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Judy FischlinMythbuster: Judy Fischlin

Educator and athlete

Date of interview: April 2012

Printable version

At 67, Judy Fischlin is the poster girl for active aging. In a late afternoon interview in her under-construction kitchen — "We keep waiting for them to be finished!" she says — the former physical education teacher talked about her passion for teaching, her passion for what she calls "vintage" softball, and why she thinks "we don't grow old by playing, we grow old when we stop playing."

When were you born, and where were you raised?

I was born January 20, 1945 in Washington, Pennsylvania, and I was raised in a little nearby town called West Alexander. It's right on the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

You are one of 7 kids, and grew up on a farm. Where are you in the sibling line-up, and what was it like growing up on a farm in the 1950s and 1960s?

I was the second oldest. There's an older brother, then two boys, then a sister and two brothers. We were like two families: the first four, then the last three. I did a lot of babysitting because there were 14 years between my youngest brother and I.

Listen to Judy Fischlin's radio spot: MP3

Growing up on the farm we grew our own vegetables and raised our own meat. My father and brothers hunted so we had deer and rabbit and pheasant. No turkey at Thanksgiving for us, we had pheasant and quail. [Laughs] Not under glass, but we had it.

It was a small farm and, of course, there were a lot of chores. We had sheep and dairy cattle: a small herd of 20. We had electric milkers, except when the electricity was out. Dad was one of the first farmers to put in a milking parlor, where you'd bring the cattle in, hook them up [to the milking machines] and the milk went right to the tank. But we started out using those five gallon cans and a cooler that we had to put them in. That cooler was also great for chilling watermelon. It got ice cold.

We [the kids] were involved in 4-H, the Grange, the Scouts. Most families at that time only had one car, so there was a lot of carpooling, before carpooling was the norm. When I stayed [at school] for Scouts, for ten cents I'd catch the Greyhound to ride home.

But we weren't that isolated. There were neighbors and we'd get together, form teams and take over one of the hay fields and play football or baseball. My dad, who played organized baseball in the communities around where we grew up, was always taking us out and playing pitch and catch with us. He was pretty encouraging, so I stuck with it.

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What were you good at and not so good at both sports-wise and book-wise at school?

I didn't care for English literature. I was always asking: "Why do I have to read this?"

I did play in the band, but as far as sports, girls were never given the opportunity to play. If you wanted to be "active," you were a cheerleader or a majorette. Sports-wise, gymnastics was my weak link.

When I got to college, I participated in everything imaginable because it was there. But we still didn't have teams at the school. Oh, there were teams, but not as organized as they are today. We'd play field hockey and then, when winter came, we'd play volley ball. Then, because most of us played basketball, too, we'd take down the volleyball net and play basketball.

We did do some "traveling," going to Fairmount, West Virginia, and California, Pennsylvania and Muskingum, Ohio, but for the most part, there weren't that many opportunities for college-level play [for women]. When we'd go, we'd drive to the college in two station wagons and we'd stay in college dorms, sometimes rooming with some of our competitors.

And, speaking of college, where did you go, and what were you planning on majoring in.

I went to West Liberty State College, which is now West Liberty University, in West Virginia, just north of Wheeling and Olgebay Park. I'd been a gym leader my junior and senior years and I'd pretty much decided I was going to major in physical education by my senior year in high school. And at that time, too, women's physical education was a wide open field due to the fact that we had women's physical education teachers and men's physical education teachers. And every school had to have a male and a female teacher. When I graduated in 1966, I could have had a job pretty much anywhere.

What brought you to Ohio in 1968? And what's kept you here?

I'd worked at a small school in Tioga Center, New York, which was an hour from everyplace an hour from Binghamton, an hour from Ithaca, an hour from Corning and I decided I wanted a change, so resigned my job and put out applications. My father was very upset about that.

I worked at a camp that summer, and one of the owners of the camp was a guidance counselor at [Cleveland] Heights High School. He told me to put in applications around Cleveland, and I did, and the one for South Euclid/Lyndhurst came through and I took it.

Some of the other people and campers were from the Cleveland area, so I didn't come in completely blind. And, once I came, I made sure that I was involved in other activities. I got involved with a women's sports organization that had field hockey groups that played and traveled to Michigan, to New York.

And, there was another group the Cleveland Women's Physical Education Association, made up of women physical education instructors and officials and they met every month and gave you different ideas about what they were doing in their buildings. This was a very cooperative and collaborative group.

Once I was here for a few years, I thought: Well, you can move on, but you'll lose everything you've built up here.

You've been a physical education teacher with a couple of years out to have kids since 1966. Over the years, what's the most important thing you learned about teaching athletics and sports?

The importance of some level of success...It's important that every child succeed at some physical activity. It's important for everyone to know that there is something that they can do, physically. They don't have to be the best, but they need to be able do it and to say: I can do this. And part of that is getting them to try it.

There's a whole new atmosphere in physical education. We aren't really teaching sports today, we are facilitating, giving students pointers, giving them the basics. So, over the years, I got away from teaching team sports as such because of the increase in recreation programs available: soccer, softball, things like that. I got to the point where we were doing basic skills, lead up activities. Then, if they wanted whatever their interest was they had the basic skills to do it, to participate.

Over the last few years of my teaching, I did a lot of creative activities juggling, balancing, launch boards, walking on stilts, things like that that gave them a variety of skills that they could succeed in.

You will be competing in the Ohio Senior Olympics this summer and the National Senior Games next summer both of which will be held in Cleveland. What's your sport, and when and how did you get interested in it?

I'll be playing softball, definitely! The team I'm on is a 65-and-over team, and it's probably the only 65-and-over team that goes to Ohio competitions.

But I'm not sure we'll be competing in the state games this year because we may be playing in Pittsburgh that same week, in a tournament that is also a qualifying tournament for the National Senior Games. So we'll definitely be in a tournament that will qualify us for the national games.

When and how did you get interested in senior-level competitive softball?

A few years back no, it was 2001 there was an ad in the [Lake County] News Herald that a gentleman was looking for women over 50 to form a softball team for the Ohio Senior Olympics.

I was 56 then, so gave him a call. And we formed a team and practiced against the Huff 'n Puffers, against a team out of Canton, and then went down to Columbus for the 2002 Ohio Senior Games.

When we saw the competition, a team out of the Cincinnati area that had won gold in the National Games, gold in the World Games, we knew we were in trouble. We got wiped off the field. But we qualified, and the next year over the Memorial Day weekend we went to the National Senior Games in Virginia Beach [Virginia].

Here we were, all these seniors, walking up and down the beach, and it was the kind of experience that really opened our eyes. Where had we been all this time?

From then, we have really grown. Now in Cleveland, there are three 50-plus teams, a 55-plus and a 60-plus team that are eligible to go to the state, and possibly national, games, and we are one of them.

What's the team's name?

We haven't decided on a name yet, but I believe we are going to be called the Tri-Stars, but we know we are playing in the 65-and-up category, and there will be 15 on the team. It's a real mix of people. I'm from the Cleveland area, some of the players are from the Canton area, some are from the Cincinnati area, some are from Michigan, and one is from Kentucky. And that's OK, because we have enough players from Ohio to qualify us as an Ohio team.

[Laughs] We are an older group...I'm 67. Our shortstop had hip replacement surgery in November, and is 76. She plays competitive badminton, too. She's taken gold at Nationals in that.

Why are you competing in softball, and not volleyball, which you've been playing competitively for over 40 years?

It conflicts with my softball.

You'll be participating in either the Ohio or the Pennsylvania Senior Olympics soon. What are you and probably the rest of the team doing right now to get in shape.

We are supposed to be throwing and going to batting cages. And I do try to do that a couple of times a week. And, there's a women's softball clinic coming up soon (April 21) and I'll be going to that.

And the Vintage Softball League will start playing in mid-May, so we'll be getting in some good practices. [Laughs] There will be enough softball out there to keep us in shape. And there are some tournaments in early July that we'll be going to, too. We'll keep busy, and at some of the tournaments we go to we may pick up other players.

Practicing is important, but what about working with weights or other training equipment?

Everyone is pretty much on their own for that. One of the coaches for the team has given us exercises that we should do. And information on what to do to eat healthy. But you know, a lot of the ladies on the team work out on their own. I go to Curves™ a couple of times a week. And I joined the Willoughby Senior Center when I turned 65, too. And I'll go over there sometimes. [Laughs] They are doing things there like chair exercises that I was doing for years with my students.

When you are getting ready to compete, do you modify your diet?

Not necessarily. When we are playing, there's Propel™ and Gatorade™ someone always brings it. And if we are out on the field all day playing a series of games someone will protein bars and crackers and peanut butter.

A lot of people think competing in sports and games and meets is "all about winning." What do you think? In other words, why are you involved in competitive sports and why will you be competing in the Ohio and the national senior games?

Winning is good, however, as long as you have done your best, it's not everything. If you have given your best, you have to accept that some people are just better than you are.

The competitiveness isn't just about the competition, it's showing people that you are still able to compete, regardless of what our age says. And it's also a wonderful way to stay connected and network. You go, year after year, and you experience so much and you see people you know and socialize when you get back [to the hotel]. That's one of the reasons we have such a good time.

You're 67, and retired last year, and definitely aging successfully. But that means different thing to different people. What's your definition of successful aging?

It's being active and not sitting around and wallowing in the fact that you are "old." And that's means you have to get out. You have to socialize and network with people and stay connected. I have my Girl Scout group: I'm a trainer and facilitator for scouting. I have my bowling group. I have my softball group. I have a group of teachers that I taught with in South Euclid when I first came to Ohio and we still get together for dinner every six weeks or so.

What do you do to stay engaged and mentally active?

I'm a reader I like Harlequin romances novels, and I'm into the large print, now and I like sports books, too. The last one I read was Shattering the Glass, about the history of women's basketball and how far it's come over the years. And yes, we have come far.

And I do computer games, and Scrabble, and word search, too. [Laughs] But no Sudoku, that's what my husband does.

We don't grow old by playing, we grow old when we stop playing.

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