photography by Blake Bonillas; Sun City Poms, 55-plus Pep Squad

Super Seniors

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Lifestyle Issue: April 2016
Group Free

These dancing, adventuring, powerlifting, marathoning movers and shakers are living life to the fullest at every age. Plus: Get your own late-life lift with our recommendations for senior-focused travel, arts and fitness.

Sun City Poms
55-plus Pep Squad
When the Sun City Poms rocked their signature routine at a high school recently, the screams were so loud they drowned out Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff.” The performers formed a Rockettes-style line, and Barbara Meadows, 73, announced the ladies’ names and ages. “The noise kept getting louder and louder,” she says, “until we got to Ginger, who’s 83. And they just blew the roof off.”

The Poms have been amazing audiences since they started as cheerleaders for the Sun City Saints women’s softball team in 1979. When the Saints went marching out, the Poms evolved into dancers, marchers and all-around inspirations. The 29 ladies ages 55-plus practice several hours at least twice a week, starting as early as 7:30 a.m. They perform in 50-odd shows a year, at parades, nursing homes, conventions and more.

“It’s work, it’s dedication, it’s time,” says Barbara Grandinetti, 76. “But it’s most rewarding – the exercise, the camaraderie, and keeping young.”

“I just love to perform,” says Sherri Franklin. “My husband passed away about eight years ago, and dance is sort of what pulled me out of the mourning.”

Some Poms had twirled, tapped or danced for decades. For others, discovering this group was an epiphany. “I retired, moved to Sun City, and all of a sudden I’m doing something that never in my life I dreamed I could do,” says Greta Paulsen, 68. “You’re never too old to start something new.”

Barbara Snyder, 76, had longed to perform since she was little but was forbidden by a strict family and an old-fashioned husband. Now, she says, “it’s a dream come true to see the smiles on people’s faces and for me to know that I really did have the ability, and that I can do it even in my old age. We got a second chance. This is my second chance.”


Late-Life Lift: Arts and Culture
Be part of the Valley’s creative class with these expression-focused programs popular with seniors.

Mesa Arts Center shakes up students’ lives with classes in bellydancing, Bollywood dancing, ballet fitness, choreographed dancing and even American tribal style. That’s in addition to artsy courses in jewelry making, ceramics, guitar, singing and more. 1 E. Main St., 480-644-6520,

ASU Kerr Cultural Center’s free monthly events – Tuesday Morning Music & Tea, plus Coffee at Kerr – combine caffeine with concerts. 6110 N. Scottsdale Rd., Paradise Valley, 480-596-2660,

Tempe Center for the Arts’ Hello Friday happy hour is the ideal place to TGIF, with live music and a free art gallery currently featuring an ode to theater costumes. TCA also hosts art classes, concerts and comedy shows. 700 W. Rio Salado Pkwy., 480-350-2822,

Victory at Verrado, a new 55-plus community for cultured boomers, boasts cooking demos, winemaking classes and – starting in September – an annual crush party at their vineyard. 623-399-9001,


photo courtesy Art Huseonica; Art HuseonicaArt Huseonica
Gentleman Survivalist
If anyone’s aiming to topple Art Huseonica’s title as oldest person to complete the Bear Grylls Survival Academy’s “Survival in the Sierras” extreme survivor course – that’s a lot of survival! – here are a couple of insider tips: 1) Learn how to rappel, navigate, and make a fire with a bow drill. 2) Avoid roasted grass snake; it tastes far more disgusting than raw earthworm. “Grass snakes are so small you have to chew the meat out of the bones,” Huseonica says. “It’s like eating gristly rubber bands.”

The self-described “quirky, goofy” 65-year-old – pictured above on California’s Mt. Whitney – is used to raw encounters with nature. When he was 10, he hiked alone into the Pennsylvania woods, lit a fire, and spent Saturday nights in a cave. Since then, he’s always camped hard-core. “I do not own a tent,” he says.

In the Navy, Huseonica sailed around the world and lived in Iceland, where he once hiked on an erupting volcano, fleeing over a magma-filled lava tube that melted the bottoms of his boots. While he was climbing Washington’s Mount Rainier, a small earthquake hit, and he and his fellow mountaineers had to rescue another rope team who fell down a crevasse.

Since retiring from academia and moving to Sun City a year and a half ago, Huseonica hasn’t slowed down. He climbed Rainier again, completed the Bear Grylls course, hiked 46 miles rim-to-rim-to-rim through the Grand Canyon by himself, and became the oldest person to complete a solo double-traverse trek of Death Valley. The feat requires navigating an 18-mile trail-less stretch patched with salt flats that crack like crème brûlée and plunge boots into sticky mud beneath. Next, Huseonica wants to summit Humphreys Peak in winter and become the oldest person to land on a survival reality show.

“Don’t let your age put an artificial barrier around you,” he advises other seniors. “Don’t let anybody else do that for you, either. Break the rules. You can do it.”


photo courtesy Bev Full; Bev FullBev Full
Awesome Octogenarian
The sky was darkening, the mist was solidifying into another storm, and the Green River was swelling as Sierra Club trip leader Bev Full paddled her canoe ahead of the group. “I’ll find a spot to camp,” she declared with confidence she didn’t feel.

Already that day, two boats had flipped in a giant whirlpool. The usual camps were flooded, and if Full didn’t find a spot soon, they’d be plunged into the Class IV rapids of Cataract Canyon. In short order, Full spotted a slim sandbank, and soon she was cooking dinner for the group in the pelting rain. It was around that moment that Full thought, “I’ve got a heck of a lot of nerve.”

She certainly does. After retiring from teaching at 55, the Illinois native earned a pilot’s license so she could fly with her husband. “It was pretty scary and exciting,” says Full, now 86. “But I thought, ‘I’m going to show him I can do this.’”

Next, she jumped, spun and arabesqued her way to a freestyle figure skating rating. Over a decade, she and a friend climbed all 53 Colorado peaks over 14,000 feet, plus Mount Rainier, Whitney and Grand Teton.

Since 2002, the Scottsdale resident has led around 300 Sierra Club hiking, canoeing and rafting trips, and does all the organizing and navigating herself. She’s part of a Sierra Club group that discusses conservation issues with politicians. She downhill skis regularly and does contemporary dancing, Zumba and yoga several times a week. This year she’ll lead river trips through Desolation Canyon and Flaming Gorge.

“You only live once,” Full says. “So you have to get the most out of life. You want to stay healthy and mentally fit, so you have to be active. You also need the satisfaction of giving something, like promoting a cause that’s beneficial to the public. I feel that’s my responsibility. I feel extremely fortunate I’ve been able to do so much.”


photo courtesy Robin Brody; Robin BrodyRobin Brody
Marathon Junkie
The day before the Shipyard Old Port Half Marathon in Maine, Robin Brody received an email from her husband with shocking news: Her Medicare application was due. “Seriously? You’re 65?” Brody said to herself.

She didn’t feel it. Since she started jogging in her 50s, the Scottsdale resident had run five marathons and 30 half-marathons. Sure, she’d been through challenges. After signing up for her fifth marathon to celebrate her 60th birthday, she tore her ACL in a skiing accident. Doctors said she wouldn’t ski or run again. Ha. She ran the marathon wearing a knee brace for the first 20 miles before tossing it aside and finishing the race.

“I was just getting my mojo back,” Brody says, when she fell off a curb, re-tore the ACL, micro-fractured her femur, and landed in a wheelchair for months. After surgery, she went through therapy three days a week for two years, pushing through pain and tears.

“I think a person has to look within themselves and say, ‘What can I do?’ Not ‘I can’t do that,’” she says. But as Brody pondered the specter of Medicare, “I was feeling really depressed. So I wound up signing up for my first sprint tri[athlon].” For her 65th birthday, she finished first in her age group in the San Diego Tri Rock.

Brody runs with Team Challenge, which supports the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. When her son was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease a decade ago, she says, “it became an obsession for me to find a cure for my son. My goal was always: I want to raise $50,000 or a cure.” She’s now just $4,000 short. Her obsession motivates her as she organizes fundraisers, powers through bootcamp, dances and downhill skis black-diamonds. “It will be nice when they find a cure that I can look back and say, ‘I helped with that,’” she says, then adds with a laugh, “Hopefully I won’t die trying.”


Late-Life Lift: Travel
Awaken your inner explorer with senior-friendly travel clubs and excursions.

TJ’s Experiences: “We’re off our rockers” is the tagline for this local senior/boomer travel club hosting escapes near (Canyon de Chelly, Bisbee) and far (Costa Rica, Ireland). 480-497-2478,

Road Scholar: This international company guides several trips in Arizona coordinated by Northern Arizona University. Explore Hopi villages or Flagstaff cliff dwellings, and even volunteer at a Navajo school. 800-454-5768,

Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter: The conservation nonprofit’s calendar is packed with day hikes, environmental excursions and inexpensive canoeing or rafting trips in some of the Southwest’s most spectacular and secret settings.

Encore University: Through its “College of Adventure,” this Paradise Valley education center schools seniors with excursions to Wickenburg’s Desert Caballeros Western Museum, Tubac’s art galleries, and more. 480-991-6424 ext.165,


Arizona Senior Olympics
When Irene Stillwell was director of Phoenix’s Washington Activity Center in the 1970s, she noticed that the most vital seniors were the most active – but they needed an incentive to motivate them each day. So she founded the Arizona Senior Olympics.

This February, the event celebrated its 35th year, drawing an estimated 2,000 athletes ages 50 to 98. Participants in 32 sports aimed for gold and qualifying spots in the 2017 National Senior Games. “They make friends within the Olympics community, they win medals, they get recognition, and all of that keeps them doing what they do throughout the year,” says Stillwell, who continues to run the event.

Stillwell has seen countless inspiring stories, like the man who worked his way up from inching around a racetrack with a walker to competing in a triathlon at 93. “We want to inspire not just seniors but all people,” she says. “We want to show them there aren’t any limits.”


photo by Blake Bonillas; Gayle ClawsonGayle Clawson
World-record-earning powerlifter Gayle Clawson once deadlifted 350 pounds, but that’s nothing compared to the weight of challenges she overcomes daily. Stricken with multiple sclerosis at 21, she suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, which feels like lightning bolts periodically striking her face. In her 50s, she could barely get out of a chair. Then she lost 40 pounds but was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease.

Encouraged by her husband, the Mesa resident starting lifting weights. At 60, she competed in her first Senior Olympics and has since won 50 awards at state and national competitions. “It’s made a total change in my life,” she says of competitive lifting. “I’ve always been very bashful, and it brought me out of that shell and made me a lot more friendly.”

Then, four years ago, Clawson got breast cancer. Several surgeries have slowed her down, but the 71-year-old will be shooting for her 10th gold medal at this year’s Olympics. “My goal,” she says, “is to live each day to the fullest.”


photo by Blake Bonillas; Jorge MaganaJorge Magana
“I’m in love with life, and I want to share that with everybody,” enthuses Jorge Magana, who’s more energizing than a double espresso. The Mexico City native always enjoyed soccer and running casually. But five years ago, his daughter told him he should take better care of himself. Now the 63-year-old runs a few miles daily (often at 4 a.m. before working 10 hours), hikes on weekends, and enjoys a juice-centric vegetarian diet. He’s run 10 marathons and at least one 5K a month.

Three years ago, Magana took up track and field, competing in seven races in one day at the Arizona Senior Olympics and medaling in every one. He’s inspired by the Olympians decades older than he is and hopes to pass the baton of inspiration to the seniors at the retirement home where he works. “If you take care of yourself,” he says, “life can be beautiful.”


Late-Life Lift: Fitness
Nothing keeps the soul young like a well-exercised body.

Senior softball: Hit a home run with fellow seniors. Free, drop-in batting practice and games are held on Tuesday and Friday mornings at rotating fields throughout Scottsdale.

Sun City Hikers: Amblers age 55-plus from Sun City and surrounds carpool to trails from Castle Hot Springs to the Superstitions to the vermillion vortexes of Sedona. 623-974-0873,

XL Health Club: This Glendale hotspot welcomes health nuts of a certain age with its Silver Sneakers fitness program and joint-friendly Aqua Zumba classes. 5720 W. Peoria Ave., 623-594-0246,

Cardio at colleges: Several community colleges including Paradise Valley, Scottsdale and Phoenix offer senior programs at their fitness centers. On tap might be tai chi, Silver Sneakers, Zumba Gold, cardiac rehab, and even senior parties.,,


photo by Mirelle Inglefield; Dan TarajcakDan Tarajcak
When he was 7 years old, Dan Tarajcak experienced a tragedy that would shape his destiny: His 5-year-old brother drowned in a swimming pool. “At that point I swore I would never swim again,” the Phoenix native says.

But not long after, he had a change of heart. “I turned my whole life around and dedicated it to the opposite.” He became a lifeguard, taught children to swim through Phoenix Parks and Recreation, and coached competitive swim teams.

At 50, he started competing in the Arizona Senior Olympics. Today, the 61-year-old swims about three miles a day five days a week, and is clocking times just three seconds slower than he did in high school. “It’s so inspiring to see a sport like swimming that can carry on through a lifetime,” Tarajcak says. “I want to keep swimming if I live to 100.”


photo by Blake Bonillas; Ann ChadwickAnn Chadwick
Last year, Ann Chadwick cycled nearly 6,000 miles, and the 77-year-old with a titanium knee is on track to do the same this year. The Tempe resident is the oldest member of the Strada Racing Club, and though she can’t beat the fastest racers, she says, “I can outlive ’em.”

A lifelong swimmer, Chadwick began running in the 1980s and competed in several 10Ks. Triathlons were a natural next step, so she took up cycling and loved it. Then, she says, “I started getting all this stuff from AARP. I was not happy about turning 50. No, thank you.” But when she signed up for the Senior Olympics, they called her a youngster. “I thought, ‘That’s so sweet,’” says the retired high school counselor. She’s been an Olympian for 25 years since, winning scores of medals. “It’s fun. We’re all friends. And it gives me a goal. My philosophy is you either use it or you lose it.”


Bonus Lift: Boomer-Boosted “Active Living”
In the world of retirement housing, “active living” isn’t what it used to be. Out: TV and canasta. In: winemaking and sports bars. “The boomers are coming in – and they have different needs and expectations,” says Cole Marvin, director of Friendship Village Tempe, a continuing-care retirement community. “They're not one-dining-room-type people. They want choices and autonomy... and [they're] wiling to pay for it, which is not something the G.I. generation was always willing to do.” To that end, Marvin and his staff struck on the idea of converting the community’s on-site billiards room into a full-service, multi-screen sports bar to rival the Zipps and Half Moon Sports Grills of the world. Situated next to the Village's popular Embers cocktail lounge concept, the $500,000 project will include online trivia terminals, a shuffleboard unit, a fleet of craft-beer handles and other familiar sports-bar diversions. “The reaction from the residents was unbelievable,” Marvin says. “I've never seen a concept more anticipated by our resident population.” Tentatively named En Fuego, the sports bar (due this summer) is the latest wrinkle in the Valley’s new-look active living scene, which variously includes winemaking (see page 209), yoga and Pilates, and advanced culinary programs. “Some of the best barbecue in the Valley comes out of our smoker,” Marvin says. “I'm trying to get a [barbecue] team together this summer.”