As you know, I’m always on the side of the late bloomer, so I got curious about people who had done something extraordinary at older ages. We talked to three women who did just that…
Where: Owasso, Oklahoma
What: Got a Ph.D. at age 51
“I’ve always loved academia — I feel like it stretches me. When I was growing up, my aunt Geraldine had a doctorate and started a charter school. She went to sit-ins and was always picking apart societal norms. I connected with her more than anyone else in my family. So, I decided to start on my doctoral degree once my son left for college. I’m now getting my Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, because I know I have something to offer in leading people and helping make big decisions. There are major ways education needs to change, including being more inclusive of people with different backgrounds. There’s a lot of movement in that, but I want to make sure it gets done. For example, I never learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre in school, but students are starting to learn more about their own histories now. I’ve had this yearning to sit at the table where decisions are made that affect students of color. I want my students to know that I see them and that whenever they have an interaction with me that it meant something, that if we’re both human beings on this earth, living in the same moment in time, then we both deserve each other’s respect.
“Right before I presented my thesis, people were telling me, ‘Once you get to the point of presenting, it’s easy.’ But I wanted to blow their socks off! Black people have been taught you have to do twice as much to be considered half as good, so I knew I couldn’t do it half-heartedly. I’d done the work and the research, and my voice was shaking a little bit at the beginning, but I still did it. Afterward, they said it was one of the best presentations they’d ever seen. It made me think of my first day of class. I was trying to be on time, and I was out of breath from climbing the stairs, and I couldn’t find the right room. I kept telling myself, ‘Can you even find the classroom? What are you doing? What are you DOING??’ Then I finally said, ‘I don’t care if I feel crazy as all get out, I’m gonna keep going.’ Be scared, but do it while you’re scared!”
Where: Arvada, Colorado
What: Became a professional triathlete at age 60
“When I was 55, I realized I’d lost a spark. I wasn’t athletic at all and wanted to change my life. One day, I met a fellow speech therapist named Mark; we struck up a conversation, and before long I learned that he had won Iron Man Hawaii in his age group. I didn’t even know how to swim or gear a bike, but Mark and I started going on bike rides together. He introduced me to all his triathlete friends and that was the beginning of risk-taking for me. In my head, I had an excuse for not wanting to do something, but I just did everything. I had to learn how to run, which is just walking 100 steps and then jogging 100 steps. I joined a women’s triathlete group, and even though I was among the oldest in the group, it was so much fun. I was anxious, but I was no longer watching someone else play. I had a group of women I would swim with, and after practice we’d go eat Mexican food, with our wet hair slicked back. At age 60, I competed in my first triathlon, in Silverthorne, Colorado, up in the mountains. I didn’t want Mark to come watch me because I wanted to do it on my own. I won my age group — and even beat someone who had the reputation of winning in the thin air of the mountains. I was hooked. One morning I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to drive to a competition, and I rolled down the windows and cranked up the music and thought, ‘This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. It’s just for me.’ I had been taking care of people all my life, but now I wasn’t on the sidelines anymore. From ages 60 to 70, I competed as a professional triathlete, and I’ve never been happier. It was like I had a secret inside me the whole time. I suffered a stroke a few years ago, so I can’t do what I once did, but I bought a recumbent bike and go up the mountain roads near my house. I can still be free, and that’s what it’s all about — the feeling of being free.”
Where: Columbus, Ohio
What: Joined the Peace Corps at age 58
“When my husband and I graduated from college in the 1970s, we applied to the Peace Corps. We ended up being sent to the Bahamas for two years. After that, we returned home. Mike worked as an advisor for small businesses and I was a dental hygienist. We had kids and work and a normal life. But after our kids grew up, we looked around and said, ‘We don’t need this big house anymore. What’s out there in the world?’ The Peace Corps doesn’t have an age limit for serving, so at age 58, after my husband retired, we decided to go for it again. We were placed in Swaziland (Eswatini), Africa, and after three months of training they determined where we’d be the best fit. We served at a locally-run HIV orphanage on a working dairy farm, teaching and tutoring. I also launched an income-generating project for some rural women who had connections to the orphanage. We would go back to America on our vacation days and visit our grandbabies and kids. After four years in Africa, we came back to the U.S., and I became the Peace Corps recruiter at Ohio State University for three years. In the meantime, we still went back and forth to Swaziland to volunteer, this time on our own. Since 2018, we’ve gone back twice a year, every year. We both just got both our vaccines and booked our tickets back! If I could give anyone advice, I’d say, listen to your heart. You can do way more than you think you can.”
Thank you to those who shared their stories with us. What’s something you’ve accomplished that’s made you proud?