Vince Obsitnik, 83, Peachtree City, Georgia
People become role models to those around them when they join the Senior Games Movement. In a way, all senior athletes are ambassadors for active, healthy aging. But there’s only one athlete we know who has actually officially served our country as an ambassador – runner Vince Obsitnik, who represented the U.S. to the Slovak Republic between 2007 and 2009 and holds the unique distinction as probably the only U.S. Ambassador to run a marathon in country while serving.
Born in 1938 in Moravany, Slovakia, Vince immigrated with his parents that same year prior to the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany. His father worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania, after which the family moved to New Jersey. The family kept their language and traditions alive, and he always felt a connection with his land of birth. He received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and then served five years as an officer serving on destroyers and submarines.
Vince then had a long career in corporate executive positions with IBM, Unisys and Litton, at times managing as many as 3,000 employees in areas of marketing, sales, manufacturing, engineering and program management on an international scope. His knowledge and passion for his heritage led to appointments by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad in 2001, and then with special delegations to the Austrian State Treaty Anniversary and the 65th Anniversary of the Tragedy in Babyn Yar in Ukraine. While serving on the Commission Vince brought international attention to the plight of the 17th and 18th century Greek Catholic wooden churches of Slovakia. Two of the most endangered churches have been restored.
Throughout a busy life, Vince has maintained his fitness with tennis, squash, and occasional running before taking an interest in marathons in his mid-50s. He’s proud to have finished the 100th Boston Marathon, but as you will read in the following interview, a high point will always be running as an Ambassador with his bodyguards trotting alongside in the 2008 Peace Marathon in Kosice, Slovakia, the oldest marathon in Europe and the third oldest in the world.
In true ambassador style, Vince approached NSGA to share his story as a message of encouragement to others not to let obstacles and fear prevent you from staying in the game. He has encountered a steady series of health issues as a senior athlete and has worked through each one to continue to his next race goal. One of those goals was to run the Road Races in the National Senior Games, which he accomplished in 2019. However, at the time, he knew he would need surgery to replace a mitral heart valve six weeks later. After his first experience of fitness, fun and fellowship, Vince now plans to compete in The Games regularly.
Vince Obsitnik’s ongoing Personal Best journey has positively impacted lives in many ways, and not the least being his four sons and twelve grandchildren, most of whom have followed his example by practicing active lifestyles. That’s what ambassadors do!
Senior Games athletes are all ambassadors for healthy aging, but this is the first time I can formally say “Thank you for participating, Mr. Ambassador.”
Thank you, it was an honor to serve the United States, especially in the country where I was born. It was also a great honor to participate in the National Senior Games and see the number and quality of the active senior competitors!!
We’ll get to that in a bit, but the reason for this feature is that you wrote to NSGA with a desire to share an important message for others. Please explain.
My story is that you can continue with running and sports even though you face health issues. I am currently 83 years old and started marathoning in 1994. Since then, I have run thirty-four races including seven marathons but have had to overcome health issues along the way. My message is “solve the health issue and then commit to get back to running because it is possible and you can do it!”
In May 2000, I had open heart surgery to have a mitral valve repaired. Prior to the surgery, I asked my surgeon if I would be able to run marathons again. He said “Go for it!” I did and ran the Columbus Marathon in 2001. In 2004, I had a ruptured disk and then ran the Flying Pig Marathon in 2006. May 2007, I had heart ablation therapy to correct atrial fibrillation, and then ran the Kosice, Slovakia Marathon in 2008. And in 2012, I had hip resurfacing surgery and ran the Naples Half Marathon in 2014, followed by the Sarasota Half, Galloway Half and Tomoka Half marathons in 2017 and 2018.
The Slovak race was a special race we will talk more about. And you had a really close call right before the 2019 National Senior Games, too?
Yes. I qualified for the 2019 National Senior Games in the Georgia and Louisiana state Senior Games in 2018. Then, in March of 2019, I was told by my cardiologists that I needed to have my mitral valve replaced. I replied I was scheduled for the National Senior Games in June and can I keep running? They advised it was OK to run but to stop if I ran out of breath. So, , knowing that I was going to have open heart surgery in August I ran the 5K at The Games on June 21st followed by the 10K on June 23rd. It all went well and I’m back to running after my successful heart surgery. I’ve had all my heart procedures done at the Cleveland Clinic where they have great surgeons.
It’s typical for athletes to face injuries and physical challenges, and some come from their competitive efforts. Obviously, you have seen that the rewards are worth those efforts when you overcome them.
We all find as life goes on that we have different health issues to go through, manage, and hopefully solve. Perhaps my story may embolden seniors to keep active even if they have health problems.
You speak like an ambassador, which makes sense since your distinguished career includes two years serving as US Ambassador to the Slovak Republic, your country of origin. The really cool part of your time in Slovakia was that you actually ran a marathon there. That must be your greatest race experience!
Well, it was certainly a great experience to be able to do that, and it is up there with the Boston Marathon. I did run Boston for the 100th anniversary under four hours and it was just a fabulous experience because it was Boston. Running the Kosice Peace Marathon, for me, was on a par with finishing the Boston Marathon.
The marathon in Kosice is called the Peace Marathon and it’s the oldest marathon in Europe. Not counting the legend of the first Greek marathoner, that is. [Laugh] People come from all over to run it including the elites. The fact that I was the ambassador and a runner, I just said to myself, ‘I have to run it while I am there.’
The funniest part is that when I told my bodyguards that I was going to do it, I said ‘You guys are going to have to train and race with me because you always have to be with me no matter what.” They had never run long distance before. They weren’t American, they were Slovaks provided by the Slovak government. So they trained with me for the many months it took me to get ready. They stayed with me to the finish. There was, however, a funny ending to the story. The local government, concerned that the US Ambassador might not make it, had an ambulance follow me for about the last three miles. It’s in the background of our finishing picture!
Did your bodyguards resign their post after that?[Laugh] No. For them that was a great experience. It just made it more interesting than the normal type of security work they do. So, they were very enthused with doing that. Those two guys became my sons over the time I was there. I speak the language as well so I was able to speak with them in Slovak as well as English.
Vince, an ambassador running a marathon in his country of birth has to be some kind of record!
I don’t know that any other person has ever run a marathon as a sitting US Ambassador before. Most people who become ambassadors are along in years, mostly in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Obviously at the later ages, there aren’t a lot of people running, especially running marathons. My guess is I’m the first one to do it as a sitting US Ambassador.
You now ran the 5K and 10K with us. How was your experience?
I was pretty impressed by the enthusiasm and emotions from all the people who came there to participate. It was nice, like being part of a team. We met some nice people and shared stories with them.
There was one funny thing that happened at the race. At the end of the 10K, there was the local television station doing interviews of people in the area. The reporter came over to me asked me how it went and I said, ‘Good. No problems.’ Because there was smoke residue from some wildfires in the state, I was asked, ‘Did the smoke bother you?’ I replied, ‘No I didn’t notice anything, but on the other hand, since I ran at a slower pace, maybe it was the smoke!” The interview showed on TV.
What did you think of the fitness level of your competition?
I know I’m not the fastest person in the world, and my score was modest, middle of the pack roughly. It was incredible at the award ceremony when they called out the finishing times and paces of the top eight guys, especially the top three. I was totally impressed by the level of athletic fitness in our age group, and I felt proud to see people that age running so fast. It certainly issued a challenge for me to get better.
You have been fortunate to see the world at a high level in military, business and government service. You have competed in iconic events. It’s great that you now regard the National Senior Games as a great experience.
I agree with you, it was a very great event. We met some nice people there, wonderful runners. I definitely want to come to Fort Lauderdale, and I plan to participate every two years as long as I qualify.
The fact that you have a body strong enough to endure health challenges suggests you have always been active.
When I was a kid, I delivered newspapers on an old bike that someone gave to me. Every day I pedaled with 100 newspapers in a bag on the front of my bike. I have been thinking about that lately because riding that bike everyday was great exercise. I believe that experience strengthened my legs.
In high school I was on the soccer team, and then I attended the Naval Academy where you are involved in a sport all throughout the year. When I left the academy, I was playing squash. I didn’t play collegiate squash for the academy, but I did learn the sport there. I played about 30 years and competed in tournaments before I started distance running. Squash is certainly great for keeping up your aerobic fitness.
Up until age 56, I thought that running was boring, just running step by step and then you are done. But once you set a goal and you start working out your training program, then it becomes a real project and a challenge. It’s exciting. Running became exciting and interesting for me because of the challenge of racing times and distances. Finally, you become challenged with racing against other people.
I then got excited about running a marathon and wondered if I could really do it. Before, I ran on and off recreationally. Once I focused on running a marathon, it taught me what it was to train for it and it also got me excited. The Marine Corps marathon was my first and I hit my first and only wall there. I got the long-distance running bug in ’94 and just kept on going.
What does your family think about your activity? Has it had a positive impact on them?
Yeah, of course. We have four sons and all of them are very fit. Three of the four have all run marathons! I don’t know that it was my example totally, but certainly it was a part. They all played sports and all four played squash at their colleges. My oldest played at Penn on the varsity, son number 4 played at Princeton on Varsity, and the other two went to the Naval Academy and played squash there. They have all stayed physically fit and active since then. My oldest gets up at 4:30 in the morning and rides his bike for an hour in his basement. I recently had a text from my granddaughter, a college freshman. It said “Grandpa, I just ran 7 miles!” It made me real proud! On top of that, she did negative splits which have always been difficult for me.
You are being modest. They all picked up your sport and two went to your college!
I taught them when they were young and started playing with them. At a certain point, when I felt that they were doing well, and they needed better training than I could give them, we joined a squash club and the pros picked them up and started training them in a youth program. They had lessons a couple times a week and we would drive around the country to play in squash tournaments, some National. Because of that they did well. I guess the conclusion here is that parents should engage actively with their children in sports.
Speaking of my family, running the New York Marathon on November 7, 1999 was my most unusual running experience. I ran it with two of my sons. However, I didn’t tell them beforehand that I was already scheduled the following year for open heart surgery to repair my mitral valve. I didn’t want to affect their race and have them stay close to me or worry about me. We all finished fine, and I told them about it afterwards. However, during the race I, for sure, was thinking quite a bit about the condition of my heart. But it went well.
So what are your goals now? Any more marathons?
I’ve run seven marathons but hope to run at least three more for ten. I also want my story to embolden seniors to keep active even if they have health problems. We all find as life goes on that we have different health issues to go through, manage, and hopefully solve. No matter what comes up, people need to address it and work to resolve it and keeping running.
Just keep moving on!