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They're game for playing

Competitive sports give 50- and 60-something participants a boost — along with aches, pains

“You have to be fit to play,’’ said Janet Pletcher (background, with fellow 60-something tennis player Sally Kuhn). “You have to be fit to play,’’ said Janet Pletcher (background, with fellow 60-something tennis player Sally Kuhn). (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Mindy Pollack-Fusi
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2011

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Neither stitches, a dislocated finger, nor chronic back problems has stopped Bob Fierman, 61, from playing organized basketball twice a week for years in the over-50 league at the Newton Jewish Community Center.

Jim Kaloyanides, also 61, has suffered a torn rotator cuff, torn Achilles, and endless pulled muscles while playing for more that two decades in the New England Over the Hill soccer league. In spite of it all, he said he’s still competitive and loves to win — “but it’s more about playing as hard as you can and having a really good time.’’

Jill Hitschler and Sally Kuhn, both 68, won the United States Tennis Association 2009 Nationals 3.0 Senior Ladies 50-plus players tournament. Now they compete weekly against women of all ages in the North Shore Tennis League.

These folks are among the hordes of fit seniors staying active not only by walking, biking, and weightlifting but by pursuing organized sports to keep competitive, fit, social, and even relaxed. Some played when younger. Others took it up after coaching or watching their children.

“Our 50-plus players are a whole different player than they were in the last 15 years,’’ said Heather Anastos, director of competitive tennis for the United States Tennis Association. “They’re fit, they’re active, and they start to look better. Physical fitness is a key factor. And the camaraderie is great — when people are happy and they’re social, it really makes a difference to their disposition.’’

Despite the injuries they may sustain, they play on.

“You can’t play this long and not have some injuries,’’ said Fierman, a Cambridge attorney. “When I hit 40, I thought, ‘Let me keep playing to 45.’ Then I said, ‘Thank you, God,’ and hoped I’d play until 50. Then I hit 55. It’s crazy — I’ve been playing longer than I ever thought I would. There are guys in our leagues who’ve played college ball and some who’ve probably never played. Age is a great equalizer. When you’re older and slower, you can all compete together.’’

Kaloyanides, who plays on Medford’s over-58 soccer team, was out for half of the season with an injury one year, but as soon as he healed he was back in the game.

“It’s great exercise and great camaraderie, and it’s definitely stress release,’’ said Kaloyanides, who recently stepped down as president of New England Coffee Co.

Alec Goodman, 55, who played high school and college soccer, hadn’t played for more than 25 years before he joined the Lexington Golden Eagles.

“It’s taken a while to get it back,’’ he said. “I’m starting to get the feel of the feet, but I’m a little frustrated. Things I used to be able to do — there’s the age factor in not doing it for so long.’’ In fact, he’s already been sidelined this season with tendinitis.

His teammate Ralph Gants, 56, a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice, has been playing for several years.

“The first year’s pretty ugly,’’ Gants said. “I managed to tear both hamstrings and pulled a calf muscle, but everything’s been twisted and pulled and stretched out now. Most everyone who’s been injured comes back, even the folks who say they won’t.’’

Saeed Pirooz, another teammate, said it’s a misconception that people have to give up team sports when they hit middle age.

“All the myths about being over the hill — games are challenging, you’re out there huffing and puffing — but your body can do it,’’ said Pirooz, 51.

Hitschler and Kuhn, along with Janet Pletcher, 65, and Janis Manning, 60, call themselves “The Geezers’’ because they’re the oldest members of their doubles team at Bass River Tennis Club in Beverly.

“You have to be fit to play,’’ Pletcher said. “Unless you’re fit, you’re going to hurt yourself.’’

Their coach, Mike LaPierre, said the older players listen to their bodies, icing when needed and practicing injury prevention. And they play intelligently, he said, relying “more on court smarts, their experience — when to be aggressive and when to play defense.’’

The Bass River team is part of a 12-club network that includes leagues for men’s and mixed doubles’ teams, in a range of levels. While not specifically for the over-50 set, many players are.

“Win or lose, we have so much fun,’’ Manning said. “It keeps me physically and mentally active.’’

Steve Huberman, a 54-year-old member of the Lexington Golden Eagles, said soccer does this, too.

“When you’re playing, nothing exists in the world but the game you’re playing — your mind is free, Zen-like,’’ he said. Then he laughed, adding that his wife didn’t find it Zen-like after he broke one ankle and then the other.

“But I’m back,’’ he said, “and I feel stronger than before.’’

Mindy Pollack-Fusi can be reached at Mindy@theplaceforwords.com.

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