By Elliot Burg
Flo Meiler of Shelburne is 81, a grandmother and a world class athlete. Barbara Jordan of South Burlington will turn 80 in October, also a grandmother and a world-class athlete. In July, the two were among 49 Vermonters who traveled to Minnesota to compete in the National Senior Games.
They not only competed, they crushed it, winning 13 medals between them and setting a number of U.S. and world records for their age brackets.
The schedule of competition was intense. The two, in the green and gold singlets with the Vermont state colors could be seen pulling a small suitcase from one event to the next.
Around them, men and women in their 70s, 80s and 90s sprinted to the tape in 50- to 1500-meter dashes, pole vaulted, hurdled and threw shot put, javelins and hammers, all in defiance of age and gravity. Two men over 100 even made it to the last round of the javelin.
In all, Meiler competed in 10 events, including the high, long and triple jumps; pole vault, discus, hammer throw, javelin, 50- and 100-meter dashes and the 4 x 100 meter relay. Jordan competed in six: the three jumps, two dashes and the relay. By the end of the competition Meiler had won five gold medals, winning all three jumps (and setting a new record in the triple), the pole vault and relay and earned silver in the discus. Jordan won two running races, placed second in the hammer and third in all three jumps.
These were sports neither woman ever had a chance to do in high school or college—that was before Title IX. But they have been making up for that by training for over 20 years.
Flo Meiler, a skier and competitive water skier and tennis player, was 60 years old when her friend Barbara Jordan came over to her house and asked if she would give track and field a try. Meiler had been planning to compete in the Senior Games in tennis with her husband but, as she says, “I looked up to Barb all the time, she’s such a go-getter.” So she gave it a try.
“I fell in love with the long jump,” she says. In her first Games she placed fourth out of 25 and said to herself: “Wow, if I can do that now, I should get some training.” Then she took up the high jump. And the pole vault.
The pole vault is a tough event to learn on your own. It requires upper body strength and a complex set of moves. As Meiler says though, “I’m an old farm gal. From the age of 10, I worked on a hay wagon.” To learn the technique she watched a video and then worked with coaches at Middlebury College and the University of Vermont. Her training regimen is demanding: in the winter she does track practice on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then weights and tennis on Tuesday and Thursday. Her goal: compete in the heptathlon, a seven-event competition this month at the World Masters Athletics Outdoor Championships in Lyon, France, August 4-16.
Meiler’s training buddy, Barbara Jordan has been an athlete all her life. Growing up in New Jersey, Jordan became a drum majorette. She later joined a circus club, coached gymnastics and then taught physical education classes at University of Vermont and, now, at Wake Robin Wellness Care as well.
In the 1980s, Jordan helped coordinate a study at UVM on the effects of physical training on conditions ranging from insulin resistance to aging. Two of the participants in the study were competing in the Senior Games. Jordan, then in her 50s, remembers thinking, “When I get to be your age, I want to do that too.” And she did, winning her first Senior Games in the high jump and becoming a regular on the international circuit. In 1993 and again in 2001 she was named Vermont’s Female Athlete of the Year and in 2003 was covered in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd,” section.
Then, in 2013 Jordan discovered she had breast and lung cancer. She had part of a lung removed, making it harder for her to breathe. That didn’t stop her: she hasn’t missed a National Senior Games and has simply focused more on jumps and dashes rather than on long runs. Jordan is clear on the role of sports in her life: “For your health, there’s nothing better that you can do. Plus, it’s fun.”
Part of the fun for Jordan has been training with Meilers. But in Minnesota, when they realized they both made it through qualifying heats and would be racing against each other in the finals of the 100-meter dash, neither was prepared to pull any punches. The two bolted from the start and then ran stride for stride down the track in a dead heat for the lead, the strain evident in their faces. They crossed the finish line at 00:00:19.55 and 00:00:19.56, separated by an incredible one hundreth of a second. The final lean by both athletes looked like something out of an Olympic highlights reel: Jordan had won, Meiler got the silver.
Neither woman is ready to hang up her track shoes. Meiler points to Dottie Gray, a Missouri woman who won every running event from 50 to 1500 meters in the 90-94 age bracket at this year’s Games. “When I see her,” said Meiler, “I just can’t stop.”