Simeon Gipson, 74, Tahlequah, Oklahoma
A highlight of “Indian Day” activities held during the 2019 National Senior Games presented by Humana in Albuquerque was a live national broadcast of public radio’s Native America Calling. During the hour-long program, Oklahoma cyclist Simeon Gipson, who is half Cherokee and half Choctaw, captured the audience with his story and perspective. (Listen here.) We wanted to learn more.
Ten years ago, Simeon had no inkling he would be competing in National Senior Games. In fact, he retired early because he was feeling constant pain. He had undergone heart surgeries, a knee replacement, and had become severely diabetic from being overweight and not eating properly. Thinking he had been dealt his last hand, Simeon started planning to travel and spend more time with with family. But the will to overcome pulled him out of his funk.
He couldn’t bring himself to stick a needle in his belly, so he asked his wife to help prepare more healthy meals to try to beat it. He had been riding a bicycle to work in recent times and mentioned to his son maybe he should ride more to be fit. He hated exercise but loved pedaling through his Cherokee country. Two weeks later, his son presented him with a premium racing bike he bought used from a friend.
Simeon decided he had to get serious having received such a nice bike. He started extending his stamina for distance and joined in diabetes charity rides and other races before he entered his first Oklahoma Senior Games time trial in 2012. Limited finances and a racing injury prevented him from attending Nationals in 2013 and 2015. He drove all night to race in The Games in Birmingham in 2017, and in 2019 he was among a group of athletes selected for a “Hand up from Humana” scholarship to go to Albuquerque. He’s already gathering resources to make sure he can go to Greater Fort Lauderdale in 2021.
There’s a lot more to Simeon Gipson’s story than this. In the following edited conversation, he talks about growing up in a large family surrounded by poverty, feeling both grateful that his father had a good job and they always had food on the table, but also feeling isolated from his less fortunate neighbors. He recalls spending nine months each year at the nearby Indian Oaks Mission boarding school, and how he has returned five decades later to help form an alumni group and refurbish a century-old building on the campus into a museum to educate current youth. There’s more, from his military days in a submarine, to his annual 300-mile rides through the former Cherokee Nation and his growing involvement with speaking to youth, especially at his alma mater.
Simeon is not unlike many others involved in the Senior Games Movement who have found fitness, fun and fellowship in midlife through sports activity. He doesn’t care that he may never win a national medal. He considers his good health and newly found sense of purpose is worth his weight in gold, and he wants to tell others they can improve too. That is a Personal Best attitude!
Let’s start from the start. Were you born on a reservation?
I was born in a log cabin out in the country in a little community called Bull Hollow in the northeast corner of Oklahoma. It is a poor area. It’s not really a reservation, they were done away with in this state when the government gave the property to individuals. Before we broke up it was called the Cherokee Nation. 90% of the natives that lived there were Cherokee.
My dad was from further south-he was Choctaw and my mom was Cherokee. When he first came up looking for work there was nothing available, so he basically did a little bit of farming and such. Then he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, working for the government as a heavy equipment operator. He traveled a lot and built probably 75% of the roads in northeast Oklahoma.
At home in the country, we were considered a little bit of outsiders because most of those people were very poor and we had meat on the table every night. One of the things it did was make me a loner because I didn’t want to be excluded, so I excluded myself.
How was your schooling? Did you play sports?
Our pastor asked my mother to send us to a Lutheran boarding school called Oaks Indian Mission. We could’ve gone to any of the local schools, but we were put at the boarding school to help stabilize the student population. We went there every fall for nine months until school let out in the spring. I was there for 12 years, so that was the school I grew up in. It was a dormitory type situation with a public school across the road.
There were 10 children in my family. There were five older in one group around my age, and there was a few years between us and the second five. The first group of us spent the most time at the boarding school.
I played two sports, basketball and football. I played center and defensive end in football.
Now I want to tell you here that I developed Polio shortly after I was born and fought it until I was 11 or 12 years old. I can remember times I tried to be in games like hide and seek, but when I would squat down my legs would lock up and I wasn’t able to move or get up. Sometimes I wasn’t able to walk and my brother Simon would carry me around on his back. He is who convinced my parents that I should play sports.
We’re glad you got past that! What happened when you finished high school?
I went two years to a local college, Northeastern State here in Tahlequah. Then, my second oldest brother got into a motorcycle wreck and he was near death. I stayed with him for nearly three weeks, and I thought I had an arrangement with the college to go back after my brother was better. But when I went back, they wouldn’t let me re-enroll. So, in the brilliance of a kid I said, “I’ll show you!” and was in the Navy two weeks later. [Laugh]
After I did boot camp in San Diego and completed “A School” in Great Lakes, our class was asked, “Would any of you men like to be in the submarine course?” Again, I showed my brilliance and said, “I’ll do it.” From that I learned you never volunteer for anything in the military. [Laugh]
They sent me to Connecticut for submarine school. While I was driving cross country I had a car wreck and broke my leg. I spent a few weeks at the VA hospital in Iowa City and then they transferred me back to Great Lakes to the big hospital for almost nine months before I got to Charleston, South Carolina and my first boat, the USS Harder 568. I’ll remember that number for the rest of my life. We went to countries like Ireland, Scotland, Jamaica, and Bermuda, and eventually got transferred to the west coast, taking our submarine through the Panama Canal and ending up in San Diego.
I got married in 1969 before we did that, so I was gone nine months of the first year of my marriage. Victoria has been through thick and thin with me but mostly thick. We’ve had a good life together. So, I transferred back to Charleston and left the service after five years.
What was your career after you got out of the Navy?
I worked in this area. First, I worked in a Native American art museum for a short while. I was the night watchman, getting there at 11pm and spending all night long looking at things I knew were going to get me in the middle of the night. [Laugh]
The 2D [two dimensional] native artwork was very prevalent at that time. One day I looked at a painting on display and thought, “I wonder if I could do that?” So, I painted a 2D mountain view and gave it to the curator to see if it would sell. She called me about a week later and said that my painting sold! I could have been a successful painter of that type back then, but I just wasn’t interested in it.
From there I worked for various tribes in administrative positions within their housing programs. I spent about 14 years working in housing programs for different tribes and for the city of Tahlequah. I spent a few years working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in California. Then I did carpentry work, and then I worked for the Department of Human Services WWH Hospital in Tahlequah in the medical legal section for 19 years before retiring. While I was still working, I was in a lot of pain from diabetes, two heart surgeries and having one of my knees replaced. I also had to have another knee replaced and tore some shoulder ligaments once I retired.
Did you retire so you could get yourself healthy?
No, I retired so I could at least enjoy the last little bit of my life. Yes, I did think I was going to die. I was in terrible pain, I could barely walk at that time and I weighed about 250 pounds. I was taking five medications. It was just difficult for me. We were going to take my retirement fund and visit a few places that I had never been to before.
Is your diabetes under control now?
I was diagnosed in 1994. They told me I would need insulin shots, and once I got home I would sit there with the needle trying to get the shot into my belly, and I could not make myself do it. I knew I would have to control it somehow, so I told my wife that I need your help to try and get this thing under control. She said, “OK, I’ll make you the proper meals.” So together we got the thing under control.
We bet your cycling activity helped, too.
Well, they went pretty much hand in hand. I was already cycling and I realized that I wasn’t as tired anymore and my cycling made me want to eat properly. But I’m not a strict diet person. I can’t get by eating Brussels sprouts. I love candy and cake. If I see a piece of cake, I’m going to eat it and deal with it tomorrow. I’ll ride a little extra tomorrow for that slice of cake. [Laugh]
When I first started cycling I weighed about 250 pounds, and right now I stay at about 175 to 180 and I feel good. The only medication I take now is aspirin.
Sounds like you are a late bloomer with cycling.
Yes, I took up riding on my own in the last few years I was working. I rode a bicycle five miles into town from my house to work.
How did you get serious about doing more miles?
My son Simeon James is mainly who started it. I’ve been retired for 10 years now, and about two years after I retired, I told him that I was thinking about taking up exercise. I told him because my knee was so bad, I couldn’t play basketball anymore so I’m thinking about bicycling, and he just says “OK.” Then two weeks later he bought me a Klein racer that he bought used from a friend. That sells for around $5,000 but he got it much cheaper. I’m getting the bike refurbished right now, and that is the one I’ll ride in the next National Senior Games.
By the way, my son plays golf. He’s looking forward to becoming 50 and getting into Senior Games in 2023.
At the time, did you think you would race the bike your son gave you?
No no, I was just content riding five to six miles every day, but when he gave me that bike I thought, “Oh man, I’m gonna have to justify him buying this for me.” At that point I decided that I was going to ride longer distances, but I hadn’t thought about racing yet.
I thought 10 miles was a long distance, but once I had the bike I started riding it further and further. Since I have diabetes, I committed myself to doing at least two 25-mile diabetes charity rides every year. After the first year with this bike, my son asked if I wanted to go to Wichita Falls, Texas with him for the Hotter’N Hell Hundred bike ride. That’s how it went.
When did Senior Games cycling come into play?
It was put in front of me in 2012 by someone who has encouraged me all along. Kathleen Fitzgerald from the Oklahoma Senior Games called and urged me to try it. I’m not sure how she knew about me, but I had actually played basketball in the Huntsman games in Utah in ’96 and we got a bronze. We qualified for the 1997 national games in Tucson but didn’t go.
Kathleen was helping with Senior Games in Florida and came up here and revitalized the Oklahoma games that had been dormant at the time. She talked me into competing and now it’s a part of my life. There were maybe 15 riders in that first year, but it’s grown since then. I’m happy to have been a part of her life in helping to reintroduce the games to Oklahoma.
When was you first National Senior Games?
I qualified to go to Cleveland in 2013 but wasn’t able to go because of finances. In 2015, I also qualified, but at a race in Kansas I got about halfway around in the race and my knee just screamed out at me. I didn’t go to the Minneapolis games because of that.
Birmingham in 2017 was my first National Senior Games, and we drove all night to get there. We raced time trials one day and the next day was postponed because of rain. We planned on coming and doing two days of racing and then going home but we managed to scrape up enough money to stay a couple more days.
And you were a recipient of a scholarship from Humana to help get you to The Games in Albuquerque last year.
The scholarship gave me the opportunity to experience The Games fully. I want to thank Pastor Don Marshal at the Oaks Indian Mission for nominating me. I’m grateful to Humana for the scholarship I got, but I wouldn’t want to apply for it again and take away an opportunity from another athlete. In the past I’ve waited too long to start getting money, so I am already starting a year early this time around.
We hear you take a bike ride across the Cherokee Nation every year. What is that about?
I do it every year. The Cherokee Nation has 10 casinos in the 14 counties they call home. It is something to ride through this country. I start south and go to each of the casinos that I can. I ride to Sallisaw about 40 miles south of us and come back to Siloam Springs which is just north of us almost in Arkansas. It’s about 300 miles in total. Of course, I don’t do it all in one day, I just take my time.
Let’s turn now to your volunteer work with Oaks Indian Mission that people have praised you about.
I had been away and had never thought of going back after I graduated. I went to a few basketball games, but the school was pretty much out of my mind until 40 years later. I thought, “What have I done for the place I went to school?”
We came up with this project and got funding to put together an alumni group and reunion. The first year there was about 50 of us, the next year there was close to 70, and this year we are hoping to get 100 to come. Most of them are older like me. We have a banquet every year and give an award and provide clothes to kids with the money that we have. Most are poor and they can’t get the Nikes that everyone else wears. Developing self-esteem in the children is important.
The project kind of just grew from there. We started talking about things that we could really do to help on the campus, and we decided to remodel a 100-year-old building into a museum. We all have stories and pictures and about what it was like when we were there. We want that to be saved to show the children what it was like 50 years ago. We weren’t pursuing any money but a man up in Nebraska who has sponsored the school for years gave us $10,000 to start it. Then he gave us another $50,000. We are all poor people, and then all of a sudden we had this money. Well, I guess we had to do it now! [Laugh] We had a dedication event last May with the grand opening coming this year.
Do you mentor the youth?
I speak occasionally at a Lutheran church in Oklahoma City, and I speak to the kids at the mission. My brother conducts a service there on Wednesdays, so l go with him and speak regularly. I want to keep the kids on their toes by giving them advice, life advice. I also tell them I never want to grow up! [Laugh]
What do you tell them about life and taking care of themselves?
I teach that life is fair, and it treats everybody the same way whether it’s good or bad, whether you are a rich person or poor person. You have to be strong enough to use the good times to survive the bad times.
Kids like to ask how far I ride, and I tell them 25 miles a day now but I didn’t do that from the start. It took years to get up to 25 miles. Years to get to 100 miles. I tell them everyone can do it, and it can be easier for youth to do it because they have a lot of energy and stamina and can do anything I can do. It doesn’t come easy, but it will become easy if you stay active.
Let’s close with a simple question: What motivates you to cycle and go compete in Senior Games?
What motivates me isn’t the medals. It’s just doing it at my age. I’m not supposed to be doing things like this and that’s what motivates me. I like to hear people talk behind my back saying, “How can he do that?” Those secret accolades that people don’t think I hear are what motivates me.
I would like to get a medal, but the thing is that I cycle alone and I do not know how to train. I have no clue about how I should train. I just ride my miles. I have never tried to get fast because I don’t know how. I’m usually finishing about 75% back in the pack of riders.
I do it because it is so much fun. My doctors ask me what I do for exercise and I tell them I don’t do anything for exercise. Then I tell them about how many miles I ride my bike and their jaws drop. They say it’s exercise, but I tell them that I don’t think of it as exercise because if I do then I’m probably not going to do it. [Laugh]