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Going For It

Three local athletes prove that the drive to succeed doesn’t dampen with age.

By Ken McAlpine

 

eet three remarkable athletes who will change your perspective on aging.

Yes, their (ongoing) athletic accomplishments read like something out of a pathological liar’s notebook. But really, their stories have little to do with athleticism. You’ll see the common theme here. Tracie Johnstone Currie, Jim McConica and Ed Wehan have made their sports a part of their lives, and those pursuits have made their lives rich far beyond resumes.

As Wehan, the oldest of the bunch, points out, it isn’t over until it’s over.

“We haven’t defied aging,” says Wehan with a grin. “We just live with it, with the goal of doing as much as you can do within the constraints you have to live with. The satisfaction of being successful in that context is just as fun as it was 40 years ago. The joy of competition continues.”

Ed Wehan running in the 2017 Mammoth Turkey Trot 5K in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
Photo by Val Wehan

ED WEHAN
Before the running, which established him as a wiry exemplar of impossible possibilities, Ed Wehan was a good enough tennis player at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the 1960s to find himself looking across the net at Arthur Ashe.

Even Wehan’s sense of perspective is healthy.

“You know what the best part was?” Wehan says. “Sitting around in the locker room afterward talking about school.”

But mostly, it was (and is) about the running. In 1979 Wehan ran the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run — 100 miles of hellish horse trail through the Sierra Nevada range from Squaw Valley to Auburn. It was the event’s early years; in a sense, the runners were not unlike the first astronauts.

“No one ran 100 miles across the Sierras, but that’s what made it interesting,” he says. Interestingly, he finished 7th overall in 18 hours.

Don’t laud Wehan for his mental toughness.

“You really don’t think,” he says. “You just go.”

Wehan’s march across the calendar pages makes you think. At 40, he ran his best marathon; 2 hours and 36 minutes. The following year he ran in the 50 mile national championships. He placed 7th overall, finishing in 5 hours and 39 minutes. (That’s a 6:47 mile pace.) In 1987, at 43, Wehan won the Avalon Catalina 50 Mile Race and, in doing so, set a course record that stood for a decade.

He is not invincible, or without setback. In 2001 he underwent open heart surgery to address his atrial fibrillation. (“Just so I could continue to run, backpack and enjoy the outdoors.”) He did wait six months before running the mountainous Portland, Oregon Rose City 50 miler, finishing 3rd overall.

Yes, at 75 Wehan still runs. But these days he funnels a large part of his stamina into a pile of civic endeavors nearly as high as the Sierra Nevadas. He serves tirelessly for so many groups and boards it might be easier to run 100 miles. Among them is the Ventura Land Trust, whose mission is to acquire public access lands so that folks can hike, bike and, yep, run through the wild.

Jim McConica swimming from Anacapa Island to the mainland in October 2012.

JIM McCONICA
Jim McConica was once one of the best swimmers in the world.

Competing at the University of Southern California, he was a six-time NCAA gold medalist. In 1971, he was a member of a world record-setting 800-meter freestyle relay. He missed a berth on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team by one-tenth of a second in the 200-meter freestyle. And that’s where things got interesting. For a long time McConica viewed his Olympic near miss as the ultimate failure. It’s a long story, but the short version is that McConica returned to swimming in his early 30s and swimming has not been the same since. He turned Masters pool swimming on its head. He turned long distance open water swimming on its head, too.

Failure, in the right hands, is excellence.

Now 68, McConica’s work ethic has no weak link. Day after day after day, his workouts are both legendary and grueling. Someone once swore they saw McConica break a Masters world record in practice while wearing long pants. If this is true, McConica just forgot his suit.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” he smiles. “Excellence is therefore not an act but a habit.”

Yes, these are Aristotle’s words, but few people make them as true.

McConica has set masters national and world records in every age group since he was 30. He has swum the English Channel (21 miles), crossed from Catalina Island to the mainland ( 21 miles) four times and participated in an ocean relay swim from Santa Barbara to San Diego (yes, you read that right).

One year, a Ventura High School senior broke McConica’s record for the swim from Anacapa Island to the mainland. Twenty-three days later, McConica snatched the record back. He was 61. At 65 he became the oldest swimmer to complete the Catalina Channel. That record has since been broken. We know what that means.

But here’s what makes all of these athletes different.

“All that stuff is pretty cool,” says McConica, “but I am also really proud of the people I train with. Eighteen months ago, one of my young friends, Karina Garcia, set the overall women’s record for crossing the Anacapa Channel. Very cool.”

Tracie Johnstone Currie on the tennis courts at
Ventura High School in 2019.
Photo by Felix Cortez

TRACIE JOHNSTONE CURRIE
Yes, Tracie Johnstone Currie’s tennis resume is nothing short of astonishing. She won her first national title at 14. As a junior player, she was ranked as high as 25th in the nation in singles, and as high as No. 3 in girls’ doubles. She was Arizona High School state champion. From 1987 through 1991, she was the No. 1 singles and doubles player at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the first UCSB female tennis player to qualify for the NCAA Championship tournament.

Laurels you could easily rest on, but why? After 40, she decided to play on the senior tour.

Like Wehan and McConica, Currie has a sense of humor and perspective.

“In the tennis world, once you turn 35 you’re a senior,” she says. “It also goes all the way through the 90s. Something to shoot for.”

As a questionable senior (at 51, she’s by far the youngest of our role models), Currie has won 15 gold ball national titles, four silver and four bronze. Pairing with tennis legend Rick Leach, she won a world title in mixed doubles, and she’s played doubles with various other former tennis notables, including Jeff Tarango, Debbie Spence Nasim and Stacy Margolin Potter. Currie represented the United States in the World Cup International Team Championships three times.

But most important, she never forgot what got her there — which is why she teaches kids’ summer camps at the Pierpont Racquet Club in Ventura. And, for the past three years, she’s been the head coach of the Ventura High School girls and boys teams. Last year, the Ventura boys won the CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) Division 3 Championship. (Among her players is son Chase Currie.)

Through this she gets more than she gives.

“Coaching the Ventura High School boys and girls tennis teams has meant so much to me,” Currie says. “And, in terms of aging, my husband says I think I’m back in high school again.”

06-06-2019

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