Imagine logging 500 miles a week on your mountain bike while holding down a full-time job. Picture yourself at 72, a grandparent, but one who teaches snowboarding to students one-fifth your age. Or envision yourself as a yoga teacher who, in your off hours, clinches back-to-back national yoga championships on the strength of your “scorpion tiger,” a spine-bending posture that ends with your feet resting lightly on the top of your head.
These stories may sound incredible, but for a trio of unexpected athletes, they’re normal life. Not one of these competitors was born into athletic greatness (think Michael Phelps’s wingspan), but rather earned it through self-motivation, goal-setting, and time management. Their stories show that the rewards of good health and fitness are not just measured in calories burned, and that, when you put your mind to it, there are no limits to what you can achieve.
EDITH “CHICKIE” ROSENBERG, THE SNOWBOARDING GRANDMA
The next time you even think about saying “I’m too old for that,” consider 72-year-old snowboarding instructor Edith “Chickie” Rosenberg.
A former high school teacher from New Jersey, Rosenberg didn’t get on her first snowboard until she was 50. 50! (She hated the cold for one thing.) By her own account, that first ride stank, but it’s all been uphill, so to speak, since then. Today she teaches pupils of all ages and skill levels on her home slopes of Killington, Vermont, and has even gotten a nationally televised shout-out from Shaun White.
How does she stay this fit and active at an age when other colleagues are … shuffleboarding? Healthy eating (nothing deep-fried), low-impact cardio (walk a block, run a block), and, yes, plenty of snowboarding. “What do I do all summer?” she asks. “I wait for winter.”
HER SECRET TO TRYING NEW THINGS: Find an instructor who’s not your friend. “When friends teach friends, they don’t remember how frightened or nervous they were when they first started. What seems simple to them is actually complicated.”
HER ADVICE FOR TOUGH TIMES: “Don’t listen to that little voice inside that says, ‘I can’t do this, this is too hard!’ You have to believe in yourself to become confident. Never listen to negative thoughts.”
THE TAKEAWAY: Focus on the process, not results. “I always tell my students, if you fall down, don’t jump right up! Don’t beat yourself up for doing something wrong. Instead, look around–at the sky, the mountains– and say, you know, it’s really nice to be out here.”
MIKE SIMONSON, THE UNSTOPPABLE MOUNTAIN BIKER
You want toughness? Try this: While flying down a dirt path during the Shenandoah 100, mountain bike racer Mike Simonson lost control of his wheels and slammed head-first into a tree. The Michigan native broke four vertebrae, sustained a dangerously deep gash in his neck and had to be airlifted from the race site. Two months later, he was back in the saddle, racing in the 29-mile Iceman Cometh Challenge.
“To be honest, I never thought about giving it up,” he says, even after his horrific crash. “I just thought, OK, I’m going to be off the bike for four to six weeks, and then I’m finishing off the season.”
Simonson, 32, is one of the top riders in the National Ultra Endurance Series — a circuit of grueling 100-mile races where competitors endure unforgiving terrain (sand, stumps, lava rock) and gear-grinding, 11,000-foot ascents. But he wasn’t always a jock. In fact, he was a marching band guy who started riding in college – not to race, but to knock off a few pounds.
Today he’s a systems engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense who trains in his off-hours. Two to three times a week, he gets up at 4:30 in the morning and cycles the 40 miles to his office, works a 9-hour shift, then cycles back home. When it’s too cold or snowy outside (did we mention he lives in Michigan?) he runs the stairwells of his base’s six-story parking garage. On weekends, he’ll put in a hundred miles or so of training each day.
HIS SECRET TO SUCCEEDING AT A SPORT YOU’RE NOT BUILT FOR: Make what you’ve got work for you. At 6’2” and 180 pounds, Simonson is a beast in a sport dominated by sticks. He has to work much harder to power his big body uphill than the less bulky riders. But he uses that extra muscle to charge on the flats and downhills.
HIS ADVICE FOR STAYING MOTIVATED: Remember your rivals –and outwork them. Simonson takes aim at reigning series champ Christian Tanguy, a fellow mechanical engineer and Michigander. “He and I have been battling for quite a while now,” says Simonson. “I always pretend he’s in his basement, training ten hours a day.”
THE TAKEAWAY: Big victories come from a whole bunch of little ones. “When that alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m., I’m like, the time is now, do it! Because those are the moments that make a difference. When that alarm goes off, and you decide whether you’re going to hit the snooze or not.”
AFTON CARRAWAY, THE CHAMPION YOGI
Yes, there is such a thing as competitive yoga, though Afton Carraway didn’t know that when she walked into her first Bikram class at age 23. After a childhood of ballet classes in Orlando, Florida, Carraway became a professional dancer, performing on Royal Caribbean cruise ships and in stage shows at Tokyo Disneyland. So she figured that, with her flexibility, the class would be a breeze. But after 90 minutes of poses in a steamy room (Bikram classes are heated to 105 degrees F), she says, “I thought I was going to die.”
Humbled and challenged, Carraway kept at it, building physical and mental strength. Today, at 31, she is an instructor herself, teaching 10 classes a week in her new home of Austin, TX. Along the way, she discovered the National Yoga Asana Championships – which she has won for the past two years. In her most recent competition, she flawlessly performed the scorpion tiger as well as a one-arm peacock, a hard-as-it-looks posture that required her to balance on one hand while holding the rest of her body parallel to the floor.
Incredibly, it’s a simpler pose that gives this gold medalist trouble, one you might see someone stick at your local middle school.
“I work a lot on my handstands,” Carraway says. “I still haven’t gotten to the point where I would do them onstage.”
HER SECRET FOR DOING A SCORPION TIGER – OR ANYHING THAT KICKS YOUR BUTT: Be patient and set incremental, achievable goals. “You don’t start off trying scorpion tiger, you start off trying to do a headstand. Once you’ve mastered a headstand, you try a forearm stand. Once you can do a forearm stand, you start to bend your knees and see how close you can get your feet to your head.”
HER ADVICE FOR IMPROVING: Test your limits. See where your best can take you. “I like to see how far I can push my body, and where I can go with different postures. I love getting together with all my yogi buddies and trying all these crazy postures that I never dreamed I’d be able to do.”
THE TAKEAWAY: Just do it. “It doesn’t matter what you look like in your yoga postures—or how deep into them you can go. It just matters that you’re doing them! That’s what it’s all about.”