November 26, 2004
By Steve Chawkins, Times Staff Writer
SANTA BARBARA - In a town of exclusive clubs, John Whittemore is in a league of his own.
It's not just that he turned 105 last weekend. More Americans are attaining such dizzying ages each year, but Whittemore is the only one who just set a national record for the javelin throw.
One morning last month, the long-retired teacher hobbled in his walker out to the starting line at a UC Santa Barbara track. With all the cartilage in one knee virtually gone, he took an agonizing 45 minutes to go about 100 yards.
"He wouldn't allow anyone to help him," said Beverley Lewis, a former Australian long-jumper who officiated the event for USA Track and Field, the sport's governing body in the U.S. "He just absolutely refused to give in."
Exhausted, Whittemore signaled for someone to grab his walker. With that, he squeezed the well-worn cork grip of his 6 1/2 -foot javelin, drew his right arm back, and let it fly.
It landed a bit more than 11 feet away. That's 272 feet short of the hurl that snagged an Olympic gold medal for Norway last summer. Still, for a fellow in a walker who was born just after the Spanish-American War, that 11-foot toss reflected an Olympian will.
"I love to beat the old men," Whittemore said, only half-joking, as he surveyed a mantel lined with trophies at his hilltop Montecito home. "That's what I set out to do, and that's what I did."
Bouquets from his birthday party still dotted the airy living room of the home he shares with his daughter. Outside, ducks swam in a pond as tranquil as a Japanese painting. Beneath a glass coffee table rested a few cannonball-like shots - Whittemore set the national shot-put record last March - and three javelins poked up from an umbrella stand in the corner."I can beat every other 105-year-old around," he said, smiling. Of course, the field isn't exactly jammed. According to the 2000 census, there were only 685 men in the U.S. ages 105 to 109.
Competing until recently in USA Track and Field's 100- to 104-year-old age group, Whittemore was dogged only by Everett Hosack, an ex-railroad worker and a fixture at Cleveland's Over-the-Hill Track Club. Hosack broke a number of Whittemore's records but died in July at 102.
Thanks to Whittemore and his longevity, USA Track and Field will consider something new: Competitions for athletes ages 105 to 109.
"We're having an annual meeting in Oregon next week, and one of the things we'll have to take up is establishing a new category," said official George Mathews, a 61-year-old hammer-thrower in Hayden Lake, Idaho. "It's kind of a fun problem to have." Mathews said he knew of at least five over-100 competitors in his organization and 15 or 20 in their 90s. "Some of these guys are taking up track and field at a very advanced age," he said, citing one champ who started exercising only because his wife declared him an incorrigible couch potato and threw him out of the house when he was 65.
For Whittemore, sports came as naturally as climbing the rugged hills around Santa Barbara with his pals before World War I. He always was athletic, he said, recalling how he rode to Santa Barbara High, where he was in the class of 1917, on horseback.
In his day, he was a Stanford baseball player, a tennis champion, a competitive swimmer and, later, a track star with a local masters group called Club West. When he wasn't pouring himself into sports, he played a ferocious game of bridge.
Today, he works out twice daily, lifting a set of light-weights and stretching with a red elastic band.
Ask him for the keys to his success and he'll cite the usual reasons: Good genes, a diet heavy on fruits and vegetables, having never smoked, a taste for alcohol only on special occasions and even "right thinking."
Even with all that, he admits he's been in better shape. A fall last month landed him in a wheelchair. His eyes and ears aren't what they used to be and, unsurprisingly for a man who has seen parts of three centuries, he forgets things.
Still, morning and night, he'll do 20 repetitions with his 2 1/2-pound hand weights, over his head, out to his sides, and over his head again.
And despite his bum leg, he thinks about setting records in a category that he will pioneer. "Most guys my age would rather just stay home and have a drink," he said.
Claus and Raymond
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