Long shot. A one-in-a-million chance. Dicey. We often use words like these to describe the seemingly unrealistic goals and impossible dreams people have. Living with a potentially debilitating disease adds more layers of imagined impossibility.
In 2008 Eleanor Pendergraft’s life changed forever after being diagnosed with a dire neuromuscular disease. Instead of accepting the prognoses from pessimistic and dismissive medical professionals, she stubbornly chose to fight for her health and family.
I recently spoke with Eleanor, age 87, via phone ahead of her seventh National Senior Games set for July 7-18, 2023, in Pittsburgh, PA. Her story is amazing!
Medical Diagnoses Upends Her Life
In her forties, Eleanor began experiencing muscle problems that impacted her mobility and livelihood. The neurologist diagnosed her with myasthenia gravis (MG), an autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles. The condition took its toll on her body, forcing her to quit her job and then lose her family.
Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, Eleanor did not give up.
“I’m really stubborn. I was determined to get my health and family back. I started exercising and eating better.”
A year later, she felt nearly normal. With renewed health and a reunited family, Eleanor returned to college. After graduating with honors in business administration, she began a new career that would relocate her and her family to Tennessee.
Two years later, the muscle weakness returned. Eleanor’s new neurologist ordered extensive testing. Results revealed that instead of myasthenia gravis, she had multiple sclerosis (MS), a chronic disease of the central nervous system.
The disease quickly progressed, forcing Eleanor out of the workforce again. Changes were made at home to better accommodate her diminished mobility and physical abilities. Hand controls were installed on her car because she could not lift her feet to the gas and brake pedals.
She initially used canes for walking. As the numbness in her feet increased, she fell more often. Seeing her with bumps, bruises, and black eyes, her doctor feared she would suffer life-threatening head trauma or broken bones.
Eleanor then used a walker for daily use and a wheelchair or a power scooter outside the home. The mobility leg devices she wore helped keep her ankles stabilized and her feet and toes from dragging. Medications slowed the disease’s progress.
During this 25-year span Eleanor’s quality of life worsened. By 2008 her condition reached new lows.
“I felt like a zombie,” she said. “All the [prescription] dosages were maxed out. I saw my neurologist again, hoping something could be done. But all he told me was that I was getting worse.”
At age 72, Eleanor would again not give up on herself.
“Did I tell you I’m very stubborn?” Eleanor said with a firm I’ll-show-you tone in her gentle voice. “I thought I’d go back to what I did years ago – eat better, exercise, do even more to take care of myself.”
She paused then asked, “What did I have to lose?”
At Age 72 Eleanor Bets on Herself
With that “roll-of-the-dice” sentiment, she went “all in” to regain her mental clarity and mobility – no matter how incremental.
As she approached the front door of her local gym, Eleanor felt embarrassed and out-of-place.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I didn’t know how they would react to an old woman using a walker. You see all that advertising with young, skinny women and muscular men. You think gyms are only for fit, pretty people. Definitely not for someone like me.”
To her delight, the staff at Lifestyles Fitness Center in Johnson City warmly welcomed Eleanor and wanted to help.
Eleanor dove into her new fitness life. She went to the gym five days a week and took active aging Silver Sneakers® fitness classes three times a week (a schedule she continues to follow). In her first attempt at walking the indoor track, she only made it a quarter of the distance before being forced to sit and rest.
Fellow gym members encouraged her, too.
“They’d tell me to ‘Keep it up’ or ‘You’re doing great!’” Eleanor said. “That meant a lot!”
A year later, she was jogging on the gym’s track!
At this point, fellow gym member Barbara Bogart, a nationally ranked triathlete, told her about the senior games, a multisport competition for people aged 50 or better. She suggested Eleanor connect with the State of Franklin Track Club. Eleanor initially dismissed the idea because she had never been athletic nor participated in sports. She decided to explore the possibilities.
Eleanor was soon running, jumping, and throwing with other club members.
Senior Games Athlete at Age 73
At the 2009 Tennessee Senior Olympics, Eleanor won silver medals in 1500m run, shot put and softball throw, and collected bronze medals in the 100m, 200m, 400m, and 800m runs, 5K run, discus, high jump, javelin, and long jump.
“Everyone was so nice to me,” she said, “and so encouraging!”
The following year she qualified for the 2011 National Senior Games, a biennial multisport championship for people ages 50 or better. She competed in 11 track and field events and won a bronze medal in the 1500-meter power walk, a fourth-place ribbon in the 800-meter run, and a sixth-place ribbon in the 1500-meter run.
“I met so many wonderful people,” said Eleanor. “Several have become very good friends over the years. We always look forward to seeing each other at the [National Senior] Games.”
She became a medal-winning athlete on the national level – a completely unexpected result by defying commonly accepted prognoses and choosing a different path that incorporated exercise, necessary rest, and healthful eating.
Eleanor also ran her a half marathon in 2011.
“I did it because I was already doing 5K and 10K races,” Eleanor said. “I thought I could do it. Boy, what an experience! I went the wrong way a couple of times. I tripped and fell, really getting scraped up. [The medical volunteers] bandaged me up the best they could, and I insisted on finishing my race. At one point close to the end, you could see the finish line a couple streets over. A policeman – I can only imagine what he saw! – suggested I cut through to the finish line. I said, no, that’d be cheating! I admit, I did overdo it and suffered a little [MS] setback.”
She took the time to rest and fully recuperate. Eleanor would go on to qualify for the 2013 and 2015 National Senior Games where more friendships were made, and goals were achieved.
NSGA “Personal Best Athlete” Recognition
In 2016, the National Senior Games Association recognized Eleanor for her accomplishment in athletics and keeping MS at bay through living a healthy, active life. She was featured as a Personal Best athlete on their website and honored at the Tennessee Senior Olympics gala dinner.
“I’ve been so blessed!” Eleanor said with deep happiness.
Determination at Cellular Level
In 2020 Eleanor used the uncertain time during the COVID-19 pandemic to lose weight before needed leg surgery.
“I figured having less weight would be a good thing,” she said. “I lost 35 pounds. I did it with the keto diet.”
In 2021, Eleanor traveled to Vanderbilt University for her leg surgery. Surgeons used new techniques to address the complexities of her condition including a third knee replacement.
Her dogged determination must also exist down to her body’s cellular level because nine months later, she was running and jumping again!
And much to her son’s admonishment.
“He told me to stop [running],” Eleanor said. “He was in his sixties and had to stop running. But my daughters thought it was okay as long as I enjoyed it and didn’t overdo things.”
At the 2022 National Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Eleanor won four medals in her 12 events: gold in the 4×100-meter relay, and bronze in the 200-meter run, long jump, and 1500-meter power walk.
She’s not done yet!
Better Than Medals
“I thought last year would be my last Games,” Eleanor said. “But I’d miss seeing all my friends. That’s what I enjoy the most. All the wonderful people. I cherish them more than medals.”
Competitors are among her friends, too.
Eleanor and Frances Barger of Arkansas met in 2011. The steady runner finished ahead of Eleanor in their three track events and the 5K road race. That trend continued for the next four National Senior Games.
The tables turned in Fort Lauderdale.
“I was just as surprised as her,” said Eleanor, “when I finished ahead of her [in the 800-meter and 1500-meter runs]. She congratulated me, and we’ve happily kept in touch.”
Kindness creates friendships as well.
“It was so hot during qualification,” Eleanor said, referring to the 2021 Tennessee Senior Olympics competition. “I saw a 93-year-old woman really struggling during her race, so I went and walked with her to the finish line. Several weeks later, I received a wonderful card from her saying how much she appreciated me supporting her. She felt she wasn’t going to make it. We’ve become very good friends.”
Next Up: 2023 National Senior Games
Eleanor is planning her seventh consecutive appearance at the National Senior Games in July. The veteran competitor is feeling a little nervous.
“I’m not sure how I will do,” Eleanor said.
She cited several reasons for her uncertainty. Healing from skin cancer surgery kept her out of the gym for several weeks. More women in her 85-89 age group are on the rosters for Eleanor’s events. Getting to her track and throwing events on time may prove challenging: the venues are nearly 20 miles apart.
“We’ll see how things go.” Eleanor paused. “I think I have a chance to win a medal or two, some ribbons. My doctor wants to see them! But I’m going to do my best, see as many friends as possible, and have fun.”
Eleanor’s Track & Field Events
Officials with the National Senior Games Association confirmed Eleanor’s scheduled events in the Women’s 85-89 age group:
- 50-meter Dash
- 100-meter Dash
- 200-meter Run
- 400-meter Run
- 800-meter Run
- 1,500-meter Run
- 1,500-meter Power Walk
- 5K Power Walk
- Shot Put
- High Jump
- Long Jump
Eleanor hopes to add the 4×100 meter relay if she can form a team with three other women in her age group.
Eleanor’s Words of Wisdom
I asked what she would like to tell people facing one or more challenging life situations. She answered with passion:
“Never give up! There’s always something you can do. Maybe it won’t be at the same level as what you’re used to…or even the same thing you’ve always done. Who knows what that ‘something’ will lead you to.”
She’s also looking ahead to the 2025 National Senior Games.
“As long as I can keep going, I will. I’ll be in a new age group, too, for 90-year-olds.”
Undoubtedly Eleanor will. Because she never gave up on herself, Eleanor’s living a new life filled with friendships, improved health, and happiness.
That beats gold medals every time!