheeler about staying in the game so successfully for all these years.
Felice: Mercy, how do you stay in shape?
Mercy: I practice the 3 "W's": 1. Walk my dogs with my friend every day for one hour. I have a golden doodle and standard poodle and I walk them off leash. 2. Work at my tennis. I play four to five times a week. 3. Work in my garden and weed for three to four hours every day.
Felice: How long have you been a tennis player?
Mercy: My husband gave me a racquet on our honeymoon but I didn't start playing until after I had my three daughters. I was 30.
Felice: Do you have many friends your age to play with? Mercy: There aren't a lot of people to play with my age. Most have retired from playing or moved to Florida. I did however compete in something called "The Sectionals" this past November and played in the 80's group. It's an age-related tournament held in Florida and San Antonio. There were four of us sent from New England. My partner and I played the #1 team in the country and beat them!
Felice: What about injuries?
Mercy: I've had no major knee or hip issues. However, when I had a meniscus issue I chose not to have surgery at 78. I'm pretty disciplined so I just rehabbed it and it was fine.
Ok clearly, Mercy has great genes as well as an incredible attitude. There's so much to emulate so she and I created a "top" 17 list of how to stay in in the game of tennis for decades to come:
#1. Stay in shape
#2. Good nutrition -- Mercy never feels deprived. She eats everything she wants, but what she mostly wants is healthy food, and no sodas!
#3. No need to be a puritan as Mercy enjoys her glass of white wine.
#4. Stay active and busy -- Don't sit around!
#5. Competition is great for focus.
#6. Never stop learning and challenging yourself. Focus every month on something new. This month Mercy is working on her drop shot.
#7. Push yourself to not just learn, but to get better. It's easier to do this if you are on a team -- she loves her team.
#8. Sleep really well and stick to a sleeping regime. Mercy goes to bed at 9 p.m. and gets up at 6 a.m. She's tired by the end of the day as she's done a lot.
#9. Mercy has been married for 57 years (her husband is a night owl) but she sticks to her own sleeping schedule.
#10. Mercy doesn't like to take any pills. She only takes a pill for high blood pressure and rarely, very rarely does she take an Aleve.
#11. No vitamins -- no calcium -- just yogurt.
#12. Breakfast: 1 ½ cups of coffee in the morning -- yogurt, granola, blueberries, raspberries and fresh squeezed OJ.
#13. Lunch: She doesn't sit down for lunch, and she has a sweet tooth! Lunch is either a Butter Finger on the run or peanut butter crackers.
#14. She loves to cook a good meal at night and she does eat red meat!
#15. She loves to end her day with a cookie or two. (Tate chocolate chip cookies.)
#16. She's always weighed the same 120 pounds no matter what she eats. She was 5' 6 ¾" but she's shrunk so now she's 5'5."
#17. Her friends are the most important thing she's gotten out of tennis.
Mercy lights up when she talks about her team. "I play with my team and they won't let me quit. They are an amazing support and I just love the friendship and it means a lot to me. As a result I've got lots of younger friends." She has been playing at Longwood Cricket Club just outside of Boston since the mid-70s. The average age of most of her teammates is from 40 to 65. "This is what keeps me young."