“If you don’t move it, you will rust”
Amy Hicks, 85, Needham, Massachusetts
All athletes have aches and injuries that inevitably come with athletic competition, and that is especially true for senior athletes over an extended time. Some, like Amy Hicks, have also had to overcome medical challenges that often bring careers to an end, but she has learned to persevere and even excel while living with severe arthritis for decades.
The native of Massachusetts grew up before Title IX leveled the playing field for girls, but Amy was undeterred and participated in many sports. Her passion led to a career as a physical education teacher and later as an advocate serving as Chair of Senior Fitness, Activities and Necrology for the Massachusetts Board of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance for more than 20 years. She is most proud that she introduced track and field, gymnastics and lacrosse to her high school. This led to a competition career that began with AAU meets and has yielded medals, national records, and one Olympic Trials appearance.
Amy suspended competition for 26 years while raising her two children, but picked up where she left off and has been scooping up medals as a Senior Games and masters athlete. She also loves water sports and has participated for many years in synchronized swimming competitions on an international scale. Her service to the sport earned her the Mae McEwan Award, synchronized swimming’s highest honor.
As a professional, Amy was among the first to conduct an in-pool Arthritis Aquatics Program created by the Arthritis Foundation in 1983. In a strange twist of fate, when she was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2003 the facilitator also became the patient as she gained therapy while leading exercises for others. A broken elbow and hip replacement surgery are also among the speed bumps she has cleared along the way.
In our conversation with Amy, she shares her sporting life history and discusses how she has managed arthritis and stayed in the game by setting an extensive exercise program for herself to build strength, flexibility and endurance. She also expresses the camaraderie and fun she has enjoyed while traveling to The Games with her “New England Bunch.”
Her advice to you is simple but resounding, and it is a common theme shared by our Personal Best athletes: Keep moving for life. If Amy Hicks can knock off the rust and still heave a hammer, there’s always something you can do to stay active and improve the quality of your life.
Amy, you have been one active lady! Tell us your sports history.
I was born in Medford, Massachusetts and grew up and graduated high school in Somerville in 1950. We didn’t have too many sports for the girls at that time. I played half-court basketball and softball. Girls could swim, bowl, and play tennis recreationally but that was it. This was way before Title IX.
Through a local YMCA program I learned to love gym activities, like running on indoor track, swinging on rings and climbing ropes. I also learned about water sports, and I taught swimming there while in high school.
College was interesting. I went to the Baroness Rose Posse School of Physical Education and Physiotherapy in Boston, which was a three-year school teaching Swedish gymnastics. In addition to a strong academic program, I was introduced to track and field and competitive gymnastics through AAU meets and the school’s summer camp in New Hampshire.
After three years, I got my ‘phys ed’ diploma and was Valedictorian of my class. I went on get my bachelor of science degree from the University of Maine in 1954. I kept doing AAU track events because there were no women’s team varsity sports at Maine. I thought nothing at the time about this being a man’s sport or that it would be detrimental to me physically. I loved to run, jump and throw, and we had a male coach in AAU who was like a father to all of us. And I did join the University’s modern dance and tumbling clubs and did all the class sports I could get into, like basketball, tennis, field hockey and table tennis.
After graduation, I taught physical education at Needham High School until 1963. I was proud my school was among the first to offer gymnastics to girls, and it led to gymnastics competitions for the state. I also introduced girls lacrosse and track and field to the high school. This also led to state championships for girls track.
Did you continue to compete when you started working?
My school offered AAU gymnastics meets and I competed along with some of my students. I stayed with track and field competition while I was teaching but soon had to stop the gymnastics because it was too dangerous without a personal coach or spotter to work with me. Then, I fell in love with a colleague who taught history, married in 1962 and started raising two kids. I had to put sports aside for 26 years.
I retired from teaching in 1976, so I began to do other things, like judging gymnastics meets and refereeing girls field hockey lacrosse games. I also started a girl’s synchronized swimming team at a local club, and I also served on the Massachusetts Board of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance for over 20 years. I wrote several articles about the National Senior Games and other senior activities for their newsletters. I received all kinds of honors from my board work and just retired this year.
A high point for me was making the cover of the program for their National Physical Education Convention in Boston when I was 60. They had a contest to find a photo to fit the convention theme, which was “Take the Challenge – Go the Distance.” I had the perfect picture of me pole vaulting to qualify at the Massachusetts Senior Games, and they selected me. When I went to the convention a lot of people asked me to autograph the cover! [Laugh]
Seems like you were destined to be in Senior Games as you grew older.
I found out about masters sports and Senior Games in 1989. The Nationals started in 1987, so I missed the first two. I checked in New England and found Rhode Island had Senior Games coming up. I knew I could certainly do the shot, javelin and discus because I had trained and competed in those events. I went and won them all, breaking their existing records. I had to wait a year to qualify to go to Syracuse for the Nationals in 1991. I’ve been with it ever since, except for 2013 when I fell and compacted my elbow three weeks before the competition.
The road hasn’t been smooth. You’ve had plenty of physical challenges.
I thought 2013 was my year to set a new hammer record. But the compacted elbow ended that dream. I tried to splint it, but you need two hands to swing the hammer. I could try using my other arm on the other events, but I couldn’t even drive. So I stayed home and took therapy instead-much to my husband’s relief!
Then, in 2017 my hip had been deteriorating and I hoped I could put off replacement surgery until after The Games in Birmingham. My team told me not to “turn” to get more distance in throws because I might fall and not be able to do my other events. So I threw all power throws-no turns or run ups- and I still went home with one gold and three silver medals. I also extended my streak to win at least one medal in every Nationals. I now have 33 in all at that level.
That shows determination, gutting it out like that. Were you concerned about coming back after the hip replacement was done?
I had people ahead of me who have done this before. I knew how much time it would take to recover so I had to time my surgery to be ready for the next summer. Annie [2017 Personal Best athlete Ann McGowan] had been through it, and I know synchronized swimmers who can now do beautiful things in the water after the operation.
I just need to be patient, not rush and do what the doctor tells me to do. I like to say, “It takes time to make fine wine.” [Laugh]
You’ve overcome a lot of injuries and maladies, but we’re told arthritis has been your constant enemy.
In the 60’s I was diagnosed with arthritis in my neck. I had also been in a moped accident in ‘85 and actually told myself then that I would probably need a hip replacement one day. The doctor gave me medications and sent me in for physical therapy and stretching exercises.
As part of my professional pursuits, I was among the first to facilitate the Arthritis Aquatics Program that was sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation back in 1983. I was in the pool nearly every day teaching these water exercises which provide full range of motion for all joints. I was an instructor trainer and did all that until 2009. The original name for this class was “Twinges in Hinges.” [Laughs]
So while you were teaching water exercise to others, you were benefiting from the therapy yourself.
Yes. Any chance I can get into the water I do it because I move so much better due to the buoyance of the water. What I can’t do on land I can do in water where I have less gravity pulling on me. It feels wonderful.
Then, in 2003 I woke up one morning with excruciating pain in my lower back. I could not stand up straight. It turned out to be spinal stenosis. What was I to do? I had all of these tournaments and Senior Games coming up, and my doctor told me I could go, but to only exert myself at 80 percent and not try to set any records. So that’s what I did. I prepared by doing exercises and keeping myself pain free through therapy in flexibility, strengthening, and endurance. On occasion I did need pain meds, but I knew exercise was the key to needing them less often.
There are still people who are afraid to move too much when they have arthritis for fear of making it worse.
It’s just the opposite of that! You need to move. Of course, the type of arthritis makes a big difference. With rheumatoid arthritis you can exercise but you don’t go as vigorously or do as much, especially if you have a flare up. Be gentle, do less repetitions. I have osteoarthritis and need the full range of motion for all of my joints.
Today, most gyms and community centers with pools offer water aerobics so it has become very popular.
Water aerobics is not for those with severe arthritis or painful joints. Arthritis exercises are done more slowly to get the full range of motion. You don’t want to be jumping around a lot. Many times you use the wall for support, and as the class progresses there is a deep water component where the feet are off the bottom, using a “noodle” floating device. That provides an opportunity to do bicycling moves and various types of kicking, which are more stimulating.
When I was preparing for hip replacement surgery last year, I spent three months doing pool exercises. I didn’t want a class because I wanted to do specific exercises for my hip. When I could get it wet after surgery I spent another month in the pool to get my body back in shape to qualify to go to next year’s Nationals in Albuquerque, which I did in June.
I also wanted to get back in the water to see if I could get my “ballet legs” back. [Laughs]
You mentioned synchronized swimming earlier. Is that another big sport passion for you?
Oh yes, I’ve been in meets all over the country and the world. I got the highest honor a person can get in synchronized swimming, the Mae McEwan Award for services and contributions made to the sport.
We need more meets on a national level. I’ve been trying for years to get it into the National Senior Games. It is in some state games. We have at least 350 registered swimmers over 50 who would go.
You must know Dr. Jane Katz, who is a National Senior Games gold medalist swimmer from New York who helped get synchronized swimming into the Olympics.
I know Jane very well. She taught me how to do a foott-first dive, where you keep your head above water. It’s an awesome move and requires great timing and strength in the arms and legs to press them down at the right moment so you don’t sink.
Have you gotten back into your synchronized swimming yet?
No, not yet. Our national meets are always in October, which is bad timing for me to be ready. I couldn’t meet the technical requirements at this point-I need a lot more strength and endurance. Plus, I don’t have any new routines.
I used to swim in Senior Games, but there are so many events crunched together it was impossible to get to all of them, especially in the summer. I just do four throwing events now, no jumping or swimming. Financially and physically that works out just fine now.
If you had not pushed yourself with exercise and sports, where do you think you would you be today?
I would be in a wheelchair. I mean that literally. With my stenosis, I would not be able to move. I always tell people that the body was meant to move, and if you don’t move it, you will rust. You will stiffen up and your muscles will atrophy and weaken.
When I’m in pain, I know I have to move. I have to put my body through some range of motion or stretching. Sometimes I just bend over and try to touch my toes to stretch my whole back. Or just sit and stretch out my legs. Then I can walk another mile. [Laughs]
I have less pain now. Strength and flexibility has definitely improved. I have discovered the importance of not overdoing it. I have to pace myself in my fitness program, sit and not stand for long periods wherever possible, keep my weight under control through proper nutrition, and stretch out frequently.
What is it that most motivates you to stay in The Games?
I have a competitive spirit. It doesn’t matter what it is, I want to do my best at whatever I’m trying to do. If I’m not doing well I ask myself, “What do I need to do to improve?” That’s my mental attitude.
The Games are not just a competition either. There’s a social part, where you see people you haven’t seen in awhile. You’re competing in a sport, but the camaraderie and the friendships make it a fun thing, like with my travel mates. When I started there were about a dozen of us that called ourselves “The New England Bunch” and through the years we got to be like family. Some are retired or home bound now, but many of us just keep going. Annie McGowan was one of the “Great Eight” athletes who have competed in all 30 years of the National Senior Games starting in 1987. She lives in Rhode Island and is 94. She was one of the first athletes I met at my first Senior Games and is an awesome inspiration to me.
Are there other athletes who inspire you?
My roommate Judy Scott from Massachusetts is quite an athlete, she did everything including being designated driver. When she was very young she started to develop polio and her mother acted quickly. Her doctor made an immediate diagnosis, which probably saved her from paralysis. Judy started running at 38 and ran her first marathon at 40. Her legs have carried her far and she has been an inspiration to all of us. I honestly don’t know how she did it.
I also admire Gloria Krug from Pennsylvania. She’s in my age division and in a league all by herself. She is always a challenge to me. And of course there’s Flo Meiler from Vermont. She’s like the Energizer Bunny. She’s done well in all of the sports – running, hurdling, vaulting. All of them are inspirations to me.
You have always been active. What do you tell others who think they can’t do Senior Games sports?
I have seen a lot of people who are physically fine but have never competed. Don’t worry about being a green beginner. Pick a sport you like to do and learn the rules. Go ahead and come out to the state games, it’s the best place to start. Just come and try, you will probably find there are things you never thought you could do. That’s been true with several beginners I’ve brought in.
There are always people out there like me who are willing to help. I’ve been doing that all of my life.
Obviously, you don’t have plans to stop anytime soon.
Why would I? If I’m still having fun all I need to do is to get myself to the starting line. The rest will take care of itself!