Jeanne Mitchell, mother and grandmother, had just moved away from the friends she knew. She retired and moved upstate with her husband to a quiet area on the New Jersey coast in 2013. "It's a beautiful neck of the woods," she admits, but "it's not an area where you get to know your neighbors super easy." She wanted to know more people there. But how? She had no idea that she was about to cross the starting line of a new and abundant social life, all thanks to an idea that popped into her head one January day: "I think I'll do a triathlon."
"I knew I could ride a bike… I knew I could swim… But I didn't know if I could run," Mitchell said.
She was 67 years old at the time and had no experience doing this sort of thing.
"I did not know anybody who had ever done one. I didn't know where you do them. And I literally googled 'triathlon' and I probably put 'New Jersey' in, because that's where I live." The event that rose to the top turned out to be perfect for her: a shorter "sprint" triathlon for female beginners of all ages.
Today, Mitchell is 70 years old, and has numerous races under her belt. But the biggest plus for her, she says, has been the new and lasting friendships she's made through it all.
Striking Gold"Basically, all my friends come from doing these sports," Mitchell, a former psychotherapist and artist, said. "My friends now range from 44 to 74 years old. And they're all athletes. So, yes, it's been a great opportunity."
A snowball effect began after she made friends with a woman named Maureen during the first race in 2018. "I continued with triathlon, she continued with running, but we're still friends… I'll be running again with her [to train]." Through Maureen, Mitchell became part of a network of new friends.
"[Maureen] ran with a group of people," Mitchell said, "and those are my friends now, too. So, I have my running friends, my swimming friends, my biking friends. Some of them overlap, some of them don't overlap."
Not all sports have the variety a triathlon does. A triathlon consists of three parts: Contestants enter a body of water and swim a pre-set distance. Then they get onto their bike and cycle down the road. Finally, they dismount and run the final leg to the finish line.
"It's fun. And it's a great way to socialize with people."
Mitchell is enthusiastic about sports as a way for older adults, or anyone, to get out there. For people who don't want to do a triathlon or who want to start simpler, "they have aquavela. I call it an aqua-bike." It's a swim, followed by a bike ride, " Mitchell says. "Then there are duathlons, which are a combination of biking and running."
Fitness and Fun, All in OneIt's no secret that loneliness contributes to physical health issues among seniors. Loneliness can have as much negative impact on older adults as smoking or obesity, according to a study published in the Journal of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Its symptoms can even be deadly.
Physical fitness takes on new importance later in life as bone and muscle mass diminish and the cardiovascular system weakens. Mitchell says it's important to start gradually.
The Words on Her ShirtFrom the moment she signed up for her first triathlon, not knowing anything about it, Mitchell threw herself into the unknown. "Leap, and the net will appear" is a saying attributed to the naturalist John Burroughs, and sometimes to the Zen tradition. Either way, it describes what happened to Mitchell. The first triathlon she picked included training with a coach beginning about 12 weeks before the race. "That's rare," she says. Training for most events is a completely personal matter.
Even with the training she received, Mitchell had a steep learning curve ahead of her. "Most of these training programs have things like 'you bike at over 70 RPMs, or under 70 RPMs,' and I'm saying, 'what the heck is RPM?' I had no idea!" Mitchel added in her usual, good-natured tone.
But Mitchell took to the training like a fish to water and had no problem finishing her first sprint triathlon at the age of 67. She credits her great physical fitness to a qigong practice she began in 2003: Falun Dafa. She says it boosted her immunity and overall wellness.
Falun Dafa, also known as Falun Gong, has teachings based on truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, along with five sets of exercises. It was introduced to the public in 1992. According to the Falun Dafa Information Center, an estimated 70-100 million people were practicing Falun Gong in China by July 1999.
It spread rapidly throughout China and the world by word of mouth, as people experienced miracles of health and moral improvement.
Mitchell was One of Them
"In the past, my immune system was very weak, and I often caught colds and had fevers. After I began practicing Falun Dafa, I became healthy almost overnight. At family gatherings, my relatives always said, 'Give the sick child to Jeanne. She won’t get sick. '"
"I'm 70 and in extraordinarily good health," Mitchell says.
You may have noticed that Mitchell sports a unique phrase on her racing jersey: "Freedom for Falun Dafa." Falun Dafa is banned in its native China by the communist regime. People there who do its meditative exercises, people just like Mitchell, are severely persecuted.
Since 1999, an estimated 1 million Falun Gong practitioners have been sent to prisons, labor camps, brainwashing centers, and other detention facilities where many have been tortured in an effort to force them to renounce their faith. The suppression continues today.
Mitchell felt her newfound sport was a good way to raise awareness for a human rights cause that's close to her heart.
"People often came up and asked me about my shirt. I was able to tell them about the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, about the persecution, and what wonderful health it’s given me," Mitchell said. "When something has given you so much, you want to pay back, you want to give something back to it. So, I wanted to have the triathlon to be a way of raising awareness about the persecution of Falun Gong."
New friends, human rights, great health. Could the results of Mitchell's out-of-the-blue thought to do a triathlon have turned out any better?
In fact, it did.
Mitchell's husband, daughter, and her daughter's future husband made a memorable cheering section along the sidelines of Mitchell's first race.
One video captures the unforgettable moments. "Look at her!" Her daughter, a medical student, nearly shouted at her boyfriend who was holding the camera before turning and yelling, "Go Mom! Yay, yay!" She held up her hand-painted sign that read "Go Mommy." Mitchell didn't stop running but turned to see her family jumping up and down and her face lit up with joy. The exhaustion of swimming, then biking, and now running without a break was practically forgotten, and her strides looked lighter as she neared the finish line.
"It was very, very sweet," Mitchell said. "They were so wonderful. They were taking my photograph all over the place. When I transitioned from the bike to the run, my daughter started running with me in her sandals."
Her daughter is a medical student and has a busy social life with her friends. She's an enthusiastic person by nature, Mitchell says, and while they have a good relationship, the two aren't constant companions.
"So, yeah, that was a big deal that she came. Absolutely. The first race I'd ever done in my life. My daughter's looking forward to doing a triathlon with me when she finishes her medical residency."
Turn that Frown Upside DownSince that January day when Mitchell first googled "triathlon, New Jersey," she has had so many questions. Some became real problems that she needed to find solutions to: How do you protect your eyes from road dust and detritus while you're biking? Eureka! Sport glasses with light-responsive transition lenses.
"You swim… And then what do you do?" Mitchell remembers asking. "Do you change your clothes to get on the bike, and then run? I mean, I really had no idea, none whatsoever. And you know, there's such thing called a tri-suit. That was really critical information for me." Mitchell gleaned valuable insights from her fellow trainees.
One by one, each challenge was naturally resolved, usually thanks to a specially developed product or solution: a tri-suit for swimming, biking, and running; a transition area where you can set up your bike, shoes, and racing number before the race begins; a timing chip to track your progress to the second; a running belt to hold your contestant number. The list goes on!
Mitchell even faced major setbacks but didn't let them get her down. She signed up for an Olympic-length triathlon for her second-ever event and trained with someone who is more experienced than she is. She says she probably pushed herself too hard because she woke up one day with terrible pain in her knee and had to rethink her entire commitment. The knee pain set her back, but only temporarily.
A race she entered in Central Park presented a set of obstacles that don't exist on the New Jersey shore: hills.
Another time she entered an ocean-based swimming race. But the race coordinators misjudged the direction of the current that day, and one-and-a-half hours after the race began, Mitchell was still in the middle of the water, struggling upstream.
The lifeguards on paddleboards informed her that their support was about to end. She was alone and unable to finish the race. But she didn't let it upset her. In fact, the nearly empty coastline had attracted dolphins she could see jumping nearby. The lifeguards offered to tow her to shore, which she said was fun. Then, on the sand, a jeep was waiting to drive her down the beach to the finish line.
Friendly AdviceHow can others have as much fun as Mitchell does while avoiding pitfalls like injuries and false starts?
"I would certainly suggest they check with their doctor," Mitchell said, "to make sure they're in the kind of medical condition that they can do this kind of a race. And start gradually, don't do too much at once."
"If you can afford to have a coach, that would be, I think, a very good thing to do… I think you need to find a coach that works with people that are just starting out. You don't want a coach who's working with elite athletes. You want somebody who can help you get started. So, I would ask if they've worked with people during their first race at an older age."
And if a coach is something that is more than you can afford, Mitchell recommends looking for a training program. There are usually training programs published online. Some of them start 12 weeks before the date of the race; others start eight weeks out. Obviously, the further out you start, the more gradual the buildup for the length of each sport you're doing or for the combination of each sport you're doing.
Planning well in advance, so you have adequate time to really train and prepare for a race, is important, Mitchell says, particularly for people who are a little bit older. "You want to gradually, gradually build up."
Mitchell advises that "strength training is also an important part of doing triathlons in order to give your body the support it needs. I started with a training program at my gym because at the age of 67, I felt I could have hurt myself." Luckily, she added, the gym is another good place to meet new friends.
Mitchell recently attended a kick-off event for an upcoming triathlon. She might not end up doing the race, but she attended anyway because she knew she'd see people she knows there. It was a good opportunity to socialize.