Johnnye Valien named USATF Athlete of the Week for Sacto WRs

Johnnye Valien has been around forever, it seems. I first met her in the mid-1990s, and later profiled her for The San Diego Union-Tribune. (She lives in Los Angeles but came down for a Senior Olympics meet.) Every five years, she goes bonkers. Sets a bunch of records. Sacramento worlds was her W85 coming out party. She won six golds and one silver — and may be the world’s oldest female vaulter. USATF took notice yesterday, naming her its Athlete of the Week. She won the same honor in March 2006. I’m proud to call her a friend and a teammate (of the Southern California Striders).

Pat Peterson beat fellow Masters Hall of Famer Johnnye Valien (right) in the W85 100 final but showed her respects afterward. (Photo by Ken Stone)

Here’s a profile from November 2005 by Nancy Armour:

USA: Athletic senior citizens are older, wiser, faster

CHICAGO (Associated Press/Sun-Times), November 27, 2005: When Johnnye Valien was younger, she was told track and field was no place for a girl. A few years later, she was turned away because she was too old. Well, Valien sure showed the naysayers. Keeps doing it, too.

Now 80, the grandmother of seven travels the world for masters track and field competitions, collecting medals and breaking records.

“I like a challenge,” she said. “Quite often people say, ‘Why are you doing this? What are you trying to prove?’ I’m not trying to prove anything. I just enjoy it.”

She’s not alone. Competitive sports no longer are reserved for the young, and there are plenty of geezers who still have game. And we’re not talking mall walking, shuffleboard and golf.

A recent issue of GeezerJock magazine, devoted to competitive athletics for people over 40, had articles on the Senior Olympic Hockey Championships, 50-year-old rugby players and the Ironman Triathlon.

“It’s sort of a reflection of a culture. People aren’t stopping doing the things they loved when they were kids,” said Sean Callahan, editor of GeezerJock. “The sports they played when they were kids, they’re still playing them. And I think we encourage it. There’s a new emphasis on health.

Valien was a swimmer and a physical education major in college. She moved to Los Angeles after graduation and tried to join a track team, but the only ones she found were for school-aged girls. “They said I was too old,” Valien said.

“They didn’t have women’s track teams in the time.” She turned to coaching instead, and ran, played basketball and skied in her free time. It wasn’t until she was 64 that she heard about the Senior Olympics.

“At the ripe old age of 64, I started competing again,” she said, laughing. She works out for an hour to 90 minutes twice during the week, then trains with her track club Sundays at UCLA. In the last three weeks before a competition, she’ll train every day.

She’s competed in the triple jump, long jump, high jump, 300-meter hurdles, 80-meter hurdles and heptathlon. She holds eight U.S. records in the 70-74, 75-79 and 80-84 age groups.

“I said when I reached 75 I was going to retire. Now I’m 80, and I’m thinking about it,” she said. “But now I have an opportunity because I’m the baby in the 80-84 age group, so my [record] chances are better. So I guess I’ll be out there again. Oh, yes.”

While her children and grandchildren are proud of her accomplishments — one grandson likes to pick up her medals and ask what each is for, others like to race her in the hurdles — Valien said she doesn’t tell her non-track friends much about her hobby.

They just can’t understand why an 80-year-old woman would want to jump over hurdles or pole vault.

“Those years are going by fast, but I’m not going to let them slow me down,” she said. “The only thing that’s getting old is my memory.”

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July 21, 2011

12 Responses

  1. Rob D'Avellar - July 21, 2011

    Great that Johnnye was recognized. With so many standout performances at Worlds (Joy Upshaw, Lisa Daley, Kathy Bergen, etc., etc.), it would have been easy to overlook soft-spoken Johnnye.

  2. wayne bennett - July 21, 2011

    I’ve had the pleasure of knowing this great lady for a number of years. What a great honor for her. Her old friend Tim Murphy would be so proud of her. Great work Johnnye!!!

  3. Mary Harada - July 21, 2011

    So many to pick from – so many excellent performances, congratulations Johnnye – you deserve the recognition. Her friend Pat Peterson was no slouch either – AR in the 100,200, and a WR in the 400. All that after recovering from a fractured pelvis last winter.

  4. Bill Collins - July 21, 2011

    Johnnye, You have always been a great inpirational to all of us in masters track for so many years. Your recognition as Athlete of the week is well deserved. I am so very happy for yo. The best to you always and I look forward to seeing you next year.

  5. Kim Williams - July 21, 2011

    How great is that picture! Athletes are athletes, no matter the age of the body.

  6. Greg Foster - July 21, 2011

    Congratulations on a well deserved honor.

  7. nadine O'Connor - July 21, 2011

    Congratulations, Johnnye! You are an inspiration, both as an athlete and in the graceful and kind way you conduct yourself on and off the track.

    About 10 years ago I watched you compete in the the pole vault. You were having so much fun that I said to myself: “I want to do that!” Johnnye, why didn’t you tell me how hard it was?

  8. Karla Del Grande - July 21, 2011

    These older women are such an inspiration — Johnnye, Pat Peterson, Kathy Bergen, Nadine O’Connor, Olga Kotelko, Mary Harada, Jeanne Daprano … and others. I’m so pleased that one of them is being honoured for USATF Athlete of the Week. Not a male athlete, not a young athlete, but THE athlete of the week!

  9. peter taylor - July 21, 2011

    Look forward to seeing Johnnye in Berea next week. How does she stay so young? And what about that Pat Peterson, coming back from both injuries and illness over the years? Pat is scheduled for Ohio as well.

    Both Pat and Johnnye could give me a 20-meter headstart and still whip me in the 100-meter dash. I do think, however, that I might win on the Concept II rowing machine.

  10. Jerry Smartt - July 21, 2011

    Check that bandanna/bandana. Cool. Now, THAT’S a great picture, Ken. Congrats, Johnnye and Pat. Smartty

  11. christel donley - July 21, 2011

    Pat and Johnney, that picture says it all..who said: Age is a matter of mind, if you don’t mind,
    it does not matter!!!

    True, we don’t need to prove anything, just to ourselves, that we can still move fast, jump, throw, whatever – and enjoying every bit of it,
    except injuries, not time for that !.

    Congrats Johnney, you taught us (over the years) how to pose for pictures, stand up straight, pull the tummy in and place your feet a certain way, I forgot how…)
    And Pat” I was your fashion consultant, you still remind me and ask me, if this or that is ok!
    Love it –
    See you in a few days!

  12. Carla Hoppie - July 25, 2011

    Congratulations to Johnnye for this well deserved honor. Knowing Johnnye for many years she is a great inspiration to me. What a great picture!

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