Walk Like a Mississipian – Donna Gonzales, 72, Terry, Mississippi
Race walking is an often unappreciated sport. The casual observer might consider its movements quirky, but anyone who has tried it or watched closely will attest to the skill and focus it demands of athletes. Precise technique and endurance, requiring extensive mental and physical preparation, is required to properly compete. Race walking form is closely judged, and it is customary to see many competitors disqualified.
Donna Gonzales makes it look easy. Even though she did not learn the sport until she was 55, she has been on the National Senior Games medal stand every time she has attended, including sweeping up gold medals in both the 1,500 and 5,000 meter race walk events in 2011 and 2013. The Mississippi Senior Olympics saw fit to recognize her dominating performances as a senior athlete locally and nationally in just her first decade by inducting Donna into its Hall of Fame in 2009. Another key factor for the award was her unflagging enthusiasm for fitness and constant advocacy that has resulted in many others joining the Senior Games Movement.
A native of Rayville, Louisiana, Donna kept active with gymnastics, cheerleading and being a lifeguard through high school. Moving to Terry, Mississippi just outside of Jackson, Donna says raising children and helping with her husband’s business kept her moving, and she also found time to teach aerobics and Middle Eastern dance at her YMCA. Her outg oing personality and Southern charm landed a regular exercise segment on a morning TV talk show on WLBT, Jackson’s NBC affiliate station. Once that ended and child rearing duties subsided, Donna craved a fun new challenge. A younger woman taught her to race walk, and the rest, as they say, is history.
People call her a natural race walker, but as you will discover in our conversation, perhaps her proficiency at belly dancing in the late 70s helped speed up her learning curve for this unique sport. Leave it to a Personal Best senior athlete to make that connection!
You’ve been a dominant presence in your age group at National Senior Games. When was your first?
I have gone to Nationals since…well, let me count the years here. (Laughs) My first was in 1999, and I got two silver medals in my age group that year and 2001. I got one more at Virginia in 2003 but got disqualified in the 1,500 meter race because I had a bent knee. I know what happened to me. I was trying so hard to beat someone that I forgot my form. I got that straightened out and won two Gold medals in Pittsburgh in 2005. I missed 2007 for health reasons and 2009 because of a lot of things going on with our family business. But I came back and got two gold in Houston, and then did it again in Cleveland in 2013.
How did you become a race walker? Are there many doing the sport around Jackson?
Well, surprisingly there are. We have a Mississippi Track Club, and there’s a race walking division with quite a few people in it. When I became 55, I was at the point where my children were finally out of the house and I was looking for something I could do. My husband Ray likes to hunt and fish and all that stuff, so I wanted something for myself. We had our own heating and air conditioning business so I did office work for Ray in the afternoons, and did my exercise and activities in the mornings.
I’ve always been into gymnastics, exercise and fitness. As a matter of fact, I taught aerobics and Middle Eastern dancing for awhile at the Jackson YMCA when that was the big thing in the late 70s. A little later I even had a regular segment leading exercises on the Coffee With Judy morning TV show on Channel 3 here in Jackson. The experience was really good. Even when I got pregnant with my third child I just kept right on doing it, and added some maternity exercises as I went along. After I took time off to have the baby, I brought her onto the show six weeks later. We sat her on the table and I went back to the fitness! (Laughs)
Anyway, I had tried to be a runner in my younger years, but I’m kinda short and I was just never good at it. Then I met Barbara Duplechain, who was one of the very best race walkers in Mississippi, and I told her I’d like to learn to do that. She took me along to some races and showed me how it’s done. My first race was on St. Patrick’s Day and it was 40 degrees and fa-reezing in downtown Jackson. I called my friends and none of them would go with me. But I got myself down there and did the race, and I came in third in my age group. And that was it. I was hooked! (Chuckles)
Race walk is a technically challenging and unforgiving sport. Are you as much competing with yourself to do it right as you are trying to beat others?
Absolutely. It’s hard. You have to get your form right or you’re going to get disqualified, no matter how fast you can be. It’s a technique you really have to perfect, especially at the national level. If you have a bent knee, or get your foot off the ground like when you run, they will call you out. They have people lined all around the track looking for you to make a mistake. You get three warnings, and on the third you’re out!
That’s what I like about it, actually. Anybody can go out and run. In this, you’ve got to be mentally prepared to have everything moving right – your feet, your legs, your hips all the way up to your head. If something gets out of line you’ll do it wrong.
Now older people like us in Senior Games have a problem because our knees start to get knobby, and it looks like a bent knee when it’s not sometimes. But it is what it is.
That’s your story, and you’re sticking to it, right?
I’m absolutely stickin’ with it! (Laughs)
Let’s back up a bit to your time teaching Middle Eastern dance. Did you or the class actually perform?
Oh yes, we just wore leotards in the class at the YMCA but we would dress up to do shows at nursing homes and other events. We didn’t do any nightclubs or anything like that. We all had a good time. It really is good exercise. You find muscles you didn’t know you had.
Do you think any of the dance techniques were helpful for you to learn race walking?
Well, it is kinda similar. In belly dancing you learn to isolate your hips and control muscle movements. In race walking, you have to use your hips to push off and twist to get your legs to move the right way. People have told me before that my dancing must have helped me.
Now that belly dancing has been compared to race walking, no one will ever look at either in the same way again.
That’s true! (Hearty laughter) Actually, I did get a phone call recently from a woman who used to take the dance classes from me. Dang if she didn’t come out and do a race with the track club, and now she’s started race walking. That was exciting for me.
So you found a sport as a senior, and have always been active. Were there any challenges along the way?
The only big thing I’ve had was a hysterectomy that went wrong in March of 2007. It was supposed to be a simple procedure. I scheduled it to allow time to be ready for the National Senior Games in Louisville that summer. But during the procedure they sutured my bowels together. I was supposed to be in and out the same day, but instead I was in the hospital for a month. They had to do three surgeries to make it right. I almost died. So When I got out, I had lost 30 pounds and was basically a skeleton. I could not walk from the back of my house to the front because I was so weak. It took me a year of recuperation to get my strength back. I didn’t get to go to Kentucky because of it.
I finally started walking for exercise again after 8 months. It’s hard to lay down when your brain wants you to get up and go , but you can’t. Oh my! But I was just not going to be put down by all that, and I came back eventually. I was so glad. But other than that, I’ve been healthy and I know it’s because I’ve stayed physically fit all my life. The doctors told me if I had not been in such good physical shape I would have never made it through all of that.
Has your success helped to get others involved?
I’ve gotten several girls into race walking at the Mississippi Senior Olympics, and several others are waitin’ to get on when they turn 50. Barbara Duplechain, the girl that taught me how to race walk, finally got old enough to join us last year. She came with me to Cleveland and got a silver medal. She is an awesome race walker.
We have fierce competition at races in the state and at Nationals. But once we get across the finish line we’re all friends. Everybody’s there to help everybody else. I’ve made some good friends.
What advice do you give to people who don’t think they are good enough, or don’t want to do sports?
I encourage them to get active. Get out and walk. Don’t just sit around. You’ve got to go out and play. Find something you like to do. That’s why the state games are so good, there’s all kinds of things you can do, from the big sports to games like throwing washers into a box. You have fun and there is so much camaraderie. If they want to learn to race walk, I always help. I live a little out in the country where the roads aren’t as busy, so I’ve marked off a 5K where I can train and teach it. And I have had several people come out.
OK, so we heard that you travel another way that is unusual for most folks your age. You own a motorcycle?
Yes! (Laughs) My husband has had a Harley for a good while and I would ride everywhere with him. But eight years ago I told him, “I want my own!” He bought me a Honda Shadow, but I’m a short legged person and it would tip over when I tried to get my feet down to the ground. I got scared trying to hold it up. So what I got was a trike. It’s awesome. I had a red one, and now I’ve got a blue one. And I love it!
It is important for older people to do all kinds of things so the younger ones coming up can see what you can do all of your life. I remember when my mother was 30 I was thinking, “Oh my goodness, she is sooo old!” but when I got to be 30 I wasn’t old one bit. When I got to 50 I sure didn’t feel like I was old. And I still feel good.
The main thing is to keep going, keep doing things and you can keep your health. I’m always telling folks “C’mon let’s go!”