Former Olympic Athlete Urges Everyone (Including Herself) to Keep Moving

Deborah Saint-Phard, MD (skylining above right with her daughter Schuyler) dreamed of becoming an Olympic athlete when she was a kid watching the Olympics on TV. In college, during her junior year, she broke through to the national stage in the shot put. Her last throw senior year, a personal record, qualified her for the World Championships. After one semester of medical school, she took a year off to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea to compete for Haiti, the country of her birth and citizenship at that time. 

Now 58, Deborah recently took time off from her busy schedule as a sports doctor and single mom to talk about why she remains so committed to being physically active despite many setbacks and the realities of an aging body. Her spirit is infectious. Here at NeverStop, we hope it inspires you, as well, to get off the couch and keep moving! 

As a former Olympic athlete who’s now 58, what is it like to be in an aging body given its glorious past?

Qualifying for World Championships shot put event during her senior year at Princeton.
Deborah putting the shot for Princeton track and field in 1987, the year she qualified for the World Championships.

The level of intensity, concentration, focus, and dedication it took to practice 4-5 hours a day, six days a week is pretty neat now as I look back. I still have that same passion, but I’ve had to adjust. My knees have arthritis now, so I can’t do the Olympic weightlifting that was a standard part of my training then. Today, I do more yoga, less powerlifting, and lots of pickleball.

My body today is great. My body composition has shifted from all the muscle of my training years to more fat for sure, and I’m trying to increase my strength training to get leaner. It’s hard for me to train after work, so I like to get it done in the morning. I’m grateful for being born with an athletic body. Asthma and thalassemia make it harder for me to do long-distance cross-country skiing, cycling, and hiking, but I do these things anyway…just more slowly than my fast friends.

You sure do keep moving! In the last six months alone, your Facebook feed shows you doing barefoot boot camp, riding your stationary bike, snowshoeing, joining your kid at the gym (inspired by her to get out of bed), falling in mud off your bike, hiking with your dog out in the snow, playing pickleball, commuting to work on a bike in 35 degrees, kayaking, sailing, yin yoga-ing, paddle boarding, zip lining in Leadville, and swimming. It’s really inspiring. What drives you to stay engaged in so many different activities and to keep trying new things?

Well, when you lay it all out like that, it does sound incredible: incredibly fun.  I think as I age, the importance of mixing it up, being with people, and doing anything active outside in the sun, snow, rain, or mud is exciting. I’m not a runner or a rock climber, but there are plenty of things I can still do with other people. It’s fun just to be out doing stuff for no other reason than for social engagement, being outdoors, or just to keep moving…no matter what. Sometimes, I walk and walk and keep walking to clear my head and instill peace into my soul. Walking reminds me to breathe. Does anyone else ever forget to just stop, rest, and breathe?

Deb playing pickleball
On the pickleball court with insta-friends.

It’s clear that you love Pickleball. “Pickleball is Life!” you wrote in one post. Your friends even arranged for your birthday cake to be decorated with a pickleball paddle. Why do you love pickleball so much? Why is this sport so popular with older adults?

Pickleball is just so much fun!  It is way more accessible than tennis. It does not require a ton of running. It is very strategic: placement over power. Once you start playing and thinking about the game, you can improve quickly. You meet three new people every time you play a game. It’s friendly-competitive. It’s not serious. Everyone is supportive of each other and it’s just like we are all young again looking to play….just play….for no other reason than to have fun.  

Pickleball is great exercise at any age. I see a lot of my patients who have had knee and hip replacements playing pickleball. It’s something that as we get older is very accessible. I can play even with my arthritic knees and back. Sitting on the couch is not the solution to aging. Nope. Pickleball can be played on public courts and you don’t have to pay any club fees like you do with squash or racquetball. Just show up with a paddle and hope there are three other people looking to play too. New insta-friends!

What is your advice for an older adult who finds it hard to get off the couch, even for pickleball? Or one who has at least one source of chronic pain that makes it hard to be active?

Aqua aerobics or walking in the water at the recreation center is the easiest way to start moving painful joints. Start in the water. Some of the rec centers have heated pools if that agrees with your medical condition. Sometimes people do better in colder water. Just get in. For me, getting into the water is the hardest part, but I’m glad I did. Water really helped me last year after I broke my leg.

Uh oh. What happened?

After two successful double black diamond mogul ski runs, I was show-boating on a third attempt. I was ejected into the air, out of my ski bindings, crashed—and then got up and skied down the mountain. I thought I was okay….NOT. Several days later an MRI and a CT scan confirmed that I had broken my leg. I required surgery plus a plate and screws. I couldn’t put weight on my leg for 10 weeks on crutches. When I was finally cleared to start walking, I began moving in the pool. In the water, I re-learned how to coordinate my core, hip, and butt muscles. It took four months in the pool first, then Physical therapy training and rehabilitation to get back to pickleball, but I did it!!!!  

Chronic medical conditions require patience and perseverance. Find the water: the water will help you remember how to move again. Walking on land will come in time. Tai Chi and yoga (yin yoga first) are gifts as well. Water is a miracle for rehabbing joints and muscles. We don’t take advantage of it as much as we should. 

What role does social media play in your quests to recover from injury or kickstart a new fitness regime? Does posting about a new fitness goal help you to achieve it?

It’s funny…as I have aged, I hope my wisdom has increased along with my humility and sense of vulnerability. The invincibility I felt when I was younger has faded for sure. Posting on Facebook helps me to take myself far less seriously than I used to. I’m just walking around and sharing my thoughts about big stuff (social justice) and little stuff (what I did for a workout).  Shouting out that yes, even this former Olympic athlete still has to play head games to get herself to do the workout of the day. It motivates me when I inspire others, so I shout out and share the struggle to get off the couch. There’s the shame factor too. If I posted that I had arrived at the pool to do my leg fracture recovery, I for sure got into the water (the hardest part) and got my workout done. 

You like to inspire others and you seek inspiration, too. What role has inspiration played in your life?

Hosing off after a little fall in the mud during a 30-mile gravel bike ride through the mud with her partner.

I love this question! People seem inspired by my accomplishments. When I was growing up my dad told all three of us kids, “You have been blessed with many gifts from God; it is your responsibility to develop these talents.” I am drawn to sports, movement, and dancing. Watching people execute their sport with grace, focus, and intention is the most inspiring thing to me….ever. I find it mesmerizing to watch. The display, beauty, and execution take me away to a place of imagination, whether I’m watching dancers, wide receivers, runners, swimmers, figure skaters, throwers, jumpers, sprinters, hurdlers, or tennis players. Sports for me is an aspirational ideal that combines athleticism, beauty, and excellence. I try to be one with it; it’s inside of me.

You are the founder of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at University of Colorado Health. What are the most common injuries you see in athletes over 50? Is there any advice you’d like to give those of us who are out there biking, hiking, or skiing as we age?

Athletes over 50 suffer common conditions of low back pain, knee pain, and ankle sprains.  If you’re looking for the fountain of youth, it’s strength training 2-3 times a week. This is what will allow you to function and play with greater ease, speed, and agility. Strong muscles around your shoulder joint and knee joints, and strong core muscles will make biking, skiing, hiking, and/or pickle-balling simply easier—and safer—to do.

What does Successful Aging mean to you?

I know I am successfully aging…

  • If my numbers (glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure, triglycerides, and hemoglobin—for my thalassemia) are where my doctor wants them to be for me.
  • If I’m getting any kind of exercise for at least 30 minutes, six days a week.
  • If I’m strength training 2-3 times a week.
  • If I’m actively engaged in eating more nutritiously (I have just discovered the amazingness of avocados! OMG my new favorite food: it is all goodness…I’m gonna live forever now)
  • If I’m meeting new people and being social (tough because I’m introverted). Pickleball is the latest antidote to my introversion.
  • If I’m connected to my two kiddos as they take off for their own passions and pursuit of their joys.
  • If I’m connected to my partner and we keep chasing our bucket lists around the world and nearby mountains on bikes, snow shoes, and skis together.

What advice do you have for older adults who want to get back in shape after injury or inactivity?

The beauty of the body is that deconditioning (being out of shape) is reversible. The body heals given space, time, and rehabilitation with good physical therapy and doctors. Nothing about yesterday makes a difference. It’s all about today. No matter where you are starting from, focus on today. Don’t lament how you got where you are or how great you were before. Just start the first five minutes today. Bit by bit. Don’t be heroic, just start, believe in yourself, and be patient. Show yourself grace.. Just start. A one-mile swim is doable for almost anyone. I’m no amazing swimmer, but I know how to start. Slow and steady. Nothing spectacular. Just keep moving….

How do you overcome your own resistance to making the healthier choice?

I’m human. It is often tough to make the healthier choice. I try to go for moderation instead of perfection, and I’ve learned to be more forgiving of myself as I age. The only way I’ll be the weight I want to be is to strength train 2-3 times a week to increase lean muscle mass, improve body composition, and increase metabolism. So…this week is not over yet!

You are out shopping for a publisher for your book, a “sports memoir written by an Olympic athlete, single mom, physician, Haitian immigrant, social justice warrior, and lesbian.” What inspired you to write it?

Someone once told me that I have a unique ability to speak about pain. I think that my journey as a Haitian immigrant who came to the United States as a baby, blessed with a certain set of gifts, opportunities, and challenges and a will to survive and thrive through chaos may be inspiring once you really get to know me. I also hope to demystify what it takes to become an Olympic athlete and what I learned. The sports psyche, the physical training, and the spiritual gifts that help you to gain perspective are all topics that may appeal to folks.

What’s your favorite healthy meal or snack?

Avocados! On toast.

On a busy day, is there a minimum amount of movement that you do just to sustain your fitness?

There is usually one day a week when I can’t do anything. So I give myself grace around that. I have a dog, so I always walk him for at least 20 minutes. And yes, that counts.

What’s your favorite way to start a day?

One hour spinning on my indoor bike (it’s a road bike on a $30 trainer) and watching Morning Joe means I start my day with 500 calories in the bank!

What’s your favorite way to end a day?

The family that lifts together, stays together…Deborah and her daughter Schuy at the gym.

Sitting quietly and reflecting. Hearing from my young adult girls about their day and “sharing three good things” with each other. Catching up with my partner about their day, hopes, and aspirations. Setting my alarm, starting the brown noise sleep playlist, and conking out for 7-8 hours of restorative sleep (tip: alcohol ruins sleep).

Speaking of alcohol, have you tried Dry January?

Yes! I came across a Washington Post article about the benefits of dry January: better skin, better sleep, better weight management, better mood. So I tried it this year, and I love it!  I have developed better habits, like going to the grocery store on my walk to buy fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers, and spending the evening cooking instead of grabbing a slice of pizza and a glass of wine. 

So as I continue to age (I hope!), I’ll be more intentional about alcohol consumption. Dry January is a good thing. I love a full night’s sleep, uninterrupted by the well-known negative effects of alcohol.

If you could write one sentence on a billboard for aging adults, what would it be?

Feel stuck and out of shape? Walk with me for just 5 minutes to start. It counts. You matter.