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George RiserMythbuster: GEORGE RISER

Educator and athlete

Date of interview: June 2012

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George Riser's been 'into' sports and healthy living since he was a kid, growing up in Ashtabula County, Ohio. On a sweltering June day -mere weeks away from opening day of Ohio's 33rd Senior Olympics - he shared his love of sports (and his take on what real 'winning' is), his passion for promoting healthy living (and how he lives that passion), and his thoughts on what it takes to age successfully.

mythbusters Senior Games Cleveland

When and were you born and raised, and where are you in the sibling line-up?

I was born in April of 1924 and lived in Ashtabula (County) Ohio. There were five children. I have two sisters: one older and one younger than I. And I have two brothers, one older and one younger.

During the Depression my mother divorced soon after her last child was born. She could not support us, so she put me in a children's home. I stayed there until seventh grade, then was placed in a home in Geneva, Ohio, and I was there for three years. Then I left there and went to Williamsfield Township [in southeast Ashtabula County] and stayed with a family there, on their farm. That's where I finished school.

In high school, what were you good at and not so good at – both sports-wise and book-wise?

Sports-wise I played baseball, track and field and basketball. Academically, I was just an average student, with great interest in math and science.

I graduated in May, 1942, with a class of 24 students, and in the Fall of 1942, I enrolled at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

I completed one semester of college and then enlisted in the United States Navy. I spent 26 months overseas in the South Pacific with the Navy SeaBees. We were attached to the Third Marine Division, 22nd Marine Regiment, serving duty on the islands of New Caledonia, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam and Tinian.

The armed services had many amateur athletic teams. With your skills, were you on any service teams?

No. There was never the opportunity to do that.

You'd started college in 1942, but that was interrupted by World War II. When and where did you finish? And what did you major in?

When I came back from overseas in 1945, I went back to Ohio University. I had a full athletic scholarship - in track and field and basketball - and I had the GI Bill, too. I graduated in 1949 with a degree in health and physical education, and a minor in biological science, and that's what I taught, though my last four years were mostly in administration. I received my Master of Arts Degree in 1979, from Kent State University.

I taught and coached at seven high schools, with nine years at Painesville Riverside High School and ten years at Cleveland Heights High School.

You taught - and were an award-winning football and track and field coach - for 34 years. And you've been Ohio Coach of the Year - twice. So the question is: Over the years, what's the most important thing you learned about teaching and coaching sports?

That the teacher is the ultimate agent of education. Under his guidance, pupils learn how to meet the problems of life realistically and resourcefully and perfect isolated physical skills for a public display, such as in track and field, baseball, football, basketball and so forth.

Today, the teacher-coach must not only acquaint a student with the three "R's," but also prepare him for family life, healthy living, a vocation, social and civic responsibilities, worthy use of leisure time, and the highest degree of ethical conduct.

One of my favorite quotes is 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'

When did you start competing in senior athletics? And what got you started?

I'm 88, and I've been competing for about 20 years, so it must have been when I was 68, around the time I retired.

A couple of friends were already participating in senior events and the Senior Olympics, and they told me about the Senior Olympics and suggested that I try it, too.

You've had both spine and neck surgery. How have you modified your workouts and participation in sports due to these surgeries? Or have you?

In some ways I have modified things, and that is due to what I learned from the doctors I had and the rehabilitation - the therapy, the weight training, etc. - I did.

I was very sensible in rehabilitation. I never rushed. I never reinjured myself. I learned how to do things - work out, conditioning exercises - the right way. And when I healed they said it was OK to start competitive activities and events again.

There is still some pain when I'm working out and when I'm participating in an event, but I know how to manage and control it. And I'm careful, too: I get a physical every year and they check my spine and neck, along with everything else.

The Ohio Senior Games is in Cleveland this year. What are the events you'll be competing in?

I'm competing in shot-put and discus, hammer throw, and the 1500 and 3000 meter race walk, which replaces the sprints I can't do any more because I injured my thigh.

These are all individual events.

What are you doing right now to get in shape for - to psych yourself up for - the Ohio Senior Games?

I have a very strict workout program. I work out an-hour-and-a-half a day, six days a week. Usually, I rest on Sunday, but not always. And the day before an event, I don't work out, just stretch and relax.

For the field events [shot put, discus throw, hammer throw], I work out in the basement with weights every other day. On alternate days I go to the fitness center at Legacy Village and work on cardio fitness - using a treadmill. On the indoor track I race walk, and I time myself, too, to make sure that I'm walking fast enough.

I'm working on my technique, too, for each sport requires different skills and techniques.

Where do you get education and information about technique?

I'm always learning. I learned a lot in college. And all those years I was teaching and coaching I attended hundreds of workshops and programs on technique. And I pick things up at meets, too. Sometimes people come up and suggest something. Or I'll see how someone is doing something. And my niece, out in California, is a champion race walker and is always sending me information and materials on race walking.

I'm a member of the Over the Hill Track Club, and many members of the club are former coaches. Some people come to me for help with discus or shot putt, and I'll go to someone in the club for help with hammer throw or race walking. People are always helping each other.

[Laughs] There are lots of ways to get information to improve technique.

A lot of people think competing in sports and meets is 'all about the win.' What do you think? In other words, why are you involved in competitive sports?

I'm involved in senior athletics for two reasons. One is for my own personal health and fitness. The other is to promote good health for everyone, not just older adults. And I'm participating in organized senior activities and programs so that the [senior athletics] movement stays strong and we can have competitions and meets on a regular basis.

So for me, that [winning] is not it at all. If I never participated in another state or national competition, I'd still be doing what I'm doing.

You have a long-time reputation for promoting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle in the senior community. What got you started doing that?

I was teaching health classes up until my last couple of years of teaching, so it wasn't something new for me to do. But what got me started [doing programs at local community and senior centers] was looking at the national health data on seniors, and the life-time effects of smoking and drinking. Those two things are the biggest causes of death for older adults: together they can take 25 years off your expected life. So, as someone who'd always been teaching about this, it just seemed like what I should do.

Diet plays a key role in a healthy lifestyle. What's your definition of a healthy diet?

Watching what you eat is key to maintaining good health. Our [his and wife Joanne's] diet is based on vegetables and fruit - fresh produce - and protein, but not red meat... [laughs] though I do admit that we go down to Slyman's and get a corned beef sandwich once or twice a year.

Portion sizes are important, too. And so is getting enough calories. Right now, I'm a bit worried about my weight: I don't weight enough because I'm burning more calories in training work-outs than I'm taking in.

Drinking enough liquids - especially water - is important, too. I aim for eight 8-ounce glasses a day, especially in this kind of weather.

MythBusters is about aging well, positive aging, successful aging. But that means different thing to different people. At 88, what's your definition of successful aging?

It's being regular in eating, regular in the body's functions, and getting regular activity. And sleep is part of that kind of regularity. You need to have a regular sleep schedule and get at least 7 hours of sleep a night.

And one other thing, too: It means staying up - staying current - on health issues. I subscribe to four health publications, and I've got my own health library, too, in my basement gym.

What did I not ask that I should have?

We talked about competitions, and how they can help promote health, but we didn't talk much about the programs that people can be engaged with to promote their own health. There are lots of places - senior centers, local gyms, clubs and groups - where people can do the kinds of exercises and activities that promote cardiovascular health and physical fitness.

And we didn't talk about how joining groups can get you motivated to exercise...and maybe go out for an event, too. I'm all for joining groups or clubs. You can't beat working out with a companion for motivating you. It puts responsibility on you to 'do it,' and that's the best kind of motivation.

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