Hollyce Kirkland, 100, Sevierville, Tennessee
The match was set. The anticipated “Battle of the Centenarians” had created a buzz in Albuquerque at the 2019 National Senior Games presented by Humana. Media lined up to cover the 50-meter race between 103-year-old Julia “Hurricane” Hawkins and upstart Hollyce Kirkland, who had just reached triple digits. When the gun sounded, however, only Julia was at the line. Where’s Hollyce?
It turns out that the Tennessee swimmer and runner had taken a fall the day before, and while it happened at the track, it wasn’t in competition. She was helping her athlete friend and travel companion Rhonda Ratcliff find her event, and says she was distracted by some attractive plantings and slipped while stepping up to look closer. The force of the fall bruised her face badly and knocked out a tooth. Amazingly for a woman her age, Hollyce said she had “a little pity party” and then got up angry because she would miss her track events and the chance to make some records. She did manage to pull herself together to carry the Tennessee flag in the Celebration of Athletes, and she’s already fixed on a goal to compete at the 2021 Games in Greater Fort Lauderdale, when she will be a spry 102.
Hollyce isn’t Superwoman, but she is a senior athlete, and NSGA athlete screening research has revealed that our highly active seniors only experience one-third as many falls as their age peers. Further, the rate of recovery for those who do experience a fall is much higher. Consider Hollyce Kirkland to be our Poster Girl for Active Aging.
Speaking with us in her delightful Southern drawl, Hollyce admits that she is blessed with good genes, but because she was raised on a farm, she believes that led her to always practice good health and exercise habits. Good genes are no advantage if you don’t take care of yourself. Sports were scarce for her growing up, but she had plenty of friends to bike, run and play with, and she recalls when the kids even built their own tennis court. In her adult life she fell in love with hiking in the Appalachian Mountains and volunteering to help mark and clean up trails.
Regular walks and swims at the local pool kept her going after retiring to the Volunteer State in 2000. Hollyce finally entered competition at the Tennessee Senior Olympics in her 80s and then traveled to California in 2009 to make her National Senior Games debut. She’s not an experienced or gifted athlete and focuses on the fitness and fellowship with others, but she always gives her best and is delighted to have set six NSGA age division records, including setting marks in 2019 for women 100+ in her 50-yard Breaststroke and 200-yard Freestyle performances.
Grab a glass of sweet tea and set a spell as Hollyce shares her story and some advice for us youngsters. Her biggest advice is to create a support team to help and encourage you to continue for the long run. Better listen to her – Hollyce may have been gifted good health, but her Personal Best attitude to keep moving and motivated has made the difference for her to cross the 100-year line.
Hollyce, congratulations on your good health and for breaking the century mark! We’re proud to have you in The Games!
Thanks, yes I will be 101 this year. I was born on 10-31-1919.
You were born on Halloween? Did you feel cheated having to share your birthday with trick or treating?
Yes that’s correct. It was fine, I didn’t feel left out at all. I had three sisters, so we always celebrated. We didn’t do a lot of trick or treating or chimney climbing, just celebrated it as my birthday, not Halloween.
There’s been another woman older than you on the track of late. You raced with Julia Hawkins in 2017. Are you looking forward to your next meeting in 2021?
Oh sure, I certainly would look forward to seeing her again! I didn’t really get to know Julia. I usually have someone with me, and we didn’t get to talk much. I do enjoy the company of the other people. I would not go if I didn’t enjoy it.
I am most fortunate that I have this to do. Now, I am not competitive enough that I would be concerned that she was going to take the title away from me. [Laugh]
Well, “Hurricane” Hawkins beat all of the 90+ women’s times. You did give us a scare in Albuquerque last June when you were a no-show at the 50-meter race with her. We found out later that you had taken a fall the day before.
Yes. All the swimming was finished so I was at the track stadium passing some time since I had no races that afternoon. I was walking around with my friend Rhonda Ratcliff looking for her long jump event. But I was also stepping up to look at the plantings that were a little uphill on the side…and I tripped and fell on my face. That was a trip that wasn’t necessary! [Laugh]
Important reminder for people, even active people, to be aware of your balance. How badly were you hurt?
I messed up my mouth and knocked out a tooth. But I was really having more of a pity party than I was hurting. [Laugh] I was also upset with myself for doing something stupid and it messed up my records.
I will say that I got good medical attention out there. But I sure did hate to miss out by not running on that event.
We are betting that nothing will keep you from going to Fort Lauderdale to finish that race in 2021.
That’s the plan!
One thing is certain – you are one tough woman, Hollyce.
Growing up on the farm we always had something that we needed to do, and there was always somebody around who wanted to do something as well. A group of us made up our own tennis court, if that tells you anything about the place I grew up in. We had rackets and we built the tennis court in the dirt.
Farm life is a very physical and active. That must have set the tone for your life and a big reason for staying healthy this long.
Probably. I was active and had friends to be active with. We had trees to climb and bicycles to ride. I just didn’t have organized sports. I took up swimming after I finished high school. I also hiked a lot with a club that did maintenance on the Appalachian Trail. I served on the board of the group for some time in the ‘60s, and that’s how I met my husband Marvin. Marv was doing transportation for the group, and one night he came to pick up his friend and I happened to be the second passenger.
For the most part I have always been in good health. I would say that part of it is in my genes-my grandfather lived with us, and I knew my great grandfather as well if that tells you anything. I had one slight touch with cancer in 1985 and I had some lumps removed from my breasts. But that was about it. And I was raised on a farm, so I always have eaten fresh foods and not a lot of processed foods. Awhile ago, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease and that does limit the kinds of foods that I can eat now.
Are you a native Tennessee girl?
No, I was born in Texas and my family moved me to Greensboro, North Carolina when I was a couple months old. I stayed there until I was married. Later we moved to New Jersey and finally retired in Tennessee.
Did you go to college?
Not back then, I finished high school and then went to work. Greensboro has seven colleges and I took and took some courses at two of them in adult life. I ended up working at one of them.
What was your career?
I started as a printer’s devil, which meant I did anything that needs to be done, mostly communication and bookkeeping at the printer. Then I worked as a Methodist church secretary to a minister, and from there I became secretary to the president of the Methodist college in Greensboro. The college had night classes taught by a couple of the attorneys in town. I took the courses and then ended up working for them.
We moved to New Jersey for my husband’s job. We retired and moved to Tennessee in 2000. We decided on Tennessee because Marv had a real good friend here that was moving into a retirement home and we bought his house. Marv had hiked with this gentleman quite and bit and they were real good friends. We are very happy here.
So when did you get into competition and Senior Games?
I started swimming at the local pool here several days a week, and my friend Rhonda Ratcliff told me about Tennessee Senior Olympics and we went together. I think it was 2005 and it was my first competition. It was 2009 when I first went to the National Senior Games. That was in California.
Swimming is my first sport, but I like doing almost everything they offered on the track, too. That’s probably from all of my walking and hiking. In this part of Tennessee there are some great places to walk uphill and down.
You are living proof that it’s never too late to get into The Games!
Yeah, I guess so. To the people who tell me that I shouldn’t have started the Senior Games in my 80’s, I just shrug it off. The Senior Games opportunity gave me courage.
I will say that it’s important to have a support team around you. I went to California on my own but after that it was usually with Rhonda. She started in her 50’s while I was starting in my ‘80s. I have quit driving, so Marv gets me to the pool and Rhonda usually gets me to where I need to be for the sports competitions. Rhonda is the one who keeps me at it.
I can take care of myself, but you don’t want me out there by myself. If you want my advice, I can’t stress enough that it’s important to have a support team.
Your big reward for starting late is that you have less competition have set quite a few NSGA age group records.
I am most fortunate to have set the records at the National Senior Games. I won’t say that I am very competitive, but I do enjoy the sports and it’s fun to stand on the podium.
I will tell you that the fellowship is wonderful. It is always nice to go to the games with Rhonda and we’ve made many friends. It’s also a good excuse to go somewhere. It got us to California, Texas, Alabama, and New Mexico. Marv drove me to Ohio for the 2013 Games.
What would you tell others looking to start this as older adults?
I think I would start out by asking questions. Do you walk or swim? And if they did either of those, I would ask questions to help them choose a sport. They know what they’ve been through, what it took to get from point A to point B and whether they have a handicap or a special need. I can’t play ping pong or racquetball, but I can walk and swim.
I would also tell them it is age bracketed so you aren’t competing with a 50 year old at an older age. Then I assure them that’s its not body-eat-body. They will meet some wonderful people showing what they can do. Competition is really not what I go for, I go for the fellowship more than anything.
It’s important for people to know they will not embarrass themselves if they don’t win a medal or ribbon.
One good thing about it is that you start out at your local level, and then state, and then Nationals. Along the way, you make your friends at the local level, and you add new ones at state. By the time you get to Nationals, you already have a support team that is with you.
So, your competitors are also part of your support team. You must also consider the Tennessee Senior Olympics staff and volunteers as part of it too.
Yes. I think that they do an excellent job. They are very patient and happy to help with whatever you need and they take you at whatever skill level you are at.
You worked at a church and Methodist college. How important is your spirituality to your outlook?
I am at church every week, and I worked in a church all my life. I am not a holy roller, but I take care of myself and I won’t try to take care of you. I do care about you, but I’m not expecting you to believe in everything I believe in or act like I act.
I would hate to worry about every hour of every day. I know that I have people who are going to help me and that I’m not here by myself. I’m thankful for enjoying good health and fortunate to have support.
It makes sense to us that you have a positive attitude and keep looking forward, Hollyce.
It does make sense, and of course that is what I do. I hadn’t taken time to analyze it. I have a mindset that as long as a have my support team then I can put forth the effort to go to the next meet and compete. I’m not disappointed if I don’t come out on top. I go with friends and I always have fun.
So, I have good health and a good support team. You can’t do these things without that.
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