Longtime Haddonfield resident Deborah Whiting is fresh off winning a pair of gold medals at the National Senior Games in tennis and racquetball, participating in the 50 to 54 age category.
The biennial competition was held in Albuquerque, N.M., June 14-25, featuring more than 20 sports from pickleball to competitive walking. To gain entry, participants must first finish in the top three of their sport at the state level.
“I first went down there and played racquetball. When we were being awarded the medals, a guy had a harmonica and played the national anthem for us, which was really cute. I actually flew back up here for my daughter’s graduation and to do a little bit of teaching, and then flew back down for the tennis. I played four matches total, and ended up winning the last one, 6-1, 6-1,” she explained.
Whiting is also a professor of medical physiology at Rowan University and knows quite a bit about nutrition and fitness. That came in handy when approaching the different climates between oppressively-humid northern Alabama and arid north-central New Mexico.
“The hardest part about playing tennis down there is the altitude, and I guess I had forgotten that it was at 5,300 feet, so it doesn’t take much to hit the ball in your normal stroke and so it just sails. Two years ago, I was in the Birmingham games, and at 8 in the morning, it’s like 100 percent humidity and we were just drenched, so this was the complete opposite.”
Whiting has participated in four senior games so far: two at the state level and two at the national level. The minimum age to qualify is 50.
“I teach medical students, and I was asked to teach a lecture on the theories of aging. So as I started to research why we age, I came across an article about the four to five nonagenarians who set the world record for relays because they are the only 90-year-olds who ran. I was just so impressed and excited that people were still competing across all age ranges, that’s when I knew I had to jump in,” Whiting revealed.
An alumna of Haddonfield Memorial High School, Whiting was selected for the Bulldawgs’ athletic Hall of Fame for her performance in tennis, thanks in part to getting an early start in a competitive environment.
“I’ve been playing since I was about 10, and Haddonfield has had a traditionally strong tennis environment,” she said.
Then known as Deb Podolin, she played second doubles with current skipper Jeff Holman as her coach. She was part of HMHS’ Tournament of Champions team from 1980, which was the first girls’ team in school history to take the title.
Whiting went on to excel for Davidson College, which won the Division III crown her freshman year, and she continued to play through her academic experiences in Colorado, Japan and Maine before moving back to the borough and reconnecting with her high school friends.
“We’re all still active and still playing. It really has been a defining aspect of my life,” she added.
In fact, Whiting was featured in a Philadelphia Inquirer article from last October, when her daughter, Becca, and five teammates – whose mothers starred for Holman in the early 1980s – were on the cusp of the program’s 20th state title.
Neither that recognition of the passage of time, nor the “senior” tag applied to athletes over 50 years old, has dampened Whiting’s enthusiasm for pursuing her goals and achieving success.
“I used to feel like an eight-horse engine, now I feel like a five-horse engine. I definitely feel like I have lost a little bit. I’m so impressed when I see 80-year-olds doing pole vault and 70-year-olds from Maine who won the silver medal in basketball, and think about the amount of time they put into training. They’re all planning to go to Fort Lauderdale. It’s really the right way to approach aging,” Whiting mused.
“I was just talking to someone I played against two years ago, and she wants to get together and play doubles … I’ll be in the 55s then. I’ll be the youngest in the new age group.”