Stephan Russo (second row, third from left) with The Ultra Legends at Lake Placid. Photo courtesy of Stephan Russo
This is the time of year when the butterflies in my stomach start to flutter and the anxiety of whether I am “up” for playing another year of Past Masters lacrosse begins to consume me. For me, these are not the lazy days of summer. I only have one week left to prepare for the annual Lake Placid lacrosse tournament that takes place the first week in August. The tournament is now in its 28th year and this year’s event in upstate New York is rapidly approaching.
I have a lot of work to do to sharpen my stick skills and see if my legs still carry me forward. The feet don’t move as quickly these days and my two surgical hips have clearly slowed me down. I also wonder whether I still have the mental toughness to aggressively seek out a ground ball, ride herd on one of the defensemen or come barreling around the 6 feet X 6 feet lacrosse cage and score that goal knowing I will be crashed to the ground.
My wife has gotten used to this lacrosse-related angst, and is wont to remind me, “Once you get there you’ll be fine and get right back into the action. Just don’t come back with any broken limbs!”
You might ask what this all about since playing a sport like lacrosse, with its body contact, hard stick checks and scramble for ground balls, is not what most folks in their right mind do at the age of 67. True, one of the unique things about our generation is its focus — some would say obsession — on exercise and physical fitness. Myriad articles have been written about the importance of physical exercise as we age. The general guideline for older adults aged 65 and over is to undertake 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate aerobic activity a week. Of course, for the average sane person, this involves cycling, walking, swimming, yoga, Pilates, mild weightlifting or splurging on your own personal trainer — but lacrosse at this age?
Organized sports for older adults, however, are no laughing matter. The National Senior Games, an Olympic style event for athletes over fifty, are held every two years. In 2017, 10,500 older athletes representing all 50 states competed in 20 sports from badminton and bowling to golf, horseshoes, pickleball and volleyball. You can also find adult leagues and races in the city in basketball, hockey, soccer, rugby, swimming and track and field but you would be hard pressed to find enough competitive outlets dedicated to the over-fifty crowd.
For many years, I hadn’t thought about lacrosse nor picked up a stick until I discovered that there was a nascent adult league run by an old friend and fellow “laxer.” He invited me join his masters team (which was then 45 years of age and up even though I was in my early 50s at the time) in Lake Placid. I was worried I would not be good enough to play again nor be accepted by my teammates despite my stellar lacrosse reputation during college. I didn’t want to embarrass myself. However, that first year I managed to score a goal and assist on several others. I was hooked.
Every summer since then, I have been making the trek to Lake Placid. As we continued to age and desired to keep playing, the tournament organizers kept increasing the five-year age range. There is now a 60+ division that supersedes any masters-level group. There is even an added exhibition game for those 65 and over. Talk about watching lacrosse in slow motion!
The tournament organizers didn’t know what to call our old-man bracket but decided on naming the division “Past Masters.” There are nine teams in the division which translates into over 200 “geezers” playing in this age range. One team has a 77 year-old goalie. The strongest teams have the most players who just meet the age bracket threshold. When you are 67, it’s a challenge to play against those just turning 60 this year.
My team is called the Ultra Legends. With names like the Gray Eagles, Grateful Undead, Cloudsplitters and USA Stars, the Past Masters group is quite a collection of characters. While some guys enjoy golf outings, Past Masters lacrosse is my idea of male bonding. Last year, we tied for the championship with the perennial champs, Cloudsplitters. (Luckily for us the championship game was rained out.)
The camaraderie (win or lose) and after-game tailgating where the beer, chips and embellished stories of old lacrosse feats flow (I’m good for only one Coors Light) make it all worth it.
Lacrosse hasn’t been my only athletic passion. I was a competitive athlete in my younger years and have remained physically active my entire life. I now swim a mile twice a week; do 40 minutes of an elliptical workout combined with an hour of weight training at least another two days a week.
In my late fifties, I decided I wanted to try my hand at open water swims in the Hudson River and joined a masters swim club to obtain a qualifying time as well as to train. I was enticed by the irrational lure of jumping into the Hudson — flotsam notwithstanding. The club has a range of swimmers from those who were top-flight collegiate competitors in their heyday to run-of-the-mill recreational swimmers like me. There are not many swimmers over the age of sixty-five. Over the years, I have swum under the Brooklyn Bridge, around Governor’s Island and survived a 10K swim from Pier 59 to the Dyckman Street Marina past the Little Red Lighthouse by the GW Bridge.
But nothing gets the competitive juices flowing like donning my helmet, putting on the arm pads and gloves, and yelling “Go Legends” before the opening face-off. I can’t wait to get back on the field with the likes of JohnyMo, TC, Wilbur, Whitey, Dom, Ricer, Matty, and the rest of the crew. I know the limbs will be sore by the end of the weekend — but nothing a good ice pack can’t alleviate. Let’s just hope I come back in one piece. There will soon be another tournament to prepare for and I am not throwing in the towel yet.