WINTER PARK — Jean Carolan, 95, tossed a tennis ball into the air and whacked it across the net, her gaze focused on the court.
“Right by me,” she called out as one of her opponents in the Senior Ladies’ Round Robin tennis group returned the serve long.
The women, who are all 70 or older, may not have the cutthroat edge they did in their youth. But every Monday and Thursday they play at Winter Park Tennis Center to stay active and social and share their love of the game.
“We have fun,” said Claire Reese, 88, of Maitland, an eight-year member. “We don’t take things so seriously. We don’t argue. There’s no blood on the court like you used to have when you were playing team tennis.”
It’s no accident that they’re aging so well, said Nicole Dawson, a University of Central Florida professor in the doctor of physical-therapy program and co-director of the university’s Innovative Mobility Initiative Lab.
Physical and mental activity and social engagement — while no guarantee — are the best prescription available for a long, healthy life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities.
“Your body never stops being able to gain the benefits of physical activity,” Dawson said. “They figured out how to adapt to age so they can keep doing it. They’re still playing and they’re still having fun. That’s the important part.”
While exercising helps people remain mobile and active, the social aspect is perhaps as important, said Stephen Anton, a University of Florida professor and chief of clinical research at the university’s Institute on Aging.
“Just doing something you enjoy gives you something to do to look forward to every day,” he said.
Not all the women in the group wanted to divulge their exact ages, but the junior member is Judy Wallace, 73, of Orlando. Carolan is the oldest. The average age is mid-80s, said Jeanne Ailes, who organizes the group and has been a member since the 1980s, when it included younger players.
Like the others, Ailes has been playing tennis most of her life. Their steps are sure. Their physiques are trim. Their smiles are broad. And the six who participated Thursday had a combined more than 500 years of living behind them.
“We do the things that you have to do to stay in shape so we can run around,” said Ailes, a retired ninth-grade guidance counselor who lives in Winter Park. “We probably don’t move quite as fast and maybe don’t see quite as well, but the enjoyment is still there and the competition is still there.
For one of the women, a love of tennis led to romantic love. Anna Sullivan met her late husband, Don, at the Winter Park Tennis Center, and the couple had their wedding reception on Courts 4 and 5 in 1977. Fading photos show the bride, groom and guests wearing tennis attire. They played after cutting the cake, too, said Sullivan, a retired graphic artist and drafter.
“I think it’s the exercise that keeps us going,” said Sullivan of Orlando, who also plays at 7 a.m. six days a week with a more competitive group. “Couch potatoes don’t live long.”
The women let little stand in the way of their tennis.
Ailes broke her arm on a hard court a decade ago, so they switched to clay. Wallace had a shoulder replacement a year ago but so longed to play that she returned a bit ahead of the schedule her doctor preferred. And about a week ago as the temperature dipped to near-freezing, four members of the group were the only players on the court.
“Often, people here admire these ladies and pray they have that stamina when they get older,” pro-shop attendant Tammy McGlinchey said.
The senior players share a long history of physical activity, professional achievement and family life.
Although the women are conscious of the passing years, they’re too busy to dwell on the topic. Perhaps as a result, they look, sound and act significantly younger than their chronological ages.
“Each year, I’m always thinking, ‘Is there going to be another racket, another tennis skirt,’” Reese said. “And then a year is gone and you’re, like, ‘My God, I’m here.’ Eighty-eight is old and 90 is coming. And you just want to keep going.”
The women stay engaged with more than tennis. For example, Ailes works out with weights, jogs on a treadmill and takes exercise classes, while Carolan does water aerobics, plays water volleyball and walks. They also stick together.
“We depend on one another,” Ailes said. “I think when you play a sport with someone, it generates a bond that you may not have otherwise.”
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