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Gymnast still winning, setting goals at age 57

Posted: Tuesday, December 30, 2003

LOCKPORT, N.Y. Talking to Shirley Beecher, you can forget she is 57, forget she is a grandmother, forget she is a cancer survivor.

But you can't forget she is an athlete. Not inside the gym she owns, where, with her compact gymnast's body at ease in a warm-up suit, she sets her goals for the next competition: ''Nine on beam and the all-around gold.''

The two gold medals she won in this summer's Empire State Games (for floor and balance beam) are displayed in her office, proof the goals are within reach.

That she is undaunted by competitors 10 or 15 years younger is not surprising. Not after taking on cancer.

One of the country's oldest competitive gymnasts, Beecher, a veteran of ''old-timers'' meets in other states, helped form the Masters Division of New York's Empire State Games in 1989. She has been a force in virtually all of the games since.

A diagnosis of breast cancer could have ended her run. But she does not like losing.

''One thing that bothered me was this disease was ending my career. I didn't think that was right,'' she said. ''I should be the one who walks away.''

An April 17 mastectomy was followed by two weeks of ''excruciating pain and nausea'' and left her left arm nearly immobile, she said. But by June 1, Beecher was in training. The games were July 25.

''It took days to trust my arm and every part of my body,'' she said.

Even before her illness, Beecher followed a ''baby steps'' training philosophy, the same one she uses when coaching her students. ''If you're learning a front flip, you begin with a forward roll,'' she said.

After 41 years of training she got a relatively late start at age 16 Beecher finds she cannot work out as long without getting winded, but she pays more attention to the stretching that keeps her body fluid.

She trains about five hours a week, snatching small stretches of time whenever she can while judging competitions across the state and overseeing a staff of 18 coaches and 600 gymnastics students at her gym north of Buffalo.

Beecher's own observations parallel findings of a long-term study of master athlete physiology at the University of Southern California: High levels of activity appear to slow down the aging of muscles and help maintain strength, but aerobic capacity appears to decline with age, whether a person is active or not.

Beecher anticipates running her gym for another five years or so, before retiring from the business. But she has no plans to retire from competition.

Though she must undergo two more surgeries before next summer's Empire State Games, she remains determined to take home the top prize, the all-around gold.

Along with her medals at this past Empire State Games, she earned the admiration of judges, competitors and spectators, who gave her a standing ovation.

''It was just being there,'' she said after competing in the age 40-plus division. During the medal ceremony, her 2-year-old grandson Jake got away from his father and ran to his grandmother on the podium.

''If I wasn't so exhausted,'' Beecher said, ''I would have cried.''



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