Athletes Prove They've Still Got Game ... Well Into Their 70s

Published: August 21, 2017 at 12:00 am


Professional athletes are generally in their prime before they reach 30 years old, and most retire well before 40. But many who use sports as a way to stay healthy and keep busy continue hitting returns on the tennis court, sinking shots on the basketball court, and throwing pitches well into their 70s. Several of these never-quit athletes are from Newtown. They prove that, even after years of wear and tear, surgeries, hip and knee replacements, and heart attacks, for that matter, there is just no slowing some people down.

"When we're ready to go, there will be nothing left," said 75-year-old Larry Haskel, an avid athlete who plays basketball, tennis, pickleball, and softball. "It's incredible. I think you live longer - although things happen."

A lot has happened to Mr Haskel throughout the years: Hip replacement, back surgery - "I'm almost bionic," he noted proudly - bouncing back from one known heart attack, what doctors believe was a second heart attack, and triple bypass surgery. "You just keep playing."

"Everybody can run now; they have new knees. Everybody can hit the ball hard; they've got new shoulders," said Diana Johnson, an avid tennis player from town who has had a few meniscus procedures throughout the years, and who will turn 77 on August 23.

Senior athletes point out that there is a lot, medically, that can be done to get athletes of virtually any age back out on the playing fields and courts.

"If they can do it, I have had it done," Mr Haskel added light-heartedly. "My philosophy is when your time comes, your time comes."

Mr Haskel and his wife Sonja, also 75, who plays tennis, pickleball, golf, and swims, spend the warmer months in Newtown and go to The Villages, an active adult retirement community in Florida, during the winter. Mr Haskel plays softball twice a week while in Florida, and is an avid basketball, tennis, and pickleball player year round. He plays basketball at NYA Sports & Fitness with younger athletes, most of whom are only half his age.

"They're very tolerant," Mr Haskel, who has been active all his life and played basketball in town since the early 1980s, said of the other basketball players, adding that he is not a particularly good player, but enjoys putting his best foot forward court. "I try very hard and run up and down and do the best I can."

The Haskels have proved to be very good athletes overall. They won gold medals in tennis doubles during the Connecticut Masters Games a handful of times, thus qualifying for the National Senior Games each time.

"If I don't walk three to four miles, I'm playing tennis; and if I'm not playing tennis, I'm playing pickleball," said Ms Haskel, who has had two partial knee replacements - but noted that she and her husband play an average of two sports every day. "It's just fun. It's healthy, of course. It's fun and it's lots of laughs."

"I like keeping busy and I like the competition. I would not want to be without it." Mr Haskel added. "The competition is good for us."

Larry Haskel has lived in town for more than three decades, and Sonja is a four-decade resident of Newtown. She had played tennis for about 40 years and picked up pickleball a dozen years ago. Organized sports were not offered for girls when Ms Haskel was in school, so she is a self-taught tennis player.

Ms Johnson picked up tennis after her third child was born, when she was in her 30s.

"So many people were starting to play tennis then," Ms Johnson remembers.

A recreational player exclusively at the time, Ms Johnson eventually became competitive after she joined a tennis club in Danbury. The idea of attempting to defeat a friend on the other side of the net was not something that came naturally for Ms Johnson - "It took me a long time to be competitive," she said - but Ms Johnson started to enjoy the benefits of what came along with working hard to try to win.

"It's healthy. It creates endorphins so you feel better when you walk off the court," she said.

Ms Johnson added that the benefits of playing tennis range from the social aspect to the sense of satisfaction in pulling through during a close match, as well as exercise, regardless of match outcome.

"I love it. I always look forward to it. Even playing terribly is better than not playing at all," said Ms Johnson said, a 40-plus year Newtown resident, who is married to Wayland, and who has been involved in town activities throughout the years, including serving as co-chair of the Christmas Tree Committee.

Ms Johnson is among a group of tennis players who keep at it year-round, playing at the indoor Middlebury Racquet Club in the winter. These athletes also compete on the courts throughout town, including the pickleball court at Treadwell Park, and at other courts in surrounding towns.

Irv "The Curve"

Irv "The Curve" Barlia's nickname tells part of the story. He is a pitcher with a very sharp curve ball.
The shirt he wore during a recent warmup at the Newtown High School field pretty much sums up the rest. On of front of the shirt, above an image of a bat and ball, is the catchphrase "You're never too old to play the game." The back of the shirt promotes the Legends of Baseball tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y.

This particular shirt is from 2007, when Mr Barlia, a lefty, first got involved with the annual event. Mr Barlia has participated in 30-and-older Legends of Baseball tourneys in Cooperstown several times in the last decade.

He is 76 and is considering pitching, or at least playing in, the annual Cooperstown tourney again this September.

Mr Barlia grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., and was a standout baseball player at Taft High School, where he threw a no-hitter. He injured himself playing stickball, preventing a possible collegiate career on the diamonds, and he did not pick up a bat or glove again for another 40-plus years.

Having starting playing tennis and later living in Fairfield, Mr Barlia was 62 when he was hitting tennis balls off the Fairfield High School building. A men's baseball league player invited him to the field to join in their practice. Mr Barlia was interested, but was not sure he could play. After giving it some thought, Mr Barlia decided to give it a go.

His return to the mound did not initially go well.

"I couldn't reach home plate. I hadn't thrown a ball in over 40 years," Mr Barlia recalled.

He played a little first base and other positions. Mr Barlia's unknown injury (he never had it looked at) seemed to have healed but the arm strength for pitching was gone. This motivated him to work hard in the winter months, and Mr Barlia came back strong. He even racked up some strikeouts against his younger opponents.

"When I played locally, I was the oldest player in all the towns and I could still play," said Mr Barlia, who competed in men's baseball leagues for more than a decade, until two years ago. "They couldn't believe I could get on the mound and still throw strikes.

"Maybe because I hadn't pitched in 42 years I had a lot left," he added.

During the past decade or so he signed up for tournaments and traveled to Arizona an Florida to play competitive ball. Mr Barlia, who has lived in Newtown for a year, still has the itch to pitch. "I like getting on the mound. It's just a nice feeling," Barlia said.

Although Mr Barlia does not throw as hard as the younger players in the men's league, the "old geezer" as he referred to himself, does have a little zip on his pitches, and can use his curve ball to keep batters guessing. "A curve ball throws guys off," he noted.

Mr Barlia warms up by first throwing a lacrosse ball off a wall from a short distance, then backing up, gradually, until he is ready to throw a strike from 60 feet away.

Gary Stoller, a longtime youth coach in town, met Mr Barlia through a mutual friend and has helped find catchers to work with Irv "The Curve," and even caught for the 76-year-old himself, to help prepare him for a possible return to Cooperstown.

"Irv can still throw hard and mix in some curve balls, and has excellent control. His control is astonishing for his age. He has much better accuracy than some of my pitchers on my teenage summer travel teams. For his age, I consider him a marvel, a craftsman on the mound who doesn't want to let go of the baseball diamond. It brings out the kid in him again," Mr Stoller said.

The one thing possibly holding Mr Barlia back is not his pitching abilities, but the potential to not be able to get out of the way of a line drive off the bat of a significantly younger player. The Cooperstown tourney is for participants 30 and older, but relatives of those who sign up, as long as they are over the age of 18, are permitted to play. He may sign up to play in Cooperstown again and play a position in the field, but anticipates jumping to an opportunity to pitch in relief if he is needed.

"I'm sure I can still pitch," Mr Barlia said.

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