From volleyball courts to soccer fields across Japan, gray-haired grannies are keeping in shape through team competition, heeding the advice of fitness experts who say it’s never too late to begin playing sports.
In addition to the merits of moderate exercise deemed necessary to stay healthy, senior citizens engaging in competitive sports also enjoy the company of their teammates.
At a volleyball practice in Osaka in September, members of Team Ren (Lotus) — all in their 70s, and most with 30 to 40 years of experience in the sport — were in heavy training ahead of a national championship. They had recently won a tourney in the city among 10 teams with members aged 70 or above.
Despite their age, the team is by no means inferior to student players. They still land service aces and can dig the opponent’s spikes with the legendary “somersault catch” — a rolling technique made famous by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics gold medalist women’s team nicknamed the Oriental Witches.
The team’s player-manager, 79-year-old Yoshiko Hayashi, was formerly a member of a corporate volleyball team. The secret to being able to actively engage in the sport is to “continue doing it without fail,” she says.
Similarly, Shigeko Itani, the team’s 76-year-old captain, said with a smile, “I’m not sure if I’m fit because of playing volleyball, or if it is because I’m healthy that I can be doing this. As elderly people we all have aching knees and shoulders, but that’s all forgotten when practice starts.”
Of the 13 team members, six are widows and some are caring for elderly husbands.
Four years ago, after her husband died, Itani distanced herself from volleyball but her teammates were later able to persuade her to return to the court.
“While (as a team sport) there are challenges different from that of individual events, the strength from teammates who give me all their support, and with whom I can spill my heart out, is significant,” Itani said.
Meanwhile, at a women’s soccer tournament in Kagoshima in September, Team Higashitaniyama Ogojo — with five of their 11 players in their 60s — put up a good fight under pouring rain against an opponent whose key members were in their 20s.
As the opposing team approached the goal, 65-year-old Keiko Fujishima, the team’s oldest member, swiftly took up position to defend the attack. In the end, the goal attempt was successfully blocked by 62-year-old keeper Nobuko Nagayoshi as she dived forward with her body outstretched.
When the team started 30 years ago, its members knew neither the rules of the game nor how to properly kick a soccer ball. But they soon acquired the skills by taking part in real matches and have since represented the Kyushu region three times in the national women’s soccer championship organized by the Japan Football Association.
It is relatively rare in this country for women’s soccer teams to have active members aged 60 or above. To stay fit and maintain their stamina, Higashitaniyama Ogojo members say they try to schedule one to two matches a month, but the key is not to try too hard.
“We have known each other for so long now, we can tell one another’s physical condition that day just by a look in the eyes and we automatically back each other up,” Fujishima said.