Trinity man finally medals at National Senior Games

Sep. 2—TRINITY — or nearly a quarter-century, 82-year-old avid runner Ellis Whitt had dreamed of reaching the podium at the National Senior Games.

Time after time, he participated in the seniors-only competition — usually running the 1,500-meter race — and time after time, despite turning in respectable times, he failed to win a medal. Twice, Whitt finished fourth, just barely missing the podium.

"It was disappointing," the Trinity octogenarian says. "Making the podium was on my bucket list."

Turns out Whitt missed the podium for an unusual reason — he was going too fast.

At this year's Senior Games, instead of running, Whitt walked — he power-walked, to be more specific — and found himself on the podium receiving the second-place silver medal.

And marking a Holy Grail off his bucket list.

"It was a thrill," Whitt says. "This was something I had tried to obtain for about 2 1/2 decades. I had to pinch myself to believe it was really happening."

The moment capped a long journey of alternating accomplishment and frustration for Whitt. Though he wasn't much of a runner growing up in Trinity, he took up running as a young man and found he had a knack for it, particularly distance running. His accomplishments include running a mile in less than five minutes and a marathon in less than three hours, neither of which is anything to sneeze at.

As he got older, Whitt began competing in events for seniors, including the National Senior Games and the U.S. Track & Field Masters Championships, running against other men in his age group. He often performed well at these competitions, but never quite well enough to medal.

After a disappointing finish in the 1,500-meter race at the 2022 National Senior Games, Whitt's girlfriend, Sharon Welch, mentioned that she was interested in taking up power-walking, an exercise similar to race-walking. Whitt, however, wasn't so sure.

"I didn't have a lot of respect for that sport," he says. "I was more of a runner. I was interested in getting around the track as fast as I could, but power-walking keeps you at a walking gait."

Nonetheless, one day in June 2022, the couple headed over to the track at Trinity High School and tried the power-walking technique, which requires the walker to have one foot on the ground at all times and to go from heel to toe when walking, rather than staying up on the toes.

"It's a little difficult to adjust to because it uses different muscles than running," Whitt explains. "But I soon learned that you can get just as much exercise power-walking as you can running. Your heart rate gets as high, and it feels like you're using the last one% of your energy if you're really pushing it. There's nothing sissy about it."

Before long, Whitt discovered he had a knack for this new pursuit and realized power-walking might offer him a path to the podium. Not surprisingly, the retired rocket scientist took a very methodical, almost scientific, approach to his training.

In 1969, you see, Whitt was a member of the five-person engineering team responsible for calculating the trajectory of the Apollo 11 spacecraft — the mission that allowed Neil Armstrong to become the first man to walk on the moon. So Whitt reckoned that if he could put a man on the moon, surely he could figure out how to put a man on the podium at the Senior Games.

Every other day, Whitt and Welch could be found at the Trinity track, conducting 1,500-meter time trials. The goal was Pittsburgh — home of the 2023 National Senior Games — and Whitt grew increasingly encouraged.

"I kept track of my times, and they were getting close to what the winning times were a year ago," he says.

Even after he was slowed by a knee injury and a mild heart-rhythm disturbance that was cleared up with medicine, Whitt kept pushing himself. He competed in state Senior Games events earlier this year and qualified for the national competition, which was held July 7.

"I had some anxiety," Whitt recalls of his race-day experience. "The gold medalist from last year was there, and the silver medalist. And there were some other good guys there in my age group (80-84). I knew I had my hands full, but neither was I intimidated."

Whitt ran — er, walked — a strategic race. Starting in the middle of the pack, he conserved his energy and gradually picked up speed as he neared the finish line, methodically passing his fellow competitors one by one until he was in second place. The leader was nearly 60 seconds ahead of him — clearly uncatchable — but Whitt held on for the silver medal, finishing less than a second ahead of the bronze medalist and about three seconds ahead of the fourth-place walker.

"It was a tight finish," he says. "I knew they were after me."

Whitt hopes to compete again in the next National Senior Games, which will be held in 2025 in Des Moines, Iowa. Until then, though, he'll savor his silver.

"This was a moment I had dreamed of for so long, but figured it just couldn't happen," he says. "I still have to pinch myself." — 336-888-3579